One of the most striking commonalities of the a cappella CDs I’ve listened to as of late is how few tracks they have. While I’m all for concision and highlighting the best of your best material, there’s also something to be said for a group that’s willing to lay out a full hour of music over the course of an eclectic collection of 16 tracks. Ladies and gentlemen, allow me to reintroduce you to The Haverford College Outskirts.
The latest album from the all-female crew, In Pants encapsulates not only multiple genres, but spans time periods with impressive fluidity. Consider, for example the transition from relatively contemporary “Suddenly I See” to Paul McCartney’s classic “Maybe I’m Amazed,” which includes a sample of a hymn from centuries before, “Amazing Grace.” For those who fear the album might sound dated, rest assured the group is back to Little Big Town, Mika, and Sara Bareilles in the tracks to follow (though they travel back through time for a whimsical take on “Brand New Key” before anyone can say they’re settling for modern-day clichés).
Given the sheer volume of traffics, the album does have its rough spots; the ladies don’t quite demonstrate the ‘tude to pull off “Boondocks,” and despite a stellar arrangement, the group lacks the dynamic intricacy to quite do “The Chain” justice.
Some listeners may balk at the inclusion of tracks like “The Chain,” “Hallellujah,” “Grace Kelly,” and the Lady Gaga Medley for how well-traversed these grounds are by other a cappella groups. Indeed, I was a bit dubious when I first read the track listing. But if you write off this group as unoriginal, you’re not listening carefully, or thinking critically what’s most special about this album.
OK, so dozens of groups have covered “Hallellujah.” But let’s not forget the reason for that—it’s one of the greatest songs of the last thirty years. There’s no shame in wanting to put your own spin on such a song, and The Outskirts do the piece justice, singing carefully and smartly, and most importantly of all, singing their hearts out when the song calls for it. Let yourself really listen to this song, and you’ll rediscover every bit of the magic you first heard from Leonard Cohen, Bon Jovi, Jeff Buckley, Rufus Wainwright, Imogen Heap, or whoever’s shaken voice you first heard sing “love is not a victory march, it’s a cold and it’s a broken hallelujah.”
On to the Gaga medley. In this day and age, it’s easy to dismiss Gaga as overdone on the a cappella circuit. A part of what makes this closing track so great is that The Outskirts don’t care. This medley is utterly unapologetic, aggressive and joyfully silly from the selection of component pieces, to the affected British accent that shows up at one juncture, to the off-beat choice to quote Ke$ha at the end of the song. This piece is all about rejecting popular wisdom and groups that take themselves too seriously in favor of recording a medley that’s genuinely fun.
In Pants is not a polished masterpiece, but it is an album that will make listeners smile, bring up more than a few memories, and capture a sincerity of sound that plenty of today’s recordings are missing. Check it out.