When I listen to a college a cappella album, I tend to ask myself is who is this group? While it’s possible to successfully record an album featuring music from diverse artists and genres and, moreover, possible for a group to represent these songs in equally eclectic ways, most truly successful groups have identities that permeate everything from song selection to arrangements to solos to album art. The good news is that The Undertones seem to have very much figured out what they’re about, although I don’t feel they have achieved their masterpiece. just yet.
Straight No Chaser is one of the highest profile a cappella groups in the world—certainly the best-known group to rise to prominence in the 2000s without ever appearing on The Sing-Off. 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 be hoping for.
Before Straight No Chaser became one of the best-known professional a cappella groups in the world, it was a college group. Like many of today’s college groups, they competed.
Nowadays, groups rehearse, plan, and travel to far off stages to be a part of the International Championship of Collegiate A Cappella, or ICCAs. When Walter Chase was in college, the tournament was still known as the NCCAs, a play off of the NCAA tournament (the N in both acronyms standing for National). Chase recalled his days singing with “the ten original guys. We had been together about a year and a half. And I was competing with another group as well, Delusions of Grandeur [which was] more comedic … I competed with them in the first act and Straight No Chaser in the second act and advanced with them.”
Recorded a cappella is an interesting beast.
On one hand, things are almost universally getting better. The a cappella groups themselves are singing and arranging better. The technology to record, mix, and master has grown better. The people using the aforementioned technology have grown more adept at their craft.
On the other hand, more knowledge, tools, and money has also fostered a sense of homogeneity in recorded a cappella. With so many groups singing so many of the same songs with the same tools and similar good results, it becomes difficult to distinguish one album from another.
So how does a group like UC Berkeley DeCadence distinguish itself? Interesting song selection helps. Stellar, off beat soloists carries them that much further. Some sublime percussion, paired with near perfect production (aided by Bill Hare and Plaid Productions) gets the group that much further. While Just In Capes is not without a few missteps, it is a bold recording that stands out from the pack and delivers on the reputation the group established for itself with its vaunted run in the ICCA West last year.
CollegeDesis, an organization dedicated to the advancement of South Asian organizations on college campuses across the US, released an a cappella CD this month, featuring songs by seven different South Asian groups from across the US.
The resulting album offers up one of the most unique listening experiences college a cappella fans are likely to find this year. The album features a mix of Hindi songs and song selections that are pretty standard among American college groups from the past five years, mashed up with Hindi songs.
Musae was born out of a session at SoJam. Lo Barreiro and Kari Francis hosted a panel discussion on women in a cappella and afterwards elected to start a new group.
They gathered top talents. Hannah Juliano from Pitch Slapped. Johanna Vinson from Divisi. Angela Ugolini from The AcaBelles. Courtney Godwin from UGA Noteworthy.
They had a mission. A little Sonos, a little Boxettes, and, quite decisively, all-female.
It didn’t quite work.
Barreiro and Francis have reprised their panel at SoJams since, and on more than one occasion discussed the process of discerning the group’s identity. That identity needed to be organic to not only their vision and to each individual member, but to the gestalt of the six women bound together.
(There Is No Easy Way) From the Earth to the Stars is the realization of that identity, and the fruits of a young group’s labors.
The Remnants have released their first professionally recorded CD, entitled From The Attic. Matt Caruso of ACappellaPsych was responsible for recording, editing and production; Dave Sperandio of diovoce mixed and mastered the album.
From The Attic is a pretty interesting album, if for no other reason than the creative choices the group made. A cursory look at the track listing reveals songs like “Ain’t No Sunshine” that it seems just about every a cappella group has taken a swing at in the last decade (or more), to different, but oddly dated choices like N’Sync’s “I Drive Myself Crazy,” to newer if still pretty widely covered tracks like “The Cave” and “Good Life.”
These song selections may not inspire confidence an audience that listens to a great deal of a cappella. The first two tracks, “Listen to the Music” and “Take Me Home Tonight” are well-executed and sound slick, but do little defuse the sense that we’ve heard this CD before.
Then comes “Chicken Fried,” a Zac Brown track that catapults us into the modern era with a contemporary and offbeat selection. Better yet, this is the track when The Remnants start to show what makes them most unique—their percussion and how they use it. The final minute of “Chicken Fried” features a snare that really brings the track to life and sends the group marching into the last leg of the song with a new energy.
A year ago, Forte was one of a number of very good high school a cappella groups across the country, its first CD a year behind it, looking ahead to a run at International Championship of High School A Cappella (ICHSA).
Today? Forte has earned a reputation for itself. The group finished in second place at the ICHSA International Finals. They provided a brilliant coda for Ben Stevens’s celebrated Essential Listening talk at SoJam. And there’s the CD.
I don’t know that there has ever been a more anticipated high school a cappella album than Life’s So Lyrical. The fervor over this project can most aptly be summarized in two words: “all original.”