On February 19, 2012, Cornell University hosted an International championship of Collegiate A Cappella (ICCA) Mid-Atlantic quarterfinal. The event occurred in Call Auditorium in Kennedy Hall.
Before we get to the review, a quick summary of the show:
Binghamton University Kaskeset
SUNY Potsdam A Sharp Arrangement
The SUNY Potsdam Pitches
Elizabethtown College Phalanx
The SUNY Potsdam Pointercounts
The Cornell University Class Notes
The Cornell University Hangovers
University of Rochester After Hours
The Cornell University Touchtones
The University of Pittsburgh Pitt Pendulums
Guest Group: The Cornell University Key Elements
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The Cornell University Key Elements kicked off the evening with Joan Jett’s ”I Love Rock N Roll.” The killer perc and a fun breakdown section toward the close were the highlights for this talented co-ed group. Saqib Mikey Yasin from Varsity Vocals took the stage next with the standard announcements, then handed things over to Olivia, the emcee.
The first competing group was Kaskeset a Jewish, co-ed a cappella group out of Binghamton University. They wore black and blue. The group took the stage with energy and attitude, en route to kicking off their first song. This was a fun performance. While it clicked musically, the truest highlight was the visual presentation, which included a pair of female, and later a pair of male backup dancers joining the soloist for a well-choreographed routine up front. Nothing jaw-dropping here, but a solid opener to set a light a tone and help establish the group’s identity.
The soloist stayed up front for the second song, Rascal Flatts’s “Bless the Broken Road.” Some nice use of dynamics with the group falling quiet before the chorus, then growing much louder. Good emotion from the lead, who demonstrated some nice versatility transitioning between the two songs, and made the bold choice to venture into the crowd for a part of his solo. While this only really works when the lighting is such that the crowd can see your serenade, I give him credit for being bold enough to break the fourth wall, so to speak. The lead also took the opportunity to, allegedly for the first time, say “I love you” to his girlfriend in the crowd. Based on the reaction from the girl, a few rows in front of me, it seems as though this actually was quite sincere. Not the most professional moment, and I can’t say I condone that artistic choice in the competition setting but it was a feel-good story nonetheless. The group employed some cutesy choreography, including two occasions when a member separated from the group and stood alone, until for the group beckoned him to return to the gang—it was a little over the top. At first blush, I wasn’t wild about another one of the theatrical threads the group wove in—the soloist handing a valentine to one of the female members only for her to rip it apart, followed by the end of the song at which point she returned with a valentine of her own, only for him to spurn her advance. I found this excessive and not entirely coherent from a narrative perspective until I saw what they were doing—setting up the woman as the scorned lead for the final song. I have mixed feelings on how that all works as a total package, but I’ll give the group credit for consciously plotting out its transitions.
Kaskeset finished with Shiri Maimon’s “Now That You’re Gone.” Maimon is an Israeli pop artist, which I mention because I appreciate this group’s interest in retaining the core of it’s group identity, even while they move to a less traditional Jewish sound than they brought to competition years ago. Nice balance. Very good charisma on this solo. The percussionist was really strong on this one. I appreciate how much thought the group clearly put into the visual presentation, and they delivered most of the choreography with conviction, but some of the theatrics did not feel organic to the music—more thrown-together than a natural extension of what we were hearing. Nonetheless, this was, overall, a solid closer for a solid set.
Next up was SUNY Potsdam A Sharp Arrangement, an all-female group that wore black cocktail dresses. They started their first song facing the right side, before a dramatic turn to face the audience. Three leads stepped forward to lead off Michael Jackson’s “Pretty Young Thing (PYT).” While there were bright spots to this performance, and I liked the arrangement, all in all, this song took some time before it felt comfortable. The group sang it very high, to the point the piece didn’t quite sound right, and the choreography came across a little too cutesy and weak here. The women didn’t really seem to hit their stride and until they arrived at a really fun call and response with the audience on the “na na na”s, s for which the crowd even emulated their dynamics. This short section demonstrated a world of charisma and stage presence the group hadn’t demonstrated up to that point. It was a little late for that song, but suggested brighter moments ahead for this set.
