Casual Harmony Take III

CD Reviews

Every once in a while, I’ll listen to one small segment of a song and lose myself in the moment. It’s a trance-like experience when all at once I’ll forget I’m listening music at all and simply be in another time, in another place, and most importantly, in the music.

In their latest release, Take III, Rutgers University Casual Harmony arrives at one such moment. Do yourself a favor. Stop reading for a minute. Go buy this album. Cue the CD up to “Part of the List,” close your eyes and listen. The first three minutes and 49 seconds are quite good, but they’re ultimately just context for the final, stripped-down, heart-wrenchingly beautiful 20 seconds that I find transcendental.

Did you hear that?

You’re welcome.

I’ve enjoyed Casual Harmony’s sound for quite some time, and was eager to hear this release. Long-standing fans will find that the group’s emotional and aesthetic core has remained much the same across the years, and that the best of the group’s sound still reflects the gritty, soulful sensibility that has always defined the group.

The album opens on The Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby,” a clever play on the song that starts off with scratchy old phonograph sound effects before the group grooves into something far closer to the David Cook version of this song. The vocals carry a hint of real anger, edgy enough that the listener just waits for the group to teeter over the edge to growling. But the group is far too controlled (and too smart) for that. This track draws attention to an interesting parallel between Casual Harmony and David Cook, as the boys from Rutgers have played a similar role in the a cappella world to Cook’s role on American Idol. In a show and a genre dominated by pristine voices and pop ideals, both of these acts tipped their hand toward a more progressive, rockier sound at crucial junctures to help usher in a new day. This track is not only a profound opening track to the CD, but a profound introduction to the group for uninitiated listeners.

Casual Harmony has far more in store, though. Jason Mraz’s “Butterfly” is a rare accomplishment in which a cappella group may very well achieve greater success at reaching the core of a song than the original artist did. Don’t get me wrong, because I actually like Mraz, but when he gets down and dirtiest I often can’t help thinking he’s trying to be something he’s not—his cadence and lyrical content too meaty for his coffee house/top 40 crossover vocals. Casual Harmony’s soloist, Derrick L Hicks, makes the song all his own, adding a tablespoon of soul and a pinch of swagger to makeus believe he’s every bit the smooth operator the words would have you believe him to be. Similarly, tracks like “Bad Habits” and “Give a Little More” achieve a sleek, sexy, but nonetheless decisively masculine sound.

Take III does have a handful of missteps. I really could have done without tracks like “Fantasy” and “American Girls,” too ethereal and too pop-ish, respectively, for a powerhouse group like Casual Harmony. There’s nothing wrong with the songs themselves—they’re just outside the wheelhouse of a group that’s established itself on fire power and seem a little more “thrown on because we happened to learn these songs” than the other, more organic track choices.

One of the truest highlights of album arrives from an unexpected place—the artful handling of Stevie Wonder’s “You and I (We Can Conquer the World).” This isn’t a group known for its work on ballads, but this artful piece demonstrates a new patience and maturity from Casual Harmony as they work their dynamics and blend, and put a heck of a lot of trust in their crooning-est of soloists for a performance that’s tender and dripping with emotion—second only to “Part of the List” in terms of impact on the listener.

Though the CD isn’t without a few flaws, Take III nonetheless delivers one of the premier collegiate a cappella recordings in recent memory, with selected moments that will haunt you long after your first listen. Check it out.