The X-Factors, a co-ed group out of Northwestern University in Chicago released their new CD this summer, The Pink Album. Part of what’s most interesting about the album is how it functions as a time capsule for collegiate a cappella in 2012. More on that to follow.
The album starts with a bang. The group’s treatment of Tremolo’s “You Were Born For This” is high energy, driven by a really complexly arranged hook, booming solo, and wonderful energy from the group on the whole. It’s a near perfect opening selection for a co-ed group, putting the ladies front and center while the guys pulsate on the low end.
While it’s a very different song selection, “The Minnow and the Trout” echoes some of the same strengths as the opening track with the transitional instrumentation from the group between the verses positively pulsing with a really intricate, up-tempo melodic line. Moreover, this track offers an exceptional lead from Courtney Ritcher, with her textured, unique vocal quality. While I would maintain that Ritcher’s solo is one of the strongest of the album, her approach is representative of a larger strength of the group on the whole—there are no weak soloists, and just the same, the group does not present the type of soloists who need to explode on every song, but rather who thrive in control and owning individual pieces of music.
Speaking of the group capturing the message of individual songs, “Winter Winds” feels like authentic folk music—earnest and all about storytelling—perfectly embodying the spirit of Mumford and Sons which I feel is the essence of why the group has, against all odds, gained such a wide following among contemporary music fans.
The X-Factors make lots of good decisions with pieces throughout this album. The group is strongest when it’s grooving and makes the wise choice to push the tempo on on Keane’s “Somewhere Only We Know” to play to the group’s talents and prevent a late-album snoozer. “Shark in the Water” features a piercing high harmony line that complements the solo in lovely ways. “Cosmic Love” perfectly intertwines a simple, soft, pure group sound with power chords that communicate the dramatic verve of the original piece.
Clearly, The X-Factors have a lot working for them, and Plaid Productions and Dave Sperandio from Diovoce did a wonderful job of polishing the edges to give the recording every bit of the professional sound the group warranted.
With all of that said, I had mixed feelings on many of the song selections. Out of 11 songs, seven were ones I had heard multiple times in ICCA competition in the last two years. In particular, “Crazy Ever After” and “Feeling Good” were each vehicles for SoCal VoCal championships in the last five years. While there’s no rule against covering the same material as a world class group, there does come a point at which a group invites comparisons, and as solid as The X-Factors were, I don’t know that they did enough to stand out and justify these particular picks. Moreover the inclusion of these songs, plus one by Florence and the Machine and one by Mumford and Sons made the track list start to feel like the group was meeting some sort of checklist—they were an Adele or Lady Gaga track away from really overdoing it on the common college cover choices. And though The X-Factors are far from the only culprits, and they more than hold their own with the material, I still have to question why a cappella groups, in 2012, still want to cover “Something To Talk About.”
It’s both a good and bad thing, but I left this CD with a feeling that I had heard an earnest representation of where college a cappella stands in the spring of 2012. It’s cool to have it all summarized as such, and the X-Factor sound is a notch above most of their contemporaries, so it certainly functions as an album. Nonetheless, I still found myself pining for a clearer sense of who this group is—what’s unique about them? What message are they trying to deliver? What separates them from the rest of upper echelon of collegiate groups singing today?
The X-Factors are at their best on their more distinctive song choices—tracks like “You Were Born for This,” “The Minnow and the Trout” and, of course, their closer, “You Don’t Have to Believe Me.” That last track in particular engenders a level of energy and swagger that transcends production effects to leave the listener with no doubt whatsoever that the group was genuinely having fun with this track—this track that is uniquely their own and that you can tell the group has thrown every bit of itself into. It’s no surprise that stand up soloist Will Kazda was also the one who arranged this piece—it bears every indication of a true passion project that he saw through from end to end.
My greatest hope for the group is that, in future recordings. The X-Factors will take more of the same sort of chances they did on this closer, so as to more clearly define the group’s own place in the a cappella community. For the time being, they’ve delivered a solid album with plenty of memorable solos, a few sublime arrangements, and plenty of material worth listening to.