The group followed with Glen Hansard’s ”Falling Slowly.” Good solo here, and an even better backing solo. Nice use of the song title as syllables to slip into the second verse. The group made the shrewd decision to let the ballad speak for itself, then add percussion to make the piece move as it went along. The A Sharps worked out a very well-conceived sliding motion on the chorus, with the women sliding into position laterally on the beat. The execution came across a little stilted, but they had the right idea. The group had some very clear “ping” syllables on the open and close that weren’t exactly pretty, but were distinctive and bookended the song nicely.
The women closed with Adele’s ”Rolling in the Deep.” This is the kind of song selection you need to be really careful about in competition because so many groups have covered this song, and more specifically did so last year. While the sound all around on this one was perfectly serviceable, and the group delivered the clap-stomp percussion well, the piece wasn’t quite the barnburner it should be. The one thing that really did click for me about this piece was an inspired bit of choreography, which saw the women moving their arms like turnstiles—fast and perfectly in synch for one of the coolest visual effects in my recent memory. Good way to finish the set.
Next up were the mixed Potsdam Pitches. They took the stage in black and red. Pounding bass on the intro to Katy Perry’s ”ET.” Excellent, bold, solo. Nice impactful choreography with leans, crouches, and stop-motion poses that really followed the music. The group executed a lovely drop off after the first chorus to let the soloist operate softly before the group reentered with little swells of sound, before exploding in to the following chorus with a neat choral effect, before resuming the regular pace of the song. Very strong opener.
The Pitches followed with a mashup of Adele’s ”Someone Like You” and Mika’s ”Happy Ending.” Really nice backing solo on the Mika section and excellent harmonies between the two leads once they got cooking. They kept the song up-tempo and I liked the way the group moved on it. The tempo held up on the transition back to Adele, at which point the first soloist really had a chance to pop, with the Mika leads reiterating “no happy ending” behind her. Such a cool effect. I loved this creative decision for a mashup, and though I probably would have given slightly more even shrift to the two songs (particularly given the original soloist’s chops) this was a really good, thematically relevant mashup that culminated in a really fun clap-along breakdown.
The group followed with ”Stereo Hearts” by Gym Class Heroes. Good solo, good rap. The group let loose on the choreography here, and it was the perfect time to do it. This is a song with a lot of potential to come across as lightweight, but the group did a good job of retaining a more complex, serious feel, such that the audience couldn’t help feeling the fire of the performers on stage.
Lo and behold, The Pitches had a fourth song in store, Beyonce’s “Love on Top.” As The ACB’s own Keith Tripler pointed out earlier this season, based upon their truly masterful rendition of this song, Pitch Slapped single-handedly made “Love On Top” a real gamble for any other group to try. I really liked the decision for the group to start this song slow to do something different with it. Strong solo work. The group grooved into full speed from there only to… sing the whole first verse over again? Really strange choice. Great bass sound and fun visuals over the course of the first verse, but the second soloist didn’t quite live up to the first, particularly because her high vocals were swallowed in the group sound, particularly on the group’s repetition of their “love on top” syllables. Fun visual where the group formed a circle and separated for the original soloist to stand alone in the middle. Then came the key changes. This is an incredibly difficult part of the song to pull off, and although the crowd went wild, the key changes came off really uncharacteristically sloppy to my ear. Maybe Pitch Slapped spoiled it for me and I was just expecting too much, or maybe my ears or the acoustics of the auditorium were playing tricks on me—regardless, for me, the end result was a pretty underwhelming finish to an otherwise stellar set.
