The Past Is Prologue

Contemporary a cappella in the United States is a fairly recent phenomenon. Heck, even if we didn’t have “contemporary” in the name, it would still be only a few hundred years old. But as we commonly refer to it, we can probably limit things to the last century or less. If we talk about the history and origins of most of today’s aca-groups, the history is even shorter: a group that has been around for 40 years is considered an elder in the genre.

So why don’t some groups know their history better?

This feature was highlighted to me recently after a couple of separate incidents occurred here at Acaville. At the station, we like to play a range of contemporary a cappella, from the earlier days to today, and we played a pretty recent collegiate song (maybe 2010), only to get a tweet from the soloist expressing amazement that we played a song that was so old – something he did four or five LOOOONG years earlier. It seemed like an amusing anomaly.

But as I have been interviewing collegiate and high school a cappella groups for our Competition Countdown show, I often ask them some basic questions about their groups’ history. And I’ve been amazed at how often they stumble on the answers. Sometimes these stammers are on basic points like…when the group was formed!

History is so critical to a group’s culture. The core of history is, after all, story – the story of how the group developed and came to be. It is a shared experience over time, and it’s an experience unique to the group. In those ways, it’s like a great song, but by only knowing about the last year or two, it’s as though you know the chorus but none of the verses. It might be satisfying to sing in the short term, but it lacks the meaning of the build-up.

Most groups have occasional alumni concerts or feature a list of their alumni on their website. Many even put a brief historical blurb on their site that list occasional accomplishments. But how many of the group members have internalized that history?

And what about the less-impressive times — the years when the group didn’t make it to competition or couldn’t pull it together to do any recording or did only watered-down arrangements? Those are part of history, too, and are as important as the triumphant years. Almost every group (and almost every person) has a journey of peaks and valleys, and without the valleys, the peaks look like mere molehills. It’s context.

History can be a rallying point. Maintain the excellence of the recent past, stem the downward slide, continue the rebuilding process – wherever the group is in their evolution. But how can you do that if nobody sees the bigger picture? If nobody knows the origin story, the early period, the middle years – the path to today?

History can also be a guide to the future. The challenges of maintaining forward momentum in a group are rarely unique, and groups that have been around a while have probably faced them before. So how did they get handled? Are there lessons from the past? And since most groups are still pretty young, you could even reach out to the leadership from that era and find out firsthand.

I’m no Doris Kearns Goodwin. But it seems that if more groups took a greater interest in their history, they could be more confident in their future.

Blue Jupiter Has Serious Skills

Two weeks ago, I finally got a chance to see Blue Jupiter perform and I left with one overwhelming thought: THAT was a professional performance.

It was fun, energetic, and polished. It felt like a variation on the well-established, very successful formula employed by Rockapella. I know, there are those in the a cappella community who don’t want to talk about Rockapella anymore, and I can understand that. After seeing them perform more than 15 times between 1998 and maybe 2006, even opening for them with my Potsdam Pointercounts in 2000, I reached that point. I felt like I had seen everything Rockapella had to offer, and was ready to move on for new, different groups. That being said, Rockapella is a very successful touring group because they hit a number of different check-mark boxes in every performance, regardless of the venue or the audience.  What they do works for a large swath of America (not to mention Japan and other parts of the world where they are popular) and an equally large range of age groups.

In the years since I wandered away from Rockapella, I had seen only one group hit many if not all of the same successful performance techniques: The Swingles.  My love for their performances is well-documented on Twitter and probably throughout this blog as well, but I’ll just point out that they are immensely talented performers who are comfortable singing a broad range of often difficult repertoire and engaging an audience with equal success.

Take 6 hit many of the same marks when I saw them at The Blue Note, but I did feel that they lost me on some of the songs because they do a particular genre of music especially well, and may not appeal with the same efficacy to every audience member. I adore Pentatonix, and was really impressed with their concert in 2013, but they are clearly aiming for the under 50 crowd with all the lights and heavy bass. Their show is a different animal altogether. The same goes for Duwende, MICappella, and Postyr, among other favorites. I enjoy seeing all of these groups perform, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they hit on that broad appeal like Rockapella and The Swingles.

Then came Blue Jupiter.

