This week we present UCD Lark performing “Mad Hatter.”
This week we present UCD Lark performing “Mad Hatter.”
The A Cappella Blog is a proud supporters of this aca-event coming to San Diego this fall!
Yes, this again.
Before Pitch Perfect or Sing It On, there was The Sing-Off, that quirky little reality series that could. It started as a four-episode holiday special and grew until it got a full fall run on season three, before receding to a single episode in its fifth and final run to date.
TV’s driven by dollars and cents, and particularly so at the major network level. NBC can’t, and shouldn’t be in the business of catering to a niche audience. But with a third film in the Pitch Perfect franchise on the way, with Sing It On gathering steam on not only Pop TV, but via Netflix, might there be more than meets the eye to a property like The Sing-Off?
We live in an age of the spectacle. When now, more than ever, people without professional training film themselves doing things with the potential for their content to go viral. A cappella is a form tailor fit to this era, for the sheer spectacle of everyday people doing amazing, innovative, often beautiful things with only the human body at their disposal. A cappella works on YouTube. It can work on network TV, too, with the opportunity to spotlight a variety of groups (as the show has done in the past!) and for fans to relive the greatest moments on NBC.com or YouTube (even with a revenue-generating ad or two buffering each performance).
And what of ratings? The Sing-Off may never have been and may never be a ratings monster for NBC, but it has had a tendency to over-perform, consistently drawing over eight million viewers per episode in its peak second season, and even pulling five million for its not-particularly-well-publicized, single-episode fifth iteration. No, the numbers did not work out so well for season three, when the show had to contend with regular network programming and the eleven episodes tested the average viewer's attention span, and I’m not asking for another half-season run. But a five-ish episode miniseries? The show has proven itself to thrive in this format.
Also, if you’re going to get hung up on the relative failure of the third season, which only averaged only about four-and-a-half million viewers, let’s not forget the long term effects of that season. The winners? A little ensemble known as Pentatonix that has transcended the genre, winning multiple Grammy awards, garnering well over a billion YouTube views (with over ten million subscribers). NBC is a part of that story. Wouldn’t you like to be part of another?
I won’t deny my personal stake in The Sing-Off. I found it wildly entertaining, and, full disclosure, it widened the audience for my blog. But I think there are a lot of other aca-fans out there, ready to tune into this show, and perhaps more importantly than that, millions more who aren’t into a cappella yet, whom you can be responsible for bringing on board as you bring them into watching your network.
So give it some thought. K?
Seanote is a five-member post-collegiate group based out of Seattle, that spun out of University of Washington groups Furmata and Awaaz. After a promising debut album, Vocal Static, the group is back with its new release, Transitions.
Right off the bat, the album demonstrated the group’s attention to detail and consideration of how an album as a whole comes across. The choice to kick things off with Ariana Grande’s “Focus” was really shrewd for its grabbing, offbeat intro that compels the listener to—well, focus. In an era when so many of us listen to music absently while multi-tasking, “Focus” compels the listener to zero in on the music. A jazzy instrumentation at the end of the track further commands our attention for a strong opening to the album.
I really enjoyed the transition to Zar Larsson’s “Carry You Home,” a track with featured excellent vocal percussion that eased the song into a groove and some really fine solo work. I was a bit worried when I saw the next track “Ordinary People” on the track listing—a song that’s already been covered extensively and that’s refrain of “This time we’ll take it slow” I’ve had bore me to tears in more than one live performance. Fortunately, Seanote was up to the challenge in this case, pushing the tempo at key moments, and having two soloists interact over the track to keep the song fresh, interesting, and moving. “This Is What You Came For,” originally performed by Calvin Harris, featuring Rihanna, represented similar creative strengths for a nicely subdued intro, into a more complex, up-tempo sound. I really liked the production choices on that track, too, to infuse just the right level of an electronic sound to fit the song, while not compromising the more purist a cappella sound the group leaned into for the full album.
The “Interlude” on track five of the album proved to be one of my favorite choices on the recording. While it doesn’t hold up as a stand-alone track, it was a nice palate cleanser and transition between sections of the album. Too often, a cappella albums sound as though groups just threw together a bunch of songs they’d been singing recently, but a track like this demonstrates wonderful care in thinking about the overarching listening experience, and inviting an audience to listen to an album as one holistic piece. The interlude was particularly effective on the transition to Shawn Mendes’s “Stitches” with a wonderfully creepy, static-y whispered intro, a nice handling of the rap interlude, and really cool sound on the outro, with a soprano overlaying the group sound.
While the tracks to follow, “Let It Go,” originally by James Bay and A-Tran’s “Fatal Disease” were handled nicely, they were relatively straightforward takes on popular songs that left me wanting a bit more to make the songs distinctively Seanote’s. A cover of “I Choose You” by Sara Bareilles risked falling into a similar trap, but I appreciated the choice to insert a male soloist on the bridge to mix up the sound and lend a metaphorical sense of two halves a whole relationship coming together on it. My only knock on that track was that the rhythm section felt a bit too present on it, threatening to overwhelm the sweet song.
