On Saturday, February 4, 2012, Boston University played host to an International Championship of Collegiate A Cappella (ICCA) Northeast quarterfinal. The show took place in a sold out Tsai Performance Center, a really pretty venue with some cool paneling illuminated in it different shades at the back of the stage.
Just before the host group took the stage, the announcement went out—no cameras allowed. Sorry folks, only the picture of the empty stage from this show.
Speaking of the host group, Boston University In Achord opened things up. They’re a co-ed group and start with Rihanna’s “Only Girl (In the World).” Fun intro with just the guys singing, and taking it on chorally in comically low voices. Soon enough ,the group spread into the traditional a cappella arc and a female soloist took the lead. Nice number to kick off the evening.
Holli Matze from Varsity Vocals offered the traditional introductions before handing over things to In Achord’s Tina and Joe as the emcees for the evening.
Emmanuel College For Good Measure was the first competing group. The all-female crew took the stage in black blazers and skirts, white tops, and pink and blue pastel-colored matching bows and sneakers—cute look. Their first number was Hall & Oates’s “You Make My Dreams.” Nice pulsing energy on the intro. The soloist did a good job of working the stage. There was a lot of choreography at play, and most of it was overtly girly. That’s OK, and can be quite effective if you’re willing to go full-tilt with it and bring the audience in (think Delilah’s take on “Heat Wave” on The Sing-Off). While these women had the right idea, the choreography came across too self-conscious to really sell the crowd on it—plus, there was enough of it that the best moments got lost in the sheer mass of visuals. Similarly, on the aural side, this song really lends itself to some monster dynamics to sell its bigger moments, but the group didn’t take full advantage of that potential, staying pretty even keel.
To their credit, For Good Measure created a really cool transition from their first to second songs, slowing down the first number dramatically at the end, and without taking a breath, sliding right into Adele’s ”Someone Like You.” The group switched through soloists over the course of the first verse before a new lead ripped the mic out of the preceding solo’s hand. This cued a dramatic shift into Katy Perry’s ”The One That Got Away.” I have mixed feelings on that transition. On one hand it really undermined audience expectations in a great way, tempting us with one song and at a key juncture taking it in another direction. It’s awesome when a group can take control of the audience’s emotions like that and pull of a legit surprise. On the other hand, when they moved on to a pretty straight forward cover of the Katy Perry song from there (never circling back around to Adele, much less mashing the songs together), it sort of made the first part of the song seem random and there for no purpose other than the element of surprise. Anyway, nice little breakdown section with some real precision on the staccato notes, and a prudent decision to match up the sound with some sharp step choreography for an impressive close to this song.
Just as the crowd seemed poised to applaud, a group member cut them off, singing the first note to the third song, Florence and the Machine’s “Shake It Out.” Neat, unique vocal on the high-pitched lead. The group kicked into gear as the tempo lifted and they had some really pretty harmonies going into the first chorus. I think the most impressive thing about this song, and the set as a whole, was the group’s talent for dramatic flair and undercutting what the audience would predict. Really cool song selection. The group put together some neat images with their stage positioning that could have been all the more impactful had it not grown a little redundant—most of the formations recurring two or three times with very little variation. That’s a relatively minor quibble. The group finished on its strongest song, wrapping up a good set.
Second up was SUNY Albany Serenditipity. The all-female group wore stylish black dresses. The group opened with ”Locked Up” by Ingrid Michaelson. Fun, staccato sound in the background of this one, and not unlike the best of For Good Measure’s choreography, they matched it up the sound well with measured, stilted step moves. As the chorus opened up, so did the movement , with sweeping motions across the stage—nice way of making the visual presentation organic to the music, which most groups overlook too often. Cool clap-stomp percussion/choreography bit. The control the group demonstrated throughout the piece earned them the right to let loose a little on the instrumental bit at the end of the song, which felt like it dragged a little, but on the positive side, gave the percussionist a nice opportunity to show off her talents.