You ever see a local theater production, where everyone on stage knows their lines and hits their marks, but you’re just not immersed until one individual walks onto the stage and just takes over the room? And immediately, you think “Oh, this is it. This is something different.” The same is true when you go to see a serious rock band and they come on after 2 or 3 less experienced opening acts.  They get on the stage with presence and purpose and immediately set the tone for the evening.

Here are the various keys to a successful, broad, professional performance, as exhibited by Blue Jupiter in Garden City, New York in mid-November.

First, Blue Jupiter jumped on stage and began singing background parts while…

1) introducing the band, each member taking a little flourish or solo upon being introduced. Yes, I’ve seen many groups do this kind of thing, but they often wait until late in the set or even a few songs in. I enjoyed the fast introduction, even though I know about each member of the group. They mixed in some humor, particularly with Mr. Minkoff’s introduction of lone female singer Diana Preisler (“You may know her from the streets of New York City…er…”).

And just like that, they were familiar. They were friendly, funny, and relatable. This was enhanced by the fact that…

2) they were smilingengaging each other and the audience at the same time. This sounds like an unimportant detail, but I assure you- it has a significant impact on the audience. I looked around and saw people smiling with them, and that is yet another way Blue Jupiter connected with their audience. I have performed in many different places, from street corners and plazas to concert halls, and I readily admit that smiling while singing was often more difficult than singing the notes for me. It seems like it should be easy, but when I think about many of the groups I have seen over the years, I realize that I was not alone with this obstacle.

As Blue Jupiter moved through their set, it also became clear that they would not have any problem with… Continue reading…

The Return of The Sing Off and Instruments (and Both)

If it seems like we’ve been gone awhile, you’re not wrong.

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I’ve been planning a post for awhile now on a growing trend in the a cappella community which may seem counter-intuitive: vocal music with instruments. The inspiration for such a post was the release in the past year of two albums from American professional vocal bands which contained actual instruments, not voices produced to simulate instruments. The Exchange and The Edge Effect released albums months apart which were similar in several regards, the most notable of which was the fact that neither was technically “a cappella.”

An interesting thing happened before I was able to publish this post. THIS website was updated

http://www.singoffcasting.com/

The most notable detail contained in the audition notice: “instruments and backing tracks are allowed but not required.”

Deke Sharon confirmed on Facebook in the comments section of the CASA group page post that the show will allow both options this year.

It is possible, if not likely, that some in the a cappella community will react negatively.  I wanted to take a closer look at the issue, so here we go.

First, let’s take a look at a cappella groups such as The Exchange and The Edge Effect offering albums with instruments. Both groups/bands have rich a cappella origins, with the former comprised of all contestants or staff from The Sing Off many of whom have been recognized for their prior experiences with a cappella groups. The Edge Effect too features singers with significant a cappella experience, including former members of Mosaic Troy Dolendo, Sean Gerrity, and John Gibson. So, both groups have a cappella credentials. They have also both put out prior recordings and/or videos of purely a cappella music.

Now, both groups seem to be mainstreaming their sound and approach a little, and it is difficult to blame them. With The Exchange, they’ve spent a significant amount of time in Europe and Asia over the past 12 months, and even opened for the Backstreet Boys on tour. They have over 1 million views on YouTube, which is pretty impressive for any a cappella group (or vocal band) not named Pentatonix.

The groups have taken slightly different approaches to the use of instrumentation on their recent albums.  With “Alphabet Radio,” The Edge Effect has essentially created a classic old-school R&B album, complete with real horns, guitars, keyboards, etc.   It’s tight, crunchy, funky. It’s not, however, a cappella. With “The Good Fight,” The Exchange has a more modern, pop-infused sound, as might be expected with producer and songwriter Tat Tong on board. It’s slick, catchy, and also not a cappella.

A few years back, a cappella groups began to experiment with inserting a keyboard or some other instrument occasionally, and the fellas at Mouth Off (including Christopher Diaz, now of The Exchange) discussed the potential ramifications. Things have evolved since then, with groups like Postyr using strings, electronics and other instruments more frequently.  When I interviewed Tine Fris of the group prior to the 2013 Boston Sings festival, I asked her whether she felt the use of instruments lessened their identification as a vocal group, and here was her response:

I don’t really see us as an a cappella group. I mean, we have a few songs we sing strictly a cappella, but the whole foundation of the group is to fuse the voices with something else, so I would say that we are some kind of vocal group that produces vocal-based pop music. Or something like that. It is always difficult to label yourself, don’t you think? Personally, I love to sing a cappella, however, most of the music I compose needs a touch of something else to create the sound I have in my head. For some reason, I need a bit of disturbance to the soundscape…

I don’t know if The Exchange and The Edge Effect had similar feelings or intentions as they wrote or prepared music for their newest albums, but it would seem that they agree with Fris.

