This past spring, Salem High School WitchPitch? earned its second bid to the International Championship of High School A Cappella. Making it to the big stage in New York once is enough for a group to justify calling itself elite; twice in three years is a pretty a fair indication that it was no fluke and the ensemble has excellence embedded in its DNA.
So what does a top-notch live group do to cement its legacy and commemorate its accomplishments? Why, what else but record a CD, collaborating with big name talents that will do them justice, such as Nick Girard, Alfredo Austin, and Dave Sperandio.
The resulting album, Here is a fitting tribute to the recent years of the group. One of the first aspects of the CD casual listeners are likely to observe is how short it is—just eight tracks, running a total of 26 minutes. This marks a part of what I love about the album’s creative decisions as the group demonstrated restraint beyond its years. Rather than the yearbook approach of recording every song the group has sung and giving everyone a solo, the group instead focused on its best material and served up an album that borders on EP length, with no superfluous tracks.
The album title is well-chosen, as a nod to the tracks that bookend the recording—a mashup of Hellogoodbye’s “Here” and A-Ha’s “Take On Me” and a solemn rendering of Beyonce’s “I Was Here.” This is not merely a cute motif, but also demarcates a thematic journey over the course of the album. The first track boasts a fun, almost electronic sound that’s extremely polished for a high school group, and yet still indicative of young peoples’ music tastes and the group’s identity as a group of teenaged musicians. The latter track demonstrates greater maturity—a slower tempo, simpler instrumentation, and lyrics about significance of having been “here.” While the first track leans upon group members singing in hushed unisons and echoing one another, the final track is about learning to stand alone, and comes across as the track least “touched up” with studio effects. I can hardly think of a better musical metaphor for young people developing experience and growing into independent young adults.
Putting all of that sobriety and deeper meaning aside, there are plenty of points in this album in which WitchPitch? thrives on a more fun sound. U2’s “Vertigo” captures the spirit of the original song perfectly with a big, confident sound and tremendous use of dynamic variation to sell the big moments of the piece. Top notch solo by Derek Dupuis on this one, and very, very good percussion.
Tracks like “Scenic World” and a mashup of Taio Cruz’s “Dynamite” and Train’s “Hey Soul Sister” really take advantage of the mixed group dynamic. For the former, the high parts run the show on the instrumentation, while Pat Dunning’s deep solo proves mature and soulful beyond his years. Meanwhile, the mashup gives male and female leads each opportunities to shine with some clever transitions between the songs, the guys driving the “party” atmosphere of “Dynamite” while the ladies appropriate the lead on the Train song, making it a piece about sisterhood, as opposed to one with a male narrator singing to a woman—very well-handled.
The CD’s ballads simultaneously demonstrate this group’s massive potential and show that there is still room for the group to grow. “Wintersong” is lovely and features an excellent solo from Meryl Schultz. Just the same, I couldn’t help craving a bit more subtlety and variation on the instrumentation for this one, particularly making a bit more pronounced use of the low end sound to add a warmer feel to the piece, especiallly on the bigger moments of it. “Falling Slowly” offers up the most beautiful moments of the album, including a sterling leads from Joe Forristall and Sara Hammond, and wonderful use of dynamics. I had to take issue with some of the arrangement decisions, though, particularly on the lyrical insertions in the background sound, sometimes echoing the lyrics, sometimes foreshadowing them, sometimes asking questions the lead vocalists will answer (“where do words fall?” “words fall through me”). Salem High alum and founder of Witch Pitch?, Alex Grover, contributed several excellent arrangements to the album, and I love the ambition of his work on this one, but do have to contend that these “cute”/clever arrangement decisions are much better suited to upbeat songs and risk undercutting the sincerity of an emotional piece like this one.
Tying back to the closing track, “I Was Here” does a wonderful job of encapsulating what the album is all about—celebrating a period of time in this group’s history, and the group’s coming out party on the national scene via its success in the ICHSAs. While the piece gives the album a sense of closure and completeness, the confidence and purity of the sound on this final track also communicates that this group is not going anywhere, and that we’re all sure to hear much more from the ensemble for years to come. I, for one, can’t wait.