Straight No Chaser Under the Influence

CD Reviews

Straight No Chaser is one of the highest profile a cappella groups in the world. All of this success arose from an unlikely story—an alumnus of a college a cappella group posted a decade-old video of his group on YouTube. Fifteen million views later, Atlantic Records came calling. The group released a pair of holiday albums, then a collection of pop covers in 2010 under the title With a Twist.

In Under the Influence, Straight No Chaser has taken on a whole new project. Not just an a cappella album, but one peppered with guest solos from some of the biggest names in modern music—legends the likes of Elton John, Phil Collins, Stevie Wonder, and Dolly Parton, alongside big names like Sara Bareilles, Rob Thomas, Jason Mraz, and Seal. The resulting album may very well be the most commercially viable a cappella album of all time, and certainly a CD that’s easy on the ears. That said, given the talent involved in recording this album, it’s only natural to raise the question, is this one of the greatest a cappella albums ever recorded? Unfortunately, it’s on that particular front that I feel the album falls short of what some listeners might hope for.

The album gets off to a hot start with Straight No Chaser covering The Jackson Five’s “I Want You Back,” featuring Sara Bareilles on the solo. Many groups have covered this song, including Sonos’s reimagining of the piece that earned them accolades galore in the a cappella community, but a lukewarm reaction on The Sing-Off. SNC’s approach is more direct than that, and Bareilles is a near-perfect choice for her role. You’re going to be hard pressed to find a male lead who can touch the original MJ vocals on this number, but Bareilles’ timbre is just distinct enough to lightly reinvent the song without bucking tradition, besides the fact that she has enough a cappella cred to have hardcore fans of the genre eating out of her hand from the first verse.

Unfortunately, Bareilles’s performance is an exception rather than the rule when it comes to creative surprises on this album. Most of the leads are simply singing straight forward takes on their most recognizable songs with a cappella backing rather than their usual instrumentation. Don’t get me wrong:
A) I recognize it’s phenomenal accomplishment for SNC and the a cappella genre to have music stars of this caliber recording on this album and
B) When it comes to a cappella groups replacing instruments, there are few groups in the world that can touch SNC.
All of that said, I wish we had more surprises or riffs off originals like Bareilles subbing in for Michael Jackson, as opposed to relatively obvious takes like Seal singing “Kiss From A Rose.” I realize that this probably had a lot to do with creative input from the guest artists, rather than SNC, since not everyone is as malleable Bareilles. Nonetheless, the creative output left me feeling a little flat.

Most of the songs without guest solos didn’t break much ground for me, eith: a mash up of Fun. songs that, as well executed as it was, didn’t seem to add much new to the plethora of mashups of this ilk that flooded the scholastic a cappella scene over the last year; a polished cover of “Rolling in the Deep” that similarly echoed what so many other groups are doing today; capped with a posh take on “Hallellujah," built on the foundation of a fantastic arrangement by Take 6's Mark Kibble, but that nonetheless didn't feel like it captured all of the ache at the core of the song.

The album does have some truly sublime spots. I particularly enjoyed “Against All Odds” in which the repeated, haunting echo of “you are the only one” from the background sells the desperation of the song. I dug the fake out intro “Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me” with the group starting en medias res before Elton John keys in with his signature vocals. Stevie Wonder’s little Easter egg of a “hell yeah” on the finish to “Signed, Sealed, Delivered (I’m Yours)” communicated a bit of the genuine joy and enthusiasm that went into recording this album. All good things.

Back to the placement of this album among the all-time greats of the a cappella canon. If you’re looking for an album to sway someone who professes he doesn’t like a cappella, or who listens to the genre casually at best, this is a near-perfect album to draw in such a listener. It’s a lot of fun to hear major names in contemporary music do their thing alongside one of the top a cappella groups singing today, the production is perfectly clean, and the full track listing is made up of easily recognizable, sing-along hits.

For all of these merits, when I listen to an a cappella album, I hope to hear surprises. New song discoveries. An original. Creative reinventions and new techniques. To make a comparison to modern cinema, I’d label this album something like The Hangover--very much entertaining and even memorable, but not the sort of masterwork that makes a profound artistic statement, or threatens to change the way we look at the world. If you’re a fan of SNC (which I am), or a big fan of any of this album’s guest stars, you will probably get your money’s worth buying this CD. Just don’t expect many surprises after track one.