In 2012, Out of the Blue, a co-ed group out of Yale, joined the collegiate a cappella elite, singing on the big stage at Town Hall in New York for the ICCA Finals. Four months later, they’re documenting one of the biggest year’s in group history with an EP of the three songs from their ICCA set. The group was kind of enough to give The A Cappella Blog the opportunity to listen to the EP before its release.
The most striking element of Brand New Walk is just how authentically a cappella it sounds. Nowadays, most groups that record professionally end up with such a heavily produced final product that it’s difficult to distinguish much in the way of individual efforts beyond the solo, the percussion, and a scant few pieces of the instrumentation. Collaborating with the folks at Sled Dog Studios and Plaid Productions, Out of the Blue finished with a final product that sounds professional and polished, but doesn’t lose any of the nuance of a cappella sound that makes the a cappella form itself, so nuanced, unique, and beautiful.
As I’ve noted many times over the history of this blog, as a music fan, one of my favorite indulgences is to create mix CDs—some of recent favorites, some around a theme. In the process, I’ve agonized over song order. As such, I can fully understand and appreciate Out of the Blue’s interest in tinkering with set order. In live performance, the group opened with Christina Perri’s “Jar of Hearts,” followed with a mashup of “Something’s Got a Hold on Me” originally by Etta James and Christina Aguilera’s “Candyman,” and closed with Delta Rae’s “Bottom of the River.” On the EP, the group flips the order of the first two songs. It’s debatable which ordering is more effective, but there is certainly a logic to letting the live set build upon itself, staring slow and then exploding into sound (particularly when most ICCA sets that would precede them would end more raucously), and wanting to start things with a bang on their recording, reset the mood in the middle and pop on the finish. In either case, it’s clear the group was anything but haphazard when it came to song selection and ordering.
The mashup is a true joy to hear, featuring a certifiably electric solo from freshman Kate Taylor-Mighty. It’s the kind of solo that not only engages but positively entrances listeners, demanding our attention for the duration of the song. Perhaps even more impressive than the lead, though, is the stellar arrangement by Andre Shomorony and David Ottenheimer. The guys make the component pieces of the mashup fit together seamlessly, cleverly fading in and out with swells of sound, and varying the tempo in organic and exciting ways. Moreover, the group did a remarkable job of weaving in musical styling s from different eras, including some very cool brass instrumentation and fun borderline scat sections of the song.
“Jar of Hearts” marks an interesting turning point in the recording. On one hand, the solo is excellent—not only near flawless on the fundamentals, but built with restraint, maturity and dynamic variation to show Sana Sharma’s range and infuse a sense of dramatic tension that otherwise might have been absent. The group carries out the piece, in general, quite well. That this middle track falls a little short for me isn’t so much a knock on the group’s execution of it, but rather the nature of the song itself. It’s a piece that’s been covered pretty widely in collegiate a cappella this year, and while this may well be the best version I’ve heard, it’s also just unremarkable enough not be particularly memorable. As I referenced earlier, in live performance, it marked a nice transition between the electricity of the preceding performers and setting up the group’s own galvanizing moment on the mashup, and similarly, in the recording, it’s a bridge between bigger songs. Nonetheless, I can’t help sensing that the piece marked a bit of a missed opportunity in both contexts—with just 12 minutes to make your case, I’m not sure it makes sense to take any breathers.
Fortunately, much as it did for the live show, “Bottom of the River” arrived as a positively distinctive power spiritual to take the group home. Another outstanding solo here, this time from Aviva Musicus. The truest story of this piece was the body percussion, though, powered by a slow steady stomp, amplified later by a fluttering of hands. The ghostly echo of the backing vocals over the verses were distinctive and added a really gravity to the piece. Not every closing song needs to be about smiling faces and major chords and I loved the decision to end the EP with this piece, all about intensity and firepower, featuring a scintillating female solo and awesome low harmonies from the guys that underscored the group’s diversity of talents as a co-ed squad.
The best and worst thing I have to say about Brand New Walk is that the entire EP runs just 10 minutes—a short enough collection from a strong enough group that just about anyone listening is going to wish they could hear more. Particularly for those who missed Out of the Blue’s showcase performances in the ICCA tournament this spring, this EP is must-hear material. You can learn more about Brand New Walk here.