The next group out was Elizabethtown College Phalanx. The all-male group wore an array of different-solid-colored sweaters over shirts and ties for a really good, semiformal look. They opened with ”Kyrie” by Mr. Mister. Almost a chant-like sound from the group on the first verse—interesting and different. Good solo with a nice second soloist backing him up on the choruses. I would have liked to have heard or seen the guys branch out a bit more on the second verse, but they were more or less back to the same sound and positioning, which had me growing a little bored by that point. Really low energy clap-along on the finish. If you want the crowd to clap, particularly this early in the set, you really have to want it, but the guys didn’t appear energized at all in the moment. From a purely musical perspective, this was a really strong opener; it’s unfortunate the showmanship wasn’t quite there to support it.
The guys really surprised me on their second number, a choral take on “Prayer of the Children.” Very, very nice tone and blend from the guys, and some really precise dynamics and clean, precise transitions embedded in the piece. I loved the decision for the guys to stand in a simple arc for this one and let the music speak for itself. Simply beautiful second song.
Phalanx closed with Queen’s ”Don’t Stop Me Now.” Very nice intro with the soloist entrenched in a cluster of guys, and the guys reaching for him—fun and slow. Entertaining choreography from the guys throughout the chorus. The soloist was very good here, though certain parts seemed to get a little too high for him to really punch the notes. Excellent percussion. Fun effect with the guys lifting one member on the lyric “I’m a rocket ship.” The truest highlight of this song, and perhaps the whole set was a perfectly choreographed and hilarious dance breakdown with three guys who could really move tearing up the stage. One of the key reasons why that particular part and the song in general worked was that I did, genuinely, get the sense the guys were having a good time. In short: it’s more fun for the audience to listen to a group that’s having fun itself. Excellent end to the set.
Next up were The Pointercounts, an all-male group out of SUNY Potsdam, clad in their traditional baseball jerseys. Nice clean sound on the opening of Cee-Lo Green’s ”Forget You.” Some fun, suitably cheesy dance moves to match the sound. Good, if slightly prosaic solo. The visual presentation was at its best when the guys spread across the stage, moving from small clusters into one larger mass. The guys had some fun interactions on the two-man breakdown, complemented by some crowd-pleasing stop-motion choreography in the background. This was an enjoyable opener, but the song selection was a little played, and the guys didn’t offer up anything really new to justify the choice.
The guys followed up with Tenth Avenue North’s “Break Me Down.” Good solo and really good percussion on this one. While there was very little technically wrong with this performance, for the lack of dynamic variation or other creative alterations, it came across as a really literal interpretation of the song, and so kind of static until the late stages. Nice two-part lead toward the close, and a nice call for the group to fall out altogether for a false finish. Good close to an OK middle song.
The Pointercounts made the off-beat song selection of Johnny Cash’s “Ghost Riders in the Sky” to close out their set. Really fun, different bass solo, which helped make this song stand out, but was, unfortunately, low enough for the lyrics to get lost beneath the group sound for segments of the song. The guys included some fun, literal interpretations of the lyrics, including horse-riding choreography that played out really well. Strong percussion on this one. All in all, I did like this song, and The Pointercounts’ set in general, and yet I couldn’t help feeling that the guys didn’t quite earn their laughs. I have no problem with humor in an ICCA set, but it’s going to hit home the hardest when you make the audience feel other emotions leading up to it. The guys are entertainers, which is great, but I felt as though we never got to see the other dimensions to their group identity. Good set that probably should have been better with at least one high impact, serious song choice.
After intermission, Cornell’s own co-ed Class Notes kicked off the second half. The group had a formal black and white look. Cool, en medias res feel to the opening of Beyonce’s “Best Thing I Never Had.” Nice perc and bass sound. Really nice, soulful solo that carried a healthy dose of attitude. I really liked the progressive nature of the choreography here, including a moment at which the group stood in a triangle formation and the back row started a touch-step move which worked its way up the rows, to the front. Mellow, soft, cool sound from the group on the second verse, which allowed them to pop with all of their energy again on the chorus. Top to bottom, this was a slick, powerful opening song.