In the latter stages of the album, Shaeer Aftab’s “Take It For Granted” came at just the right time for the rap to really mix up the sound and I appreciated the stripped down nature of the track. Unfortunately, Fall Out Boy’s “Centuries” felt like a bit of a letdown after that. While the group’s handling of the song was certainly competent, it’s a song choice we’ve all heard so many times in a cappella at this point. In principle, the choice to do a softer, slower take on the song seems interesting, but I felt the choice ultimately robbed the song of some of the fire power it could have used to justify its placement on the album.
Seanote ultimately saved some of its best work for last though, with a mashup of Rachel Platten’s “Fight Song” and Katy Perry’s “Roar.” At first, I was a little underwhelmed with the choice for this one to start so slow as well, but Seanote knew exactly what it was doing in executing this fine arrangement by Lucy Liu and Michael Kibbe, as the soft slow beginnings offered plenty of room to grow, and a particularly electric moment as things picked up on the “my power’s turned on” lyric from “Fight Song.” While I’d argue that this one could have popped a bit sooner, the payoff was nonetheless impressive, and the track finished in truly excellent fashion as the two songs came together.
To nitpick, I think this album may well have been stronger were the group to have weeded out one-to-three of the of its less memorable tracks. Nonetheless, I really appreciated the overall architecture of the album from its well thought out beginning, to the shrewdly applied interlude, to mixing the tempo and style at just the right times en route to an excellent finish. Transitions is available now.
This past Sunday, Carnegie Hall in New York played host to the third annual Total Vocal, a celebration of a cappella. Total Vocal host and all around a cappella guru/sensation/godfather Deke Sharon was kind enough to share some thoughts with The A Cappella Blog. We'll have a write-up of the show available, via contributor Irene Droney, in the near future.
(Note: interview questions were sent shortly before Total Vocal occurred, and answered shortly afterward.)
The A Cappella Blog: Say someone is attending Distinguished Concerts International New York (DCINY)'s Total Vocal as their first live a cappella experience. What can they expect from the show? What might surprise them? What should they know going in?
Deke Sharon: I think most people sign up because they’d like a chance to work with me and perform at Carnegie. What they don’t realize is that they leave having changed people’s lives (I am currently being inundated with requests from audience members who now want to join groups) and having made friends around the world. The connections they make between groups and with the audience leave them changed, with a greater understanding of the power of vocal harmony. Moreover, many have had experiences competing, and this is in many ways the exact opposite: they work together, and they all win!
The A Cappella Blog: How were the groups performing in Total Vocal selected by DCINY? What kind of preparation went into bringing them all together for this massive undertaking?
Deke Sharon: We would love to have everyone and anyone on the Carnegie Hall stage singing together, but to keep it a great experience for all groups, and to ensure a fantastic show for each year’s sold out audience (only a small fraction of the 2,800 attendees are family or friends), we need to ensure that these a cappella groups will be able to handle the hour’s worth of my contemporary a cappella arrangements.
DCINY does a fantastic job reaching out to groups around the globe, resulting in singers from over a dozen countries this year, with ages ranging from 11 to Sixtysomething. This almost never happens on stage, and the resulting experience for the audience beyond the music is a powerful statement about a wide range of very different people coming together to create something special. We need that message right now.
The A Cappella Blog: Which groups or acts at Total Vocal do you think might most surprise the audience, and why?
Deke Sharon: Each year it’s different. The audience is usually unprepared for the incredible talent found in so many of our young singers, which is why I am always certain to include a couple of songs with many different soloists. In addition I like to feature different groups from around the world. This year Shemesh Quartet from Mexico brought down the house with a clever medley of popular songs in Spanish.
The A Cappella Blog: Total Vocal is happening during a very busy month for a cappella, sharing the same weekend as the Boston Sings festival and the International Championship of both Collegiate and High School A Cappella finals. What’s unique about Total Vocal? What will attendees experience at this show that’s different from other a cappella experiences?
Deke Sharon: I don’t want to take away anything from those other great events, but this is a celebration without any competition whatsoever. The focus is on impressing the audience, not judges. And the audience is much larger for this. Plus the singers get to work with singers from around the world as well as celebrities and other special guests, sing in different configurations, and by the end feel the power of getting the audience clapping, then dancing, then singing along on their feet: 3,200 voices raised in song. It’s an unbelievable experience.
The A Cappella Blog: You’ve been a key figure in so many a cappella endeavors, and particularly in the explosion of a cappella this past decade, including TV, movie, and Broadway ventures, traveling abroad, and performing yourself. Would you be willing to share one or two of you most surprising, wacky, or memorable experiences or discoveries related to your work in a cappella in recent years?
Deke Sharon: The first thing that pops into my mind is that contemporary a cappella is the best training ground for young singers. I can neither confirm nor deny that the kinds of songs we have high schoolers and college singers singing regularly bring tears to the eyes of actresses and Broadway stars when they first try to learn them (OK, I can confirm: they do!), so when graduating they are prepared to sing in any group, band, choir, etc. Their ears and voices are fine tuned and sensitive to small adjustments in pitch, blend, increasing or decreasing vibrato, etc. We have hundreds of thousands of young singers who are growing up with this kind of dense, complex harmony and taking it for granted, and as a result the next generation of singers is going to be better prepared than ever before.
This week we present The Washington University Stereotypes performing Journey’s “Any Way You Want It.”