So often, when strong live a cappella groups hit the studio, they leave behind the sheer gusto for performance that they ordinarily exhibit on stage, in favor of pristine tuning and effects. One of the most refreshing elements about Code Blue, the latest offering from The Johns Hopkins University Octopodes, is that the group brings its flair for drama straight into the CD for a finished product on which the group never sounds as though its phoning in a song, but rather like they’re attacking every note.
Indeed, emotion is the key hook for this album. The best example is an inspired cover of The Script’s “Breakeven,” in which the solo positively rips through verse after verse, while still somehow retaining enough umph to get progressively bigger on every chorus. The track is a case study in both intensity and control that really kicks the CD, on the whole, into gear. The group’s takes on “Uprising” and “The Clock” demonstrate similar vigor, compelling listeners through a real sense of urgency in the music.
While I credit The Octopodes for instilling emotion in every track, there are points at which the feelings behind the music seem more put on than organic to the group. Such is particularly the case for “Reckless Abandoment” in which the bile of the punk lyrics don’t quite translate to a collegiate a cappella group, and the coolest effect—a borderline demonic backing vocal over the bridge—comes across as just that: an audio effect, rather than an accomplishment on the part of the human voice. Meanwhile, on Marc Broussard’s “Lonely Night in Georgia” the group seems to be groping for a more soulful sound than the voices are naturally attuned to delivering.
The Octopodes save their best for last on this CD with a two-track final combo that demonstrates what’s most special about the group. “The Clock” is just such a cool song, made all the cooler when you realize that a member of the group originally wrote and recorded it on guitar, then arranged it for the group. Diego Ardila delivers one of the most distinctive solos in recent recorded a cappella memory between his unique vocal quality and clear connection to the words he sings.
After “The Clock,” the group transitions to the ACB pick for best mashup of the 2011 ICCAs, a brilliant medley of Katy Perry’s “Firework” and Muse’s “Starlight.” These songs come from disparate enough artists that most folks wouldn’t think to combine them, and yet share enough thematic and aural connections to just click. Best of all, The Octopodes demonstrate a real willingness to make music their own. First of all, the group reversed the order first two verses of “Starlight” to make for a more electrifying transition between songs. Second, rather than settling for the juxtaposition of two songs as so many groups do for “mashups,” The Octopodes earnestly intertwine the medleys and lyrics of the two pieces, particularly in the late stages of the song, to create a finished product that is uniquely their own.
Code Blue isn’t perfect, but for those who want to hear the emotion of live a cappella delivered on a recording, and who want to hear some legit innovation in songwriting and arrangement, don’t hesitate to check this one out.