The Class Notes followed up with ”Set Fire To The Rain” by Adele. Nice perc and bass again, adding a tangible intensity to a soft opening. Really nice power moment as the group and solo got huge on the chorus and synched their fortissimo with some dramatic raises and drops of their arms. That’s how it’s done, kids—make the movement organic, simple, and complementary to the music. Really nice high harmonies on the chorus. The group achieved the rare result of making their performance feel like legitimately high drama, without ever giving the audience the sense that anything they did was affected. The solo was good throughout, but positively ripped on the ending for a truly spectacular performance. Super clean finish with the entire group falling out and stomping in unison to wrap it up. No doubt in my mind—this was the song of the night.
The group closed its set with Rob Thomas’s “Streetcorner Symphony.” Really fun opening as the group stood in three clusters and a group member moved from the back, wide-eyed, wandering to the front. This was fun and a nice mood changer, but it offered a lot less fire than the performances that preceded it, and so it feels like a bit of a letdown. This song can be read as a message song, particularly when its sung with some real passion, but the group seemed content to make it more of a mellow, happy-go-lucky piece. The group made the smart call to go for a clap along with the crowd to simulate the high energy, fun feel this piece probably should have had organically. It’s really unfortunate the group didn’t get there themselves. As it stood, it was good closing song to a great set; a stronger performance probably could have clinched this group a victory right then and there. As it stood, the door was still open a sliver.
Next up were The Hangovers, another Cornell group. The all-male squad wore rugby shirts and jeans. They started in two straight lines for R. Kelly’s ”Remix to Ignition” Silky solo on this one with a monster sound from the background that swelled nicely en route to the chorus. Really fun choregraphy on the “bounce, bounce,bounce” part. Strong vocal percussion. Nice background sound with some hidden “Easter eggs” of a high part. This is a tough song to bring to competition in this day and age because it’s a little dated and a little played, but it’s a song that overall hinged on the soloist’s vocals and the complete confidence in the background sound and movement, and those elements clicked. Superb transition to “Party Rock Anthem” with the second soloist plucking the mic from the first soloist’s hands, leading up to a full-on dance breakdown from the group. This looked like a party on stage, and that’s exactly how you make an instrumental interlude worth your time. Solid, fun opener.
The guys transitioned from there to Edwin McCain’s ”I’ll Be.” It’s another dicey song selection for being dated, but the group delivered a really good soloist and backing sound again. I’d probably have toned down the percussion early on to give the song more of a place to build rather than having drums all throughout. Some nice “I’ll be true” repetitions in the background as the guys shuffled positions leading into the second verse. Excellent swell of sound turning the corner into the second chorus. Good call to add a harmonizing lead on the bridge, though he had to walk off to retrieve the mic from the side of the stage, and then to return it—while he did so pretty subtly, it’s the kind of detail that can distract the audience for just a second, and make them remember they’re watching a performance rather than getting lost in what they’re seeing and hearing. Really cool moment as the guys stretched into a straight line, then fell silent, letting the soloist operate all on his own for a second, before they reentered with some serious power. Beautiful high harmonies on the close—guys groups just shouldn’t be able to hit that high, that precisely! Nicely done.
The Hangovers finished with “Little Lion Man” by Mumford and Sons. Beautifully complex sound from the group as they started. Good solo—nice stage presence . Nice three-part backing lead on the chorus. Very good dynamic variation with the group going way soft, clustering on one side, then lining up one by one on the other side of the stage, joining the soaring harmonies, ending in a V-formation for a bold, choral take on “not your fault but mine,” before they resumed their more conventional sound. Huge stomp, before the guys went choral, then left the soloist alone to sing the final line himself. The intensity was off the charts for this really emotionally provocative number. My only qualm in this performance was the guys’ decision to include the song's original lyrical profanity. Varsity Vocals markets its competitions as family friendly and the repeated F-bombs—as hard as it is to imagine this song without them—were a little uncomfortable in the context. Putting this aside, it was tremendous close to a really strong set.
