A Cappella. No Instruments. So What?! (The Finale)

Ok, so this is the finale on this thread- I swear! But since I didn’t really get to finish my thoughts about this previously, I wanted to explain a few other ideas as to what can make an a cappella cover worth listening to, if not better than, the original.

As I discussed in the last post, a reinvention of a song can make the a cappella cover more appealing than the original.  The reinvention or reimagination of the song need not be as dramatic as Sonos’ version of I Want You Back, but I think generally that the more it departs from the original, the stronger the draw of the cover.

Another way in which a cappella covers can be compelling is probably the most obvious, which is essentially shock value. When a group takes a song from a genre such as rock, R&B, or even club or trance, and attempts to perform it with all vocals, there is that first moment of “wow, I would never have thought of this song a cappella.”  Sometimes, that’s all you get out of it– an initial surprise or jolt, followed by disinterest. The cover will typically need more to keep this song interesting, and that’s where the hooks come in.

Almost ten years ago, I was working in a small recording studio on Long Island which occasionally drew in clients who REALLY understood commercial music. One such client was a guy named Eddie Martinez, a longtime session guitarist and occasional producer who had actually played on some bigtime hit recordings (Robert Palmer- Addicted to Love?! Run DMC? Mick Jagger?)

So Mr. Martinez was hired to produce a local songwriter’s demo, and we spent a few days in the studio with him. At one point, we got to talking about what makes a pop song commercially successful. His theory is something I have thought about a lot in my efforts to write my own music and to dissect what it is I like about a song (a cappella or otherwise). The theory was that any real TRUE pop hit, such as every major famous pop song of the past 40 years, has to have at least 4 “hooks.” He defined a hook as something which could stick in your head for hours or days, something in the song which keeps you coming back again and again. He noted that the most common hooks in pop music are the vocals in the chorus, but said that one hook alone was rarely if ever enough to make a song a classic. It could be a guitar or keyboard solo, it could be the backbeat, it could be the production…but every major pop hit has a few such hooks. Even if you didn’t realize it when you think of a song you love, he said, you probably love it for a few hooks. He challenged us to go listen to our favorite songs, or at least our favorite hits, to test the theory. I have no idea if he created this theory, if it is a piece of ancient A&R wisdom, or what, but it turns out to be true most of the time.

I don’t know if I agree that every such song must have 4 hooks, but I do think they all must have more than 2 or 3.

I have used these criteria since then to assess music I like, including (and relevant hereto) a cappella music. And I think that part of what can make an a cappella cover compelling when compared against the original is the use of hooks. In a cappella music, you get a chance to create an all new arrangement of a song, and any good arrangement has layers, texture, and motion (for examples, see almost any of Tom Anderson’s arrangements, including those featured all over the On the Rocks album “A Fifth”). In fact, within the arrangement, there are a number of potential hooks including changed chords, rhythms, modulations, mashups, and creative voicings.

Other hooks which can make an a cappella song unique come in the actual mimicry of the human voice; some out-of-this-world vocal percussion, for example, can most definitely draw you in (in the House Jacks’ version of Led Zeppelin’s Kashmir, the vocal drumming blew my head off when I first heard it- I must have listened 50 times to hear the double-kick pounding away) or absurd vocal horns (see the album Speakeasy by Cadence- unreal trumpets and trombones!).

Increasingly, production can itself be a hook. I don’t think there is much question if you listen to a college a cappella song from when I was singing (’97-’01) and then listen to the latest Beelzebubs track, you are far more likely to be drawn in by the production on the latter. In fact, that production, whether it be reverb, effects processing, EQ, or just the smoothness, might be your musical drug of addiction.

And, of course, there is the solo. When you have nothing but voices, it is all the more amazing when a solo voice is so spectacular that it formulates such a hook.

So, while it is true that any artist covering another’s song has to differentiate his version with creativity and interpretation, I think the human voice and a cappella in particular offers a wider palette of options for creating these hooks.

I think that a cappella groups looking to cover other artists should embrace this theory, as it will be the most likely way to ensure that the average listener hears the song and says “wow, I really like this. I think I’ll listen again instead of listening to the original.”