No Comment Ellipsis

CD Reviews

Last spring No Comment, a co-ed group out of The University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, ended champions of the Midwest Region of ICCA, and thus advanced to their very first International Finals.

No Comment stood out at Finals—not so dissimilarly to how they had stood out at the semifinal levels. Their set wasn’t laden with dubstep, stomp routines, or rap interludes. No one did a back flip and there didn’t go for any particularly wacky gender bending solos. Instead, they were an earnest group that focused on fundamentals and, as such, arrived as one of the best college a cappella groups in the world.

Ellipsis is, in many ways an ode to that very style of performance, and, indeed, identity for the group. From the opening tracks, the group doesn’t demonstrate a commitment to revolutionary song selections or radical reinventions of the material they’re working with. “Home,” “Glitter in the Air,” and “For the First Time” are all fairly straight forward takes, and I would argue brilliant not in spite of, but because of that simplicity. The group is chock full of talented vocalists, each of whom can more than carry his or her part, thus allowing the group to cultivate, a full, immaculately tuned sound. Not least important, Ben Lieberman lends an experienced hand to the production and trusts that group sound. The result is a polished, balanced collection of tracks that never feel as though they’ve been washed out to the point you can’t tell you’re listening to a cappella anymore.

“Home” is a near perfect, inviting opening track that says a lot about what this group is about and what the listening experience to follow will be like. Later, “Break Me Out” demonstrates a bit more ambition, toying with a more complicated arrangement and a bit more hands on production to more fully demonstrate what the group is capable of.

I’d contend that Ellipsis really hits its stride, though, on “Someone Like You.” The track, which the group shrewdly released as a free single to promote the album features very good solo work from Sarah Chapek and an even more impressive artistic arrangement by Robby Shellard (and execution thereof by the whole ensemble). I particularly liked that the group tapped into not only the emotional core of this song, but the communal aspect of it, opting to have the group filter in and out of singing in unison with the lead, particularly on the second verse and the final chorus. The reason pop songs of this ilk work so well is that the sentiments behind them are so universally accessible, and the choice to sell that sensation via several voices blending together so beautifully really nailed the essence of the song. For that matter, I’ll note that the follow-up track, “Broken Strings,” too, captures a real emotional authenticity and the interplay between the male and female leads really communicates the conflicted feelings of the songs and spotlights the group’s range of lead vocalists.

The only track I really didn’t connect with on this album was “Eleanor Rigby”—a perfectly serviceable cover that I worry didn’t sound much different from any number of other renditions of this song we’ve heard in recent years, and that I worry lapses into more developed production and more electric sound that would have been better saved for a big moment on “Clarity.”

But then, let’s get to “Clarity.” Surely, it’s no accident that the last three songs on this album are the same three songs that No Comment took to ICCA Finals last year, but it is interesting to note that the group reversed the order of the three songs on this album. In live performance, the warm, constrained take on “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” that blossomed into a fuller sound was an ideal introduction to what this group is about—in the album format, that introduction already happened seven tracks ago, and thus is less necessary. So, “Clarity,” as track eight, allows the group to finally rip loose with its biggest sound, coolest blur of bass, and fullest production techniques on a track that feels like a well-deserved party at this late stage of the album (in addition to featuring an excellent solo and some really clever use of dynamics to tell a story).

Just as it was in live performance, “Breathe Again” is a star vehicle for soloist Kelsey Stanker, who knocks this track out of the park. On top of that, though, the studio version really exposed how clever the arrangement is. While “Someone Like You” told a communal story, this song shrewdly pulls back to give Stanker opportunities to operate alone when the lyrics are at their loneliest, particularly on a captivating “break my heart” that the group can only echo in response. When you can feel the emotion of a ballad like that on a recording, you know the group has made all sorts of good decisions about how they assembled the track.

As I referenced earlier, Ellipsis closes with “I Wanna Dance With Somebody.” This was my favorite piece of No Comment’s 2013 ICCA run and is probably my favorite part of the album, too. The group’s rendering of the song feels less like a party track than a warm, romantic piece—particularly that wonderful first chorus. The song develops organically to a bigger sound, before the group explodes on the final chorus, offering a snapshot of the group’s fuller capacity for volume and range.

If you’re looking for the next fad effect in a cappella, Ellipsis is not the album for you. If, however, you’re more interested in clean, soundly executed, heartfelt takes on popular music, you’ll be hard pressed to find a collection more satisfying than this one. My hat’s off to No Comment for a really enjoyable studio venture—here’s hoping there’s more to come!