It is not exactly a new thing for vocal groups to record with backing instruments or tracks. The Nylons, Take 6, The Swingle Singers , and others have periodically done it for years. With developments in recording technology in the past decade or so, it has become easy for groups and engineers to take vocal lines and transform them into instrumental or electronic sounds. The tendency is now for hardcore a cappella fans to ask why a group would shrug away from these developments and return to accompanied music. My question is– why does it matter? The ways in which a voice are manipulated with editing, tuning, and processing mean it hardly resembles the music which came out of the singer’s mouth, and as good as a cappella engineers and producers are today, it is still difficult to obtain many of the sonic details which a backing band or synth sounds can provide around the vocal harmonies. Many of the pop artists who have received the most coverage in the a cappella community, such as Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, or even Coldplay, have done so because they create interesting melodic and harmonic moments. Nobody ever asks how they did so.

This is a long way of saying I don’t have a problem with groups using instruments or tracks in the studio.

When it comes to performance, though, I’m a little skeptical. Setting aside, for a second, that this is supposed to be a competition (which we all know is overshadowed by the big guiding hand of Sony Music), the use of backing tracks or instruments in a live setting does seem to have a different effect on the experience and the audience. You see, the thing we all tend to love about a cappella music is the live sound in a room, the sound of voices locking and singers working together to find those overtones, those harmonies. The first musical instrument was almost certainly the human voice, and likely the first organized music came in the form of combined voices.

Those of us who have performed a cappella music have often been happiest to do so in a bathroom or hallway, someplace which allowed the voices to cascade and swell around us, without regard for audience or atmosphere.

So, when you talk about introducing instruments and/or backing tracks into a show which is supposed to be devoted to a cappella music, there is a bit of a disconnect. Now, if we are going to look at it practically, the answer has to be that this show is a business, not a tribute to the art form. We could also acknowledge that there was likely some heavy post-production on some prior performances on the show, meaning we in TV-land did not hear (or feel) the same thing as those in the room that day/night.

Acknowledging this, I suppose we have no choice but to go along with it and trust that Deke will do what he can to keep the show at least marginally true to our interests. If nothing else, it is yet another opportunity to call positive attention to our community and for us to discover new vocal talents. In other words– we can gripe about the authenticity of it, but we as a community should remain positive and supportive of this show which we desperately want to return each year.

What do you all think?

 

The International Language of Hooks

In one of my first posts for this blog, I talked a little about a lesson I learned in a studio years ago from a producer who had played guitar on hit records for artists like Robert Palmer, Meatloaf, and others.  The general idea was that a great pop song needs hooks, but not just the ovious ones and not just one or two. A great pop song needs four, maybe even 5 hooks, and they could be anything from the obvious (catchy vocals in the chorus) to the obscure (the subtle winding guitar line on a second rhythm guitar track). Basically, it’s the moments you look forward to when you listen to a song, or maybe the moments you don’t think about but every time you listen, something clicks in your head, forcing you to move, sing along, or just stop what you’re doing.

A few quick examples I can suggest- the opening guitar riffs in “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” “Smoke on the Water,” “Blister in the Sun,” or “Layla,” the synth and horns in “The Power of Love,” the bassline in “I Want You Back” (leaving the Sonos version aside for a moment), the simple doom-bah snap of the drum entrance in “Paradise City,” the little guitar picking “bah-dah” after the main riff in “Jack and Diane“, that weird whiny sound on House of Pain’s “Jump Around” (yeah, I went there…this was the JAM when I was in middle school), and plenty of moments in songs by all-time pop greats like Prince, Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, etc.  One less conventional hook which we talked about in that studio is the the long inhaled breath in “Girl.” Hip hop artists and producers, Dr. Dre (explicit) and Kanye West in particular, have probably been the most successful at creating and exploiting hooks in the past twenty years. I bet you can think of at least three hooks produced/performed by either one of them right now.

