When it comes to scholastic a cappella groups that have made a splash internationally, there emerges a very short list of ensembles. Out of the Blue. The Gargoyles. The Sons of Pitches.
All the King’s Men.
In just four short years of making music together out of King’s College London, All the King’s Men has established itself as a preeminent player on the collegiate a cappella scene with a resume boasting back-to-back Voice Festival UK championships, a third place finish in the ICCA International Finals, and sold out performances at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Along the way, All the King’s Men has garnered a well-deserved reputation for pairing impeccable musical precision with a distinctly British charm and sense of humor. Case in point, the group’s 2012 competition efforts were highlighted by forays into gender bending territory of Lady Gaga music and their iconic cover of “It’s Raining Men.”
But how would the group’s live showmanship translate to recorded a cappella? The group’s third album, Royal Flush contains more than its share of surprises, particularly for such a compact collection (just seven tracks). The musicianship is well in tact in the group’s clear sound, accentuated by the relatively scarce post-production effects imposed on the album by Big Mouth Studios. The showmanship, where it shows, comes across in very different ways than fans might expect.
First, let’s address the less surprising parts of the album. The group’s cover of “Here, There, and Everywhere” by The Beatles delivers exactly the brand of sincerity and attention to tuning that listeners would hope for. Best of all, the creative choice to spread out the solo among group members captured the “everywhere” spirit of the song in a novel way without ever compromising the sincerity of the lead.
The group’s take on John Mayer’s “Slow Dancing in A Burning Room” was straight forward, but benefited from the group embracing and absorbing the sentiments of the song itself—the vocals taking a rawer edge on the “you’ll be a bitch because you can” lyric. I wish the group could have capitalized on this brand of emotional resonance on tracks like “Africa,” “Forever,” and “Skyfall,” which, while well-executed, alternated between a relatively stale traditional sound and execution that sounded a bit too posh to capture the fun of the music. (“Forever” also seemed to have strikingly similar instrumentation to popular arrangements of “Viva La Vida” which had me hoping for a sample that never came.)
All the King’s Men were at their best on this album when they grew most ambitious, which happened to fall in the opening two tracks. Steve Winwood’s “Higher Love” may not sound like the most attractive song selection, let alone album opener, in 2013, but the group delivered an inspired original take on the song, starting with a soft, soulful, stripped down take on the first minute and a half of the song that very much tapped into the soul of the song. The perc keyed in and the group segued into a more traditional take on the song, only to turn the song on its head again with a surprisingly uplifting sample of Ed Sheeran’s “Give Me Love.” Simply brilliant, original material that gets to the heart of the group’s creative spirit. The group followed up with a very fun mashup of Maroon 5’s “Payphone” and Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe.” Themes as basic as love and phone calls offer plenty of fodder for a good mashup or medley. The group struck a brilliant balance between keeping the concept simple and delivering a clear fun, complex sound on these tracks to capture the very best of what this group is capable of.
On Royal Flush, All the King’s Men delivered ample distinctive and surprisingly innovative sounds to make it worth a listen. You can order the album through the group’s website.