The more a cappella I’ve heard over the last six years, the more important it has become to me that a group have its own, distinctive identity. When it comes time to put on a show or, more to the point, record an album, it’s all well and good if you just want to commemorate the year, or share your music with family and friends—if that’s your objective, you need not worry about individualizing your efforts. If, however, you choose to enter the a cappella marketplace—enter competitions, sell albums on a large scale, broadcast yourself to the world on YouTube—then you really ought to have something unique to say. To their credit, in their debut album, The Miami University Cheezies certainly do adopt their own sound.
As their name would suggest, The Cheezies sound, well, a bit cheesy. I don’t really mean that in a derogatory sense, but rather to point out their default sound is slow, smooth, and clean. While many all-male groups embrace a rougher edge or a powerhouse sound, this album is far more about slowing the tempo, building harmonies, and delivering polished vocals.
The Cheezies certainly picked the right producer for their sound, in ACappellaPsych’s Matt Caruso, who deftly put the audio together to highlight the different vocal strands throughout the album. For a group that’s all about a deliberate pace and layered harmonies, and that demonstrates an impressively full and comprehensive range of voices, it’s essential we hear everyone for the duration of the album, and Caruso nailed this effect.
Given the group’s approach to executing its songs, there are some surprising and very strong song choices on this album, including New Edition’s “Can You Stand the Rain” and Shai’s “If I Ever Fall In Love.” Though I don’t know that anyone was clamoring for these songs to get the a cappella treatment in 2012, the tracks lend themselves to soulful, deliberate interpretation, and so play directly into The Cheezies’ hands.
Other tracks, like “She Will Be Loved,” “Falling Slowly” and “Breakeven” similarly fit into The Cheezies’ wheelhouse, but suffered from the regularity with which these songs have been covered. To their credit, I thought most of the group’s song selections were quite good, and I can understand them gravitating toward these specific songs. Just the same, the plodding pace on each number paired with the lack of anything recognizably new to say about them made for a slooooooow middle section of the album. These are the sorts of selections that will sound perfectly serviceable—arguably even beautiful—to folks who listen to them in a vacuum, without the reference point of other a cappella albums. But for those who have been listening more extensively in the genre, The Cheezies’ interpretations fall a little flat.
The weakest choice of all for the album was undoubtedly Mumford and Sons’ “Little Lion Man.” This is where song selection and coherence of identity are so important. This is not a coarse, power group. This is a soft, polished ensemble, and as such, “Little Lion Man” was only going to work if the guys completely reinvented it. Instead, we end up with a relatively straight translation that was just OK, until the final bars. At that point, the group completely undermines the concept of the song on a flourish of gussied up, fancy harmonies on the finish.
The best counterexample to the Mumford selection was the choice to cover Jessie J’s “Domino” in the early going. The translation to this particular all-male group’s vocals was near perfect, and, particularly, Kyle Karnes’s work as the second soloist positively shone. The group even got a bit experimental on this one with a short-lived, dub-step-infused sample of “Party Rock Anthem,” for which my only complaint is that I thought they could have let it go a bit longer. Nonetheless, this track represented just the sort of subtle reinvention of a song that’s not overdone in all-male a cappella that I would have loved to have heard more of on this album.
Similarly, the guys picked a near perfect closer in Lincoln Park’s “Waiting for the End.” The track meets at an odd mid-point between the original artist and The Cheezies—one of the softest selections from the Linkin Park catalog; just a bit rougher and more electronic than The Cheezies’ natural repertoire. The piece allowed the group to cut loose with some neat electronic riffs and play with some up tempo unisons leading into a deeper, richer solo than the original track—making it their own and more than doing the song justice.
All in all, Front & Center is a strong album, and particularly worth checking out for groups that are struggling to figure out their own sound and type of music they want to cover. The Cheezies are mature and clean here, and the production complements that sound perfectly.