As I was listening to Tongue Tied, the latest offering from The Stereotypes, out of Washington University of St. Louis, I couldn’t help thinking of alternative titles for the album. The main one that came to mind: Post-Gaga: How To Make All-Male A Cappella Fun Again.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with an all-male group covering Lady Gaga. In fact, when On the Rocks and the rest of the vanguard took the charge, I was as amused as anyone. But as the 2011 competition season wore on, it became increasingly apparent that an uncomfortably large number of all-male college groups thought it would be hilarious to put their own spin on “Poker Face” or “Bad Romance.” The market grew saturated and it just wasn’t fun anymore.
To my knowledge The Stereotypes never fell into the Gaga trap, but this album demonstrates the guys’ ability to capture the best elements of that particular craze while artfully dodging the clichés attached to it. The boys from Wash U have a rip-roaring good time, embracing Bonnie Tyler, Adele, Madonna, and a selection from Wicked. They simultaneously grabbed their audience’s attention for how different and fun these songs are coming from a male lead vocal, while also taking the songs seriously. I can’t emphasize enough how important it is that these guys don’t just go for cheap laughs; you don’t hear them pausing and there’s no point at which you can really imagine them winking for a camera in the studio. On the contrary, you get the impression that one of these guys legitimately grew up on Madonna and thought, “hey, wouldn’t it be neat to have 15 of my dude friends sing this”—and all 15 dudes were on board.
To sum up the point above, it’s easy to play gender-bending songs for laughs, and much more impressive to innovate, and generate a legit new musical sound out of such pieces. Particularly in the case of “Defying Gravity” at the middle of the CD, The Stereotypes deliver some of the most sincere, powerful, and inspirational verses in recent a cappella memory, stirring listeners, and almost making them forget that this is originally a power ballad for women. Similarly, the pulse-pounding tempo on “Holding out for a Hero” is all about intensity—and who cares if a woman wrote the song?
That’s not to say the CD doesn’t demonstrate a sense of humor , though, as the guys do give way to some merriment with a “Boy Band Mashup” in the late stages of the disc. The easier road would have been to just pick a Backstreet Boys or N*Sync song, but the group proves more clever than that, combining the two for a piece with some twists and turns that lends itself to incorporating the group’s own name the lyrics. In so doing, the guys make even their throwaway comedy piece a hidden gem; it may not be revolutionary, but it’s still more imaginative than offerings from other all-male groups who are recording individual songs like these in 2012 just for irony’s sake.
Indeed, one of the broadest strengths of this album is the coherence of the narrative. College a cappella CDs—even those marketed to a general audience—have a tendency to sound like yearbook compilations where everyone’s solos and arrangements get a shot, and the group slaps it’s top ten-to-fifteen songs together and calls it an album. While there are pieces of this CD that don’t fit quite so gracefully (“25 or 6 to 4,” while quite good, doesn’t have much new to say and doesn't contribute a lot to the surrounding flow) the broader compilation does carry a story, from the pursuit of a lost sense of heroes and romance (“Holding Out for a Hero”) to vanishing into a make believe world (“Somewhere Only We Know”) to developing a sense of heroism in oneself (“Something to Believe In” and “Defying Gravity”) to a momentary stop back into reality and the truths of aging (“Stop This Train”) to overcoming the odds and rediscovering a sense of destiny (“Jai Ho”) to rediscovering an individual sense of self (again, dudes covering Madonna and boy bands from a decade ago), to the simplest song of thanks and praise (“Alabanza”) before wrapping up with a call to arms and insistence on personal responsibility (“If You’re Out There”). To be fair, I’m probably over-analyzing the track list and developing a concept album where it isn’t necessarily there, and the guys’ proclivity for inspiration and emotional sincerity gives them a natural advantage in recording songs that can be heard as personal narratives. Just the same, there is an ebb and flow to the ordering of songs that implies at least some level of intentionality, and that alone gives listeners a real experience when they take in the CD.
For folks who have only heard of The Stereotypes in passing, Tongue Tied is an excellent introduction to what the group is capable of, encompassing their full 2011 ICCA set (including the encore) and “Jai Ho” from Slumdog Millionaire, the unique song selection which arguably marked the group’s coming out party on the national scene in the 2010 ICCAs. The production is ably managed—a touch heavy-handed at points, but far more careful than some of the more gratuitous sounds recorded a cappella has gravitated toward in recent years. All in all, this is an excellent feel-good album to kick off the year, with more than a few stand out performances.