University of Rochester After Hours was up next. The co-ed group took the stage in black, gray and red. Nice, energetic entrance on stage. Good, clean opening sound for David Guetta’s ”Without You.” The guys started, then the women joined in with their high part mid-way through the male lead. The female solo was absolutely stunning—sultry and textured. The group demonstrated pulsing power going into the instrumental section. Really good visuals and vocals all around as the group progressed into a V-formation. They transitioned into two lines for the second verse, when the male solo went high. Some nice theatrics between the leads—they expertly walked the line to being excessive and melodramatic, but landed on just on the right side. I would have liked to have heard a slightly more complex sound earlier in this piece, but when it got big, it was beautiful. Lovely, off-beat opener.
The group started its second song in a line at the back of the stage. The song was ”Mad World,” as performed by Gary Jules. Positively haunting opening on this one with everyone’s heads down, and a single female vocal leading the way before one of the guys joined her. Other voices gradually entered one-by-one for a really cool effect. The group wisely didn’t go too far with the gimmick, having the whole group enter with soft “ooh”s and lone male and female leads. Nice transition to the second verse with the bass entering in, adding another new dimension the song—what an excellent way to make a song evolve as it continues. The group brought the piece full circle in the end, narrowing back down to just that one, haunting soprano for the final lyrics. Beautiful, cool and innovative performance.
The group produced some booming bass and perc sounds for the intro to their closer, Britney Spears’s “Stronger.” The movement was a little cheesy here, with the group succumbing to the sort of choreography clichés they had so prudently dodged earlier. Good solo, although I thought the group, and she , in particular, could have used a little more vigor given the song selection. Pretty slick little dance solo interlude on the breakdown section, which was entertaining and showed the group’s self awareness of whom to spotlight how and when. Good, if slightly less compelling final song for a strong set.
Next up were The Cornell University Touchtones. The all-female group wore black and silver. Power intro with the soloist ripping loose on the opening of Grace Potter and the Nocturnals’ ”Paris (Ooh La La).” Slick movement in the background with lots of rearrangement and slides—all carried out with sass. Excellent percussion. Nice slowdown effect on the finish. This song played out as both sultry and strong—perfect for an all-female group of this ilk.
The group followed with “If I Die Young” by The Band Perry. Very nice, almost saccharine lead on this one. The group started chorally before grooving into a complex arrangement with good perc again. The movement was perfectly fitting with slow moves to complement the music, and keep things interesting from a visual perspective. Nice breakdown into staccato notes before a soaring high harmony. The women employed some really interesting tempo changes, including a big slow down into a false finish before they popped the true ending of the song. They would have benefited from a little more volume at that point in particular, but it was good nonetheless.
The Touchtones finished with Bruno Mars’s “Runaway Baby.” Chanting, rhythmic opening. Unfortunately, the soloist was almost completely inaudible until the group fell out—when we could hear her, she was quite good. Fun, staggered movement among clusters in the background, which slickly transitioned into an arc with the soloist standing at the fore. Nice attitude as they reprised the chanting sound from the beginning, clustered in the background for some slow motion reaching movements and slowly crept forward. The tempo picked up again from there, and the soloist kicked it up a notch on volume to help progress the story of the song. I was really impressed with the pounding bass sound the group pulled off—particularly strong for an all-female group. This was an intense closer that ended the set in the right place, further establishing what The Touchtones are all about and putting them right in contention for placement at the end of the night.
The final competing group was The Pitt Pendulms out of The University of Pittsburgh. The mixed group wore black and gray for a sleek, cool look. Very clean opening on Pink’s “F***in’ Perfect.“ Pristine sound on the first solo, and there were some nice interactions between her and the second lead on the second verse, with one echoing the other. The third lead harmonized really nicely with both of them in the late stages of the song. I didn’t care for the rap breakdown here, which came across a little too clean. Unfortunately, the group sound got pretty muddled on this one, particularly in the late stages, and I think this is a classic case of the physical movement being just excessive enough to actively distract the group from its sound. This song had some real bright spots, but was a little uneven on the whole.