Serendipity members turned their backs to the crowd, standing in their arc, then turned one-by-one, with some real attitude at the start of Avril Lavigne’s ”What the Hell.” I love the sass on this group. The choreography was really well managed, including the shrewd decision to only have a few of the girls carry out certain moves (just one member “going crazy” on the corresponding lyric), with more members taking part as the song moved on to show progression and keep the performance visually engaging. Very good precision of sound from the group. The group worked in a really fun sample of The Ting Tings’ ”That’s Not My Name.” In addition to fitting in melodically, and offering a humorous aside, this sample helped demonstrate just how much fun and complexity a group can weave into even the silliest pop song, to create a really interesting piece. Artful interpretation of this song.
Serendipity closed with Oasis’s "Wonderwall”. This was one of those really interesting moments when you immediately recognize the song based on the lyrics, but it takes you a minute to really place it. Serendipity handled the song mostly chorally, and really made the song its own. Lovely sound. Awesome visual, with a slow motion walk on the “all the roads we have to walk are winding” part. The perc sort of stuck out here--while the song may have grown dull without it, I get the feeling they should have cut it, used the percussionist more sparingly, or just had her go at it a bit more softly. Cool little sample of “Champagne Supernova” and a slick transition back to the original song, with a really pretty, well-blended finish. This song turned out to be a well-tied bow to top a surprising and cool gift of a set.
On to our first mixed group of the evening, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute Partial Credit. The co-ed group wore a slick combination of black and teal. They opened with a medley of songs by The Who that started with ”Behind Blue Eyes.” Nice swell of sound as the low end echoed the solo heading into the first chorus. Fun transition into ”Who Are You.” The soloist got to show some real chops with the bigger sound this song called for—in all honesty, the entire group seemed more at ease and to be having the most fun on this segment of the piece. Cutesy, but well executed little wave move as the group members formed two lines and leaned in and out in undulating fashion. The percussionist led the final transition, into ”Baba O’Reilly”. The group went for a clap-along, but the crowd seemed uncertain and ultimately did not join in. Worse yet, the crowd did not applaud after the song. I’ve seen this happen at a number of shows over the years—when the Varsity Vocals producer calls for minimal applause between songs and it gets misinterpreted to mean no applause. In a case like this, it really looked like the group was a little deflated, and robbed of some of the energy they should have had going into their second song.
The group spaced the stage, then met the first lyrics of Nightwish’s ”The Islander” with sharp turns of their heads, for a cool visual. Good solo, and an excellent effect, adding the pristine voice of the female backing solo as the song moved forward. Nice use of the mixed gender dynamic of the group, with the guys often lined up right behind the soloist to back him like a crew of fellow seamen, while the more ethereal high harmonies came from the back of the stage. I appreciate the group’s willingness to take a chance on a song like this that sounded more like a sea shanty than contemporary a cappella. The long instrumental sections and unnecessary fake out ending undercut the piece a little, creating the illusion that it dragged, even though the song wasn’t particularly long. All in all, it was a strong middle song that could have been all the better with a touch more polish and editing.
Partial Credit closed with The Red Hot Chili Peppers’ “Snow (Hey Oh).” I really like the idea of this is as an a cappella song, and there were some fine parts to it—I liked the harmony the backing solo provided the lead, and the ambition of the solo itself. While the primary soloist had the cadence to make this work, he couldn’t quite pull off the enunciation to go with it, which made him sound a little muddled and uncertain throughout—the guy was clearly more at ease, and flat out better, during the slower segments of the song. Similarly, I loved the ambition of the choreography, but the group didn’t seem sure enough of itself to really sell its moves to the crowd. This wasn’t a bad performance, and I certainly admire the group for swinging for the fences on its closer. Unfortunately, when you put all of your might into the bat, you’re bound to hit a foul ball or two. Uneven closer.
Next up, we heard from The Girls Next Door from The College of St. Rose. The women wore black and neon pink. They opened with Kansas’s ”Carry O nMy Wayward Son.” Cool visual as they started in a cluster and raised their heads as each part entered the choral opening. The group spread out into a line from there--and boy, did they ever have a move for every transition in the music. To their credit, even if it was over-choreographed, they sold all of their moves. They switched between two soloists, then went for a three-part lead on the chorus. Holy air guitars—like I said, they went for it! The three-soloist lineup stuck going into the second verse. The group attacked its vocals boldly and sounded great when they were big; the blend fell apart a little on the soft parts, as it seemed not everyone got the memo about the decrescendo. Nonetheless, this was a bold and assertive opening number.
