Let’s get one thing clear from the very beginning: in my opinion, GQ is one of, if not the single most outstanding a cappella group singing today in terms of vocal quality, tuning, and blend. I first heard the group less than year after its inception, at SingStrong 2012 where they positively shocked and awed the audience en route to winning the Aca-Idol live competition. Indeed, the audience in DC learned the very same lesson that night the Mid-Atlantic Harmony Sweepstakes region had learned a short while before—that GQ comes to play, offering up a unique combination of barbershop conventions and aesthetics, with contemporary sensibilities to assemble one of the most compelling live acts in the world.
But what would a GQ album sound like?
Vol. 1 errs toward the side of traditional barbershop. I appreciate that’s the tradition this group is coming from, and though I wish that the group had pushed the envelope a little further, the fact remains that this is a stunningly clean compilation of the group’s early efforts.
Vol. 1 is at its best when the group allows its barbershop background to inform less traditional song selections and arrangements—when the group innovates, and particularly when strong soloists have the opportunity to shine. Examples of the group at its finest include “Timshel” and “Fly Away (Reprise).” A song like Fiona Apple's “Hot Knife” also allows the group to thrive through the clever and playful addition of body percussion.
I loved the choice to bookend the album with two parts of an original composition by group member Katie Gillis, “Fly Away.” The soaring arrangement fostered a powerful introduction of the group to its CD audience—at once a girl-ish narrative about hope and love, but simultaneously a demonstration of the quartet’s power and precision. Meanwhile, the ending track not only extends these sensations, but adds a fresh layer of emotional intensity and rawness of vocals that proves GQ is far more than just a polished barbershop act.
Of the more traditional barbershop numbers, there are some along the lines of the “I’m Into Something Good” and “Happy Together” medley that feel nostalgic and warm, which allow the group to show the full extent of its abilities to lock chords and create minor music miracles. There are a handful of points when the album did not resonate quite as well for me, though. Tracks like “‘Deed I Do” and “You are My Sunshine” featured extended flourishes that may serve the group better for barbershop audiences, but felt a bit excessive and thrown in to me.
The drama of “Foreign Lander” shows the group’s capacity to transcend harmonies to produce a true emotional reaction in the listener. Better yet the masterful, subtle use of dynamics lends the song peaks and valleys, taking the listener along for a compelling story.
“Plain Gold Ring” marks a departure from the album, the only track to feature significant production effects, with crackly record static underlying the opening verse before the group keys in behind the soloist. I particularly loved the choice in the end game for the group to fall out altogether so the soloist could sing unaccompanied again before the other three ladies keyed back in full force, paving the way for a ripping scat solo. I appreciated the effort for the group to step outside its comfort zone and look forward to hearing more experimentation like this from them.
For me, the album achieves its climax with “Timshel.” It’s little wonder the piece earned GQ Best Original Arrangement honors at Harmony Sweepstakes Nationals in 2012, as it’s a near perfect fusion of impeccable harmonies, tuning, and blend, with a more contemporary style of arrangement that brings the song to life and levies layer upon layer emotional verity. Yes, this group sings as a unit like few others, but this particular piece does a masterful job of building to a truly sublime solo just before the three-minute mark, only for the group to unite for a final power chord afterward. The bonus track version, featuring XIV Hours offers up another treat as the high school group adds valuable accents to enrich the quartet's sound.
GQ has only sung together for about two and a half years now. Hearing their album is like experiencing a brief snapshot of an evolutionary process--not only the evolution of an exceptional young group, but the evolution of the a cappella genre. GQ is that good. Don’t miss out on Vol. 1.