20/20 A Cappella is a still-new all-male quintet based out of Ellensburg, Washington, and they just released their EP,titled, Cover Art. On listening to the album, I was struck by its bold overarching aesthetic. This is not an explosive album, or one that seeks to infuse rap or dubstep interludes, but rather a mature effort that comfortably situates itself in a mellow space of musical ease—soft, inviting, and a pleasure to listen to.
The group really hits its stride when the music is softest, sweetest, and most emotionally vulnerable. Their cover of Sam Smith’s “Lay Me Down” comes across as completely earnest, built on brilliant harmonization. Similarly, Ed Sheeran’s “I’m A Mess” proves to be a particularly bright spot, for starting on a simple clean solo over a stripped down track before the guys nicely complicated the instrumentation and arrived at a fuller sound.
Tracks like, Fall Out Boy’s “Sugar, We’re Going Down” and One Direction’s “Story of My Life” similarly capitalize on the group’s strengths, taking more raucous, upbeat numbers and adding a dimension of delicacy, even a twinge of sadness to what easily could have been less heart-felt work (besides featuring particularly good solo work).
The closing tracks, Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off,” and before that, Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy.” Each start on a slowed down, subdued, borderline jazzy take on the song. “Crazy” samples another song before returning to its slowed down groove, while “Shake It Off”—suitably, as the final track, final speeds into a more straightforward take on the original track. While I’d argue that these songs would be better off spaced out on the album so the originality of what the group is doing could stand out more in contrast to tracks doing other things, they’re nonetheless very solid, innovative covers.
If I were to articulate just one complaint about Cover Art, it would have to be song selection. “I’ll Cover You” from Rent was an odd pick, though arguably just dated enough to feel like a fun retro pick. “Crazy,” “Sugar, We’re Going Down,” and Gavin Degraw’s “I’m in Love With a Girl” all felt both dated and already quite over-exposed in a cappella circles, and thus strange picks for an EP released in 2016. I did appreciate the fresh takes the group had on these songs—as the album title calls attention to, literally creating art out of their cover songs, but I’d be interested to hear these guys apply their same creativity and sound fundamentals to some fresher material.
All in all, Cover Art is an easy, enjoyable listen by a skilled young group, with some nice production work from George Wiederkehr and there’s little reason not to check it out given that the group is streaming the album for free on Spotify (though you can also pay what you like at Loudr, or a fixed price on iTunes).