CD Review: Just in Capes by UC Berkeley DeCadence

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.

The song selection on this album is varied and captivating. While covering Florence and the Machine is increasingly common, “Drumming Song” is an offbeat enough selection to get the album off to a memorable start (besides highlighting some truly excellent percussion effects). Some folks will question the inclusion of Mariah Carey’s “Emotions.” While the song itself isn’t a personal favorite, it demonstrated the potential for a group to thrive on a secondary single—the sort of song listeners will recognize and smile at, rather than rolling their eyes at having to hear that song again. From that point, I loved DeCadence’s willingness to take chances by hopping between genres from classy Buble to Styx to Amy Winehouse’s “Valerie.” Strong a cappella albums tend to avoid the predictability trap, and DeCadence navigated those waters quite nicely.

The album reaches its most fun point with a cover of Flight of the Conchords’ “Robots.” I’d rate this among the best comedy tracks I’ve ever heard in a cappella, with sleek production and near perfect timing and timbre on the lead vocals to keep the piece brisk, crisp, and perfectly deadpan. As though this track weren’t already strong enough, the group masterfully inserted a dubstep breakdown to really drive it home and fit perfectly with the electronic sound of the piece.

For me, the two notable missteps on this album came late in the game. Let me preface these comments by saying that I think I understand why DeCadence opted to include Cee-Lo Green’s “Forget You” and the mashup of radio hits. These songs are familiar. They probably draw a reaction among casual a cappella fans at live shows, and I wouldn’t be surprised if these song titles alone help the group move a few extra copies of their CD to the general populace. And if these were, in fact the group’s goals, then I can’t really condemn the song choices. Just the same, I wish they would have aimed for the same ends with slightly more ambitious means.

“Forget You ” is one of those songs that’s covered so extensively that any group recording it at this point needs find a way to put its own stamp on it. I found this rendition not only generic but altogether too sterile. The reason this song got so popular in the first place isn’t the radio cut, but rather that we all knew what the song’s true, profane lyrics were saying—and that song had bite and attitude. The smooth sound on every aspect of this track does a disservice to the group and undermines the feel of the original song.

The other track I wasn’t wild about was a mashup of “Love the Way You Lie,” “Dynamite,” and “Teenage Dream.” I get that mashups are in right now, and I don’t have a problem with that. The thing is, with the increased prevalence of the form, there’s an even greater need for every mashup, medley, and sample to have a purpose. Aside from being pop songs that got radio play around the same time, I can’t detect any real connection between these songs, and the saccharine sweetness of “Teenage Dream” seemed to totally overpower what should have been a raw, rough edge on “Love the Way You Lie.” To its credit, the arrangement is quite good here, and if you ignore the lyrics and original content of the songs, it’s an objectively well-sung and well-produced track. Just the same, I wish the group had applied those same talents to a set of songs with more meaningful connections between them.

Fortunately, DeCadence got back on track with its closer, “Sparkling Diamonds” from Moulin Rouge. The female soloists from this group rock show. They ignite the opening tracks of the album, kill it on the Winehouse and Kelly Clarkson, and Katy Pedelty turns in a flashy, fun finisher here. Better yet, this may be the album’s strongest track from the perspective of allowing the men’s low end to bolster the female lead and high harmonies. Excellent synergy for an excellent final song.

A cappella fans seeking a distinctive and diverse listening experience will enjoy themselves mightily with Just in Capes. You can learn more about DeCadence and buy the album here.

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Mike Chin

Mike Chin co-founded The A Cappella Blog in 2007. He continues to share leadership responsibility for the site, overseeing columns, reviews and features as the content manager. He currently lives in Baltimore, MD.