The group formed a big cluster at center stage and used it to transition to “City” by Sara Bareilles. Nice solo, and I loved the understated nature of the percussion—keeping the beat, but softly enough to never distract from the rest of the music. My only real qualm with this one was the group’s continued insistence on choreography, including a touch-step and a synchronized snap move that did take me out of the music, losing some of the integrity of the piece. Case in point, the best part of the song, aurally and visually, had to be the final chorus when the group spread out, stood still, and focused on the music.
The Girls Next Door poured a ton of intricacy into the opening of Adele’s “Turning Tables.” It’s a real treat to hear a group offer a sound that complex and well-executed. The truest highlight of this song belonged to the soloist, though, whose unbridled intensity paid huge dividends. This is the kind of solo for which a blind person could swear the soloist was seriously wounded and deaf person could read the story of the song on the lead’s face. Excellent stuff, made all the better for the soloist’s control—restraining her sound early in the song before she ripped into the latter stages. It’s a subtle thing, but the women in the cluster standing behind her held hands—I honestly don’t know if they were doing that the whole time, or I missed the transition. Nonetheless, this was exactly the sort of subtlety of presentation I hoped for from this group all along—not throwing anything in the audience’s face, but more simply selling the emotion and furthering the metaphorical impact of the group standing behind its lead. Easily the best song of the set, and a performance strong enough to elevate The Girls Next Door right alongside Serendipity for the top group of the first half.
Following intermission, Skidmore College Drastic Measures took the stage. The co-ed group wore a fun, provocative mix of black, red, and white and kicked off their set with The Beatles’ ”Helter Skelter Nice, bold energy from everyone on stage, and particularly the soloist and vocal percussionist. The group was at its best when the sound got bigger. The choreography was a little scattershot—moments like the guy who sang the guitar part strumming his air guitar, then smashing it, were really fun but could have been used to better dramatic effect if they fit the song better. All in all, this was harmless good fun, capped off by the soloist’s unaccompanied cry of “I’ve got blisters on my fingers!”
The group followed up with "Ain’t No Sunshine” by Bill Withers. Nice soft, smooth , choral sound from the group .The solo was quite good, demonstrating a nice combination of emotion and control. Nice visual as the group built upon the “I know”s by clustering in with hands on the lead’s shoulder before he broke free for a big moment. This song was good all around, but the problem with this performance was that it didn’t serve up anything new—this is a song that’s been done a lot and if you’re going to bring it to competition in 2012, you need a bit more than an above-average solo to justify it.
The group finished its set with Simon & Garfunkel’s ”Ceceilia.” This one was really distinctive—and I mean that in the most positive way possible. For “Ain’t No Sunshine,” Drastic Measures did nothing to innovate; this send up of a classic, to the contrary, was all about doing something quirky, fun and new. The group stepped from side to side. One of the girls sang “yo,” then multiple group members joined her for the next one. A really imaginative, broken down intro followed. Choral treatment of the song from there, with lots of stomping and clapping to provide both the percussion and some really neat reaching-high-stooping-low visuals. My only qualm here is that I think the piece could have connected a little more with the crowd were a traditional soloist to have taken over after the first chorus, but it’s an artistic call, and I can’t really knock them for it. Interesting break down on the “making love in the afternoon” segment with high parts singing the lyrics first and low parts echoing. Really strong finish to the set.
Next up, we heard from The Northeastern University UniSons. Hard to believe we were up to our sixth group and this was the first all-male one. The guys wore black collared shirts, jeans, white ties and white belts. Choral opening with the vocal effects guy changing the radio dial to change up the song before settling on “Stereo Hearts” by Gym Class Hereos. Slick transition to the rap part and the rap was quite ably handled with the right cadence, clarity and swagger to make it all work. Good solo. The group demonstrated more stage presence and sheer confidence than anyone else to perform up to that point. Lots of readjustment of position without choreography per se, and lots of freestyle dancing that the guys sold like they were having fun—that’s how collegiate a cappella should look.
