Overdone, or Cooked to Perfection?

mmm…..steak reference….

mmm…..Simpsons digression….

Anyway, if you listen to a fair amount of a cappella (and I do), you are likely to hear certain songs over and over (and over) again. These songs tend to trail pop radio by somewhere between 2 months and 2 years, and while there is nothing wrong with cooking up a current pop hit for your group, you might want to think carefully before you do so.

First of all, if you are a college group and you plan to record an album or EP at some point, every song you select will most certainly be compared with any and all other college renditions of that song out there. Second, if it is a song that everyone in the audience has heard 5 times a day or week for months, there are 2 possibilities which are otherwise inapplicable to your songs: (1) they are sick of the song; or (2) they don’t think your version can compete with the original.

Now, I’m going to be writing a longer post about song selection in the next week or two, so I’ll save my lengthier analysis for that post. However, I was listening to a mix of tracks on my iPod this morning, and I had a few thoughts about some songs which are surely overdone in the past year or two, yet the particular renditions not only kept my attention but have me hitting repeat frequently.

The two songs I heard today are both on albums which have been nominated for 2012 CARA (Contemporary A Cappella Recording Award) Pop/Rock Album of the Year. Both albums, incidentally, feature all cover tunes, though the selections are quite different.

Redline– this Contemporary A cappella League (CAL) group from Boston released their debut album, “Inbound,” on 11/11/11, and they are (to my knowledge) the first CAL group to get a nomination for the best Pop/Rock Album CARA. Unlike MO5AIC, these guys released a full-length album which features covers ranging from the Blues Brothers to Taio Cruz to Rufus Wainwright. While I can’t say that every track is as innovative or compelling as the song I am about to discuss, the arrangements are generally very solid and the production and singing are definitely a cut above most.

The song which stands out to me is “Just the Way You Are” by Bruno Mars, a track which is currently being covered by nearly 108% of all male collegiate groups out there. Now, the original is a perfectly fine little piece of bubble-gum pop, with a rhythmic beat that starts syncopated, moves to a standard four-on-the-floor in the chorus, and then returns. I mention this because I think the drums are a prominent part of the original, giving it a driving force through the last chorus when it drops out for contrast.

There are a number of creative choices which Redline make in their interpretation of the song, but a big one is the downplay of that driving beat. In a contemporary recording, this is a bold decision, particularly from a group which is clearly capable of hitting the right groove and driving the song with it (see “Break Anotha” and “Shake It” off the same album).

But this is not really what draws me to this cover. I suspect they chose to downplay the beat in order to emphasize the clever arrangement, which incorporates “Every Breath You Take” by the Police as almost a foil for “Just the Way You Are.” Let me delve a little deeper.

While the original “Just the Way You Are” features piano arpeggios throughout the song, Redline starts their version off with a slightly different arpeggio- perhaps one of the most famous arpeggios in all of pop/rock music. If you didn’t look at the tracklist, you would very possibly be fooled into thinking they are singing “Every Breath You Take,” a song which is frequently misinterpreted– one which is not really a love song in the traditional sense, but rather an obsessive stalker’s view of love. Here, though, Redline go right into the sincere, somewhat sappy lyrics from “Just the Way You Are.”

Rather than bringing in that driving beat immediately, they let the arpeggios drive the song through the first verse and chorus. And then, right at the end of that first sweet chorus, a voice drops in “I’ll be watching you”. The second verse begins with a lighter, yet still fluid beat which picks up the momentum from the arpeggios which have now disappeared. As the song hits the second chorus, all of the backs shift to the outro refrain from “Every Breath You Take” while the solo continues with the chorus from “Just the Way You Are.” And then, at the end of the first half of that chorus, a quick chiming reference to the belltones from Billy Joel’s “Just the Way You Are.”

After that chorus, they reverse the roles; a (presumably different) soloist sings the solo from “Every Breath You Take” while the backs mirror the modified third chorus from “Just the Way You Are” with the high solo in the background. Then, out of nowhere, a third song enters the mix: a solid reference to Journey’s “Faithfully” mashed right in there, followed by a final refrain.

Look, this is what arranging should be: thoughtful, engaging, and also appropriate for your group. These guys aren’t a full-time group, who knows how much rehearsal time they get together, how much experience they have individually, and so on, but the real key here is: it doesn’t matter. The performance here from top to bottom is clean, pure, and sincere, as is the production.

I don’t know if the arrangement intended to add the layer of irony, satire, or anything else which I take from mixing these two songs together thematically, or if it it was taking “Every Breath You Take” at face value and simply using it as a compatible love song, but these songs work together either way in a smart arrangement like this.

I guess I should say thanks to Redline for taking a song I never wanted to hear again and giving me something I can dig into repeatedly.

(*NOTE: this song was selected for and is featured on Voices Only Forte, a compilation of non-scholastic a cappella tracks which you should buy right now, right here.)

MO5AIC– In their first recording project since former House Jacks Roopak Ahuja and Jake Moulton joined, these guys released a 5-song EP which contains 5 of the most frequently-covered tunes in the contemporary a cappella world, both from the past year (“Firework” and “Closer”) and the past 20 years (“Superstition”). I will admit- when I first saw the tracklist, I thought “Oh my goodness, 5 songs I never wanted to hear again!” Nevertheless, MO5AIC managed to make each one interesting in its own way.

The song which I enjoy most is Ne-Yo’s “Closer,” a song which I could otherwise go approximately 1,200 years without hearing again. In the past 24 months, I feel reasonably confident that more than 30 versions of this song have popped up in a cappella-land. Some were pretty good, including two different versions nominated for 2011 CARA’s (Duke Out of the Blue and Ithacappella, both good in different ways). Many others were… let’s say “less good.”

So, why does the MO5AIC version sit in a top position on my most recent a cappella playlist? A smart, hook-filled arrangement which is consistently building and shifting gears. The song starts sparse, with snaps instead of VP, and a Take 6, early-90’s R&B vibe infused with some choice colorful chords which are new to this version. After the beat drops in the first pre-chorus, the song alternates between some riffs which are truer to the original and a few hooks which diverge from it. In the second verse, things shift again, with a new textural approach to the backing parts. The bridge is executed with a strong breakdown, starting with lead and bass and building new hooks on top of it, and the chorus coming out of it involves a full-press, four-on-the-floor beat which has felt inevitable (and necessary) since the second verse.

It’s a smart arrangement which never gets static despite the incredibly-repetitive nature of the chorus. In fact, for a song which relies on such a singularly-repetitive phrase, MO5AIC find new ways every 10-15 seconds to keep you from skipping the song. This is precisely the type of thing which can not only save, but transform a song which has been overdone to the point of banishment.

So, while I never would have thought I’d be saying this, thanks MO5AIC for bringing this song back into my life.

Ok, so these were 2 examples of overdone songs converted to great effect. There are some other, less recent examples which fit a different category of a cappella: total reinvention of the original. I have talked about a few of these songs before, but the ones I love the most include the Stanford Harmonics haunting version of “The Sound of Silence,”  the intense (and stalkerish) cover of “I Want You Back” by Sonos, and the jazzy, sinewy, sexy (but in a different way) version of “Toxic” offered by Overboard as part of their Free Track Tuesday series (and featured on Sing 8: Too Cubed).

What do you think? What is the best way to reinterpret a song which has been overdone to the point of exhaustion?

BY THE WAY, I am including links to these various songs for illustrative purposes, but… YOU SHOULD BUY THEM ALL ON iTUNES, AMAZON MP3, OR ANYWHERE ELSE YOU CAN PURCHASE THEM LEGALLY. NOW. GO.

What do you think?