The group’s second offering was Marianas Trench’s “Beside You.” The lead vocal got lost in the mass of the group sound early on in this one. The group made a wise call to go for a mellower sound on the second verse, which included the percussion dropping out. Nice use of dynamics to keep the song from growing stagnant. The movement on this song was really complex, and I was impressed with the group’s ability to execute it all, but again I found the choreography overall really excessive. The brightest moments of the physical presentation, such as the point at which members turned and stood at different angles should have been really impactful, but I’m afraid they went unnoticed by the bulk of the audience for getting lost in the sheer visual noise of the broader piece.
The Pendulums closed out the competition with T-Pain’s “Best Love Song.” It’s a real accomplishment when an a cappella group can genuinely sound like hip hop, and the group really pulled it off here, building from the foundation of two really strong leads, and nailing their dynamics. Everything really came together on this one, and while they choreographed a lot, the movement very much fit this number. As a stand-alone piece, this performance offered enough of a total package to put the group among the night’s elite. Unfortunately, the rest of the set wasn’t quite as refined or well-conceived. Nonetheless, this closer demonstrated just how much talent the group has available to it—hopefully they’ll be back in future years, and all the stronger for this year’s competition experience.
The Key Elements took back over during deliberations for a set that included “You Give Love a Bad Name, “I’ll Be Waiting,” and “Sixteen Tons.” The deliberation period also included a perc off during which Ethan from After Hours stole the show with a wildly entertaining performance that prompted the audience to declare him victorious.
As the judges tallied their scores and talked about special awards, I set to work on my own picks for the night. It was a tough competition to call. I had The Class Notes and The Hangovers duking it out for first place, and had the co-ed group edging ahead based on more innovative song selection, the all-around brilliance of their take on “Set Fire to the Rain,” and The Hangovers’ iffy decision with the f-bomb. I found third place similarly tight between The Pitches and After Hours—at their best, I thought The Pitches had a real chance at taking the whole night, but they made a few crucial missteps. After Hours was more consistent and their take on “Mad World” was the kind of performance that sticks with you long after you first hear it. In the end, I had After Hours just barely pulling ahead there. I placed Phalanx very closely behind The Pitches, and The Touchtones right after them. When it came time for the official results, the only real surprise for me was Phalanx taking second. I don’t want to diminish the guy’s accomplishment—their take on “Prayer of the Children” was inspired, and their closer was a lot of fun; I just didn’t quite think they were as semifinals-ready as the other top performers. Nonetheless, they’re a strong addition to a doozey of a semifinal roster taking shape for the Mid-Atlantic.
The Class Notes wrapped up the night with their encore performance of Sara Bareilles’ ”Many the Miles.” Lovely performance, featuring a really sterling solo. Intended or not, this was a nice journey song for a group looking ahead to the next round of competition and a potential trip to The ICCA Finals. Well-sung.
Mike Chin’s Picks for the Night
1. The Class Notes
2. The Hangovers
3. After Hours
4. The Pitches
1. The Class Notes for "Set Fire to the Rain"
2. After Hours for "Without You"
3. The Hangovers for "The Remix to Ignition"
Best Visual Presentation:
1. A Sharp Arrangement for “Rolling in the Deep”
2. Phalanx for “Don’t Stop Me Now”
3. The Pitt Pendulums for “Best Love Song”
1. After Hours for "Mad World"
2. The Pitches for "Someone Like You"/"Happy Ending"
3. The Class Notes for "Set Fire to the Rain"
Best Vocal Percussion:
1. The Class Notes
2. The Hangovers
3. The Touchtones
ICCA Official Results
1. The Class Notes
3. The Hangovers
Outstanding Soloist: The Class Notes for “Best Thing I Never Had”
Outstanding Vocal Percussion: The Class Notes
Outstanding Arrangement: After Hours
Outstanding Choreography: Phalanx