Next up was The Goo Goo Dolls’ "Black Balloon.” Great vulnerability from the solo in the first verse, which made it all the more impactful when he popped the end of it en route to the chorus, which led to the group sound swelling. Cool group choral echo of the solo—using the lyrics in such a fashion helps keep the background interesting, which counteracts the very real threat of losing the audience in a melancholy song like this. Some nice use of dynamics. Interesting choice for the lead to fall out so a small group of guys could take the bridge—not sure I liked that because it was a power part of the song—I would have given them part one of the verses instead for a more subtle portion to handle.
The guys wrapped up their set with medley of Muse songs: “Undisclosed Desires” and “Time is Running Out.” Nice, bold sound from group and they employed some fun, simple choreography like beating hearts in hands, and clawing on the “like demons” line. Very smooth transition to the second song, with the “Black Balloon” soloist back at the helm for another fine showing. The choreography with guys bouncing up and down was cool but not quite in synch—that’s the sort of thing you should have an objective observer watch you do before competition, and cut if you can’t pull it off. On a minor point, I really liked the guys’ willingness to challenge the front of the stage, particularly on this song. Most of the groups had stood back further, but these guys seemed completely comfortable in the audience’s collective face—compelling, and fitting for Muse songs. The solo got a little carried away toward the end—nailing the high notes then convulsing on stage—a little too consciously humorous for the context. The high part came back around moments later—they probably could have trimmed the song to just do that once and maximize the drama, but it was impressive nonetheless and offered a solid finish to a strong set.
The MIT Chorallaries hit the stage next. The co-ed group wore black and red. Sensational swell of sound on the opening—this crew just sounded fuller than anything we had up to that point. The first song was “Something to Believe In” by Parachute. This is another group that looked like it really had fun with the choreography, selling it 100 percent. The soloist worked the stage really effectively, and I loved the creative decision for him to stand off to the side and dance during the break down—it gave the rest of the group room to have the spotlight while he subtly grew progressively more spastic and had the audience back in the palm of his hand by the time he took back the lead on vocals. The group took us to church on the ending—a wrap up that would have been all the more effective had they succeeded in getting the crowd to clap along with them. Once again, the crowd just wasn’t having it.
Next up, The Chorallaries brought us “Pure Imagination” from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory Really strange song choice, and I’m pretty lukewarm on that selection. Granted, it’s distinctive, but also not the kind of song that I think many fans are really clamoring for—it’s a subjective criterion, but when you’re pulling in a vintage song, it usually only clicks if it’s the sort of song that makes people say “man, I love this song! I forgot all about it!” OK, enough on that rant. Good solo that fit well for the song and really good bass sound. Nice fullness of sound--you can pick out really interesting bits from every part as this went on.
The Chorallaries wrapped up with John Legend’s ”Shine.” This is a message song, which is one of my favorite approaches to finishing a set, but you need to bring the drama and the power to make yourself heard on this kind of piece. Good charisma on the solo, though I would have liked a bit more fire and sheer volume out of him. The choreography was more visibly plotted out on this song than the two before it. Nice bit where soloist asked for help and the group started to follow his lead. Really good crescendo on the finish, as the soloist finally ripped loose and the group finally got big. Good close to a song that probably should have been a bit more impactful.
The Olin College PowerChords took us home from the competition perspective. The emcee informed us the group represents five percent of the student body—and it sounded like at least five percent more that school sat in the audience based o the reception the group received. The co-ed group had its guys in blue collar shirts, white vests and black slacks, the ladies in black tops over blue shirts and black slacks. They opened with A-Ha’s "Take on Me.” Fun stuff. Good charisma from the soloist who nailed the high part. Solid perc. Really strange fight choreography in the background on the choruses—I really wasn’t sure what the point of that was. It was sort of funny and they synced it up well rhythmically, but it’s important to think about how your presentation matches the song itself and the broader message of the music. The soloist looked at the crowd and dared them to clap along—and lo and behold, it worked! I guess needed that overt nudge. Fun, soft break down on the finish, spotlighting the basses.