Continue reading…

Be Interesting, Distinctive, or Both

My name is Dave, and I’m a fan of grunge music (Oh, wait, we’re not allowed to call it that…alternative rock? whatever, you get the point). The music we listen to during our adolescent years is crucial; it becomes a part of our very being. Perhaps it’s because we’re feeling so much at that age, and the music we attach ourselves to helps us explore and define what we’re feeling.

In any event: I was an adolescent in the early nineties, which means- Nirvana! Pearl Jam! Soundgarden! Stone Temple Pilots! Alice in Chains! Jane’s Addiction! I could go on and on, but that would be a different post.

So, what the hell am I talking about this for? One of my all-time favorite bands is Pearl Jam. I’ve seen them live a dozen times, I own every single album and more than a few of their live concerts on CD or DVD. I first bought their debut album, “Ten”, on cassette and I still own that cassette (though I have nothing to play it on). The album was released in 1991 and I came to it the following year, at age…13! So, yeah, I related to growling angst.

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The next year, a “new” band named Stone Temple Pilots released their debut album, “Core.” I bought it, and like many of my friends thought it was a muddier rip-off of Pearl Jam (I later learned that STP actually formed several years before Pearl Jam).

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The critical reaction was similar, with a lot of reviews pegging them as a lesser version of Pearl Jam or Nirvana. On their next album, “Purple,” Scott Weiland (lead singer) stopped his growling style (reminiscent if not derivative of Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder) and started singing in a more distinctive yet traditional rock/pop style. The band’s songs also started to transition away from trudging and dense to something based much more on hooks and riffs resembling traditional ’70’s garage rock. The band’s albums took on a different sound, which allowed them to fill a different void in the rock marketplace (back when there was such a thing). Pearl Jam evolved too, but because their album came out first, they did not have to weather comparisons.

I own all of the albums from both bands, and I can honestly say that after the debut albums (“Ten” v. “Core”), they all clearly occupy different space. Plus, I think you’re far more likely to hear 90’s era STP (particularly “Interstate Love Song”) on a modern “alternative” rock station than you are to hear Pearl Jam.

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ANY CHARACTER HERE

So, why the long discourse on bands which are on the periphery of pop culture? (though Weiland was recently kicked out of Stone Temple Pilots again and Pearl Jam was briefly relevant for having a vague- and stupid- countdown clock to the announcement that they would release a new album release 3 months later!)

In the early nineties, there were a lot of bands jockeying for a small amount of space. Rock music so rarely becomes the focal point of pop music culture, and this was one of those times. The bands I mentioned earlier were fighting, with other bands from earlier (end of Guns n Roses, prime form Red Hot Chili Peppers, etc.) and newer bands (Silverchair, Candlebox…yikes) for the top of the charts. In some ways, this reminds me of what so many a cappella groups seek to do now- essentially, the same things. Stone Temple Pilots became one of the top-selling bands of the ’90’s because they found their niche.

You need to find your niche too. If you’re doing the same types of covers, in the same types of styles, as every other group out there, you’re dramatically limiting your group’s potential.  Find your own style, your own sound, your own identity and you can be something unique and uniquely successful. Stop for a minute, and think about the a cappella groups who truly have their own style… Arora (nee Sonos). Postyr Project. Swingle Singers. Of course Pentatonix. And yes, there are a few others.

You know what you like about those groups, and substitutions can’t and won’t match up.

It’s exciting when a newer group explores it’s identity, like Fermata Town’s jazzy spin on pop music. It’s also rare.

If your group isn’t trying to break boundaries or establish an identity, you’ve got your work cut out for you. First, you’re singing a cappella music, which means you’re usually singing something that another band or artist wrote and made famous (or at least made recognizable). Why should someone listen to your version which lacks the sonic range of a real bass, drums, synths, etc? Second, you’re singing a cappella music that other groups perform too. (see my two diatribes on song selection here and here). You will be compared to other groups that your audience has seen live or on YouTube, and it’s entirely possible you’ll suffer by the comparison. When you offer the same thing every similar group has already offered, the odds are against you, which is why you need to find a way to be distinctive or interesting. Try something wildly surprising or out of character, in terms of song selection or arrangement. Play around with effects pedals, or body percussion, or something else which the audience will remember.  Find a singer who can perform solos with a memorable and/or original delivery.  Do whatever you can to increase or enhance your stage presence.

Otherwise, you’re likely to end up like these guys.