Next up, we heard Bonnie Raitt’s ”I Can’t Make You Love Me. Nice emotion on the solo. Lots of conducting on stage, which I don’t hate as much as a lot of people, but it doesn’t look great next to a bunch of other groups who didn’t use it. The basses were a little overpowering—especially noticeable because their part didn’t have a lot of variation to it. Nice call for the group to drop out at points to let the emotion of the song sink in. Good facials from many of the group members—visually, that is a difference maker.
The PowerChords wrapped up with a mashup of Jessie J’s ”Price Tag” and ”Where is the Love” by The Black-Eyed Peas. Let’s start with the good news—I love the concept of this mashup. You take two hip songs that are all about positivity and construct some really fluid transitions between the two. Great idea. The problem here is that the group lacked some of the key talents necessary to really pull off the sound they were aiming for. Some people who followed The ACB coverage of season three of The Sing-Off misunderstood me and thought I didn’t like rap in a cappella. Couldn’t be farther from the truth. The thing is, I hold that rap only works in a cappella when the rap is good and the music holds up. As good as their rapper was, and as good as the group may have been in an everyday context, Urban Method didn’t deliver the music to a Sing-Off quality level (in my humble opinion). The PowerChords were very brave to attempt this piece, but, I’m sorry, the rappers (with the possible exception of the lone female rapper) just didn’t have what it took to make this a viable choice as a competition piece. Putting that aside, I really did appreciate the group’s energy and ambition. With a few different pieces to the puzzle, or putting their considerable arranging skills to a piece better-suited to the members’ talents, this group could have something really special. As it stood, I wasn’t feeling this closer.
In Achord entertained the crowd for the deliberation period. Nice set, including “How You Love Me Now,” “Gimme Sympathy,” “Mr. Brightside,” “Some Hearts,” “Inside Out,” and “I Should Have Been After You.” The set didn’t quite give the judges enough time, so we transitioned to a “perc off” beatboxing competition which the The PowerChords guys won with their really entertaining dubstep routine.
As In Achord sang, I worked on my personal picks for the show. Really tough race for first place. The Chorallaries’set structure had the feel of a winner, but I just couldn’t help feeling that they never realized the full potential they hinted at in their opening song. It was a solid set, just not as epic as it felt at first blush. The UniSons had almost the opposite problem, not taking their song selection quite seriously enough, but quite arguably over-achieving at every turn to arrive at a really solid set. They also really benefited from not having other all-male acts to compare them to. The Girls Next Door set was a little uneven and over-choreographed, but when they delivered, they scored with a slam dunk, rocking every piece of “Turning Tables.” And then there’s Serendipity, which didn’t have quite the firepower of the other contenders, but nonetheless demonstrated a real intelligence in how they put together each song and the broader set. With all of that said, I gave Serendipity the duke and had The Chorallaries eeking out second place.
Girls Next Door took the victory. I thought it was really close, so I can’t really argue the point—no injustices here. Their encore song was Maroon 5’s “Misery.” Fine finish to a solid quarterfinal.
Mike Chin’s Picks for the Night
2. The Chorallaries
3. The Girls Next Door
1. The Girls Next door for “Turning Tables”
2. The UniSons for “Black Balloon”
3. For Good Measure for “Shake It Out”
1. Serendipity for “Wonderwall”
2. The Girls Next Door for "Turning Tables"
3. Drastic Measures For “Cecilia”
1. The Chorallaries for “Something to Believe In”
2. Serendipity for “Locked Up”
3. Drastic Measures for “Cecelia”
Best Vocal Percussion
1. Chorallaries for “Something to Believe In”
2. Drastic Measures for “Helter Skelter”
3. The PowerChords for “Take On Me”
ICCA Official Results
1. The Girls Next Door
2. The Chorallaries
Outstanding Soloist: Girls Next Door for “Turning Tables”
Outstanding Choreography: Serendipity for the full set