All of the “Lights”

One of the biggest grenades (incendiary discussion starters, as per Deke) which regularly invades RARB reviews (and the forums), Twitter, Facebook, and other dark holes of the a cappella webosphere is the lack of originality and the repetition of song choices in the a cappella community.  I can relate to this discussion, and I generally advocate for innovation in song selection for largely selfish reasons: when I want to find and consume more a cappella music, I don’t always want to wade through 5-7 versions of “Fireflies” (as I did in nominating for the Male Collegiate categories for the CARAs two years ago) or “Some Nights” (this year) in order to find something I really like.  However, it’s not necessarily a bad thing for there to be multiple versions of a song if each is interpreted and tailored for the groups performing them.

What got me thinking about this was the release, in the past few weeks, of three different vocal versions of Ellie Goulding’s “Lights.”  I don’t know the precise order of their respective releases, but I know that the SoJam X collaborative track (available for free to CASA members here, or you can listen here), a version by new Charlotte-based vocal band NOI5E (available for free download here), and a live YouTube version by Sing Off alum/supergroup Level (available for viewing below) were all offered for public consumption in early or mid-February. What struck me was these are all very capable groups/collaborations, and each produced a different take on the song. In a way, it is like comparing apples to oranges to plums. Yes, they’re all fruit, but with very different consistencies.

How so? Well, the SoJam collaboration features a ton of voices, including members of Pentatonix, The Edge Effect, Musae, the Northeastern University Nor’easters, and a variety of SoJam “VIP’s” (festival attendees). There’s a lot of talent and a lot of voices there, as well as a lot of production by Sled Dog Studios and The Vocal Company.

NOI5E is a new vocal band which features 5 members: 3 men and 2 women. So, right off the bat, you have a different consistency to the sound, different ingredients and different context.

Somewhere in between the others you have Level, a group of alumni (onscreen and offscreen) from The Sing Off which features 5 men and 3 women. Again, different consistency. Also, this is a live recording and thus devoid of the bells and whistles which enhance the other two recordings.

Since these are three distinct versions of the same song, I thought this could be an instructive example of how groups, from high school through post-scholastic, should approach making a pop tune their own.

The SoJam collaborative track is, by necessity, a mixed bag. I suspect that because there were so many singers involved, the challenge was trying to create enough parts for everyone to be included. The result is a song which is almost 5 minutes long, and to me that feels about 60-90 seconds too long. This version begins with a longer buildup than the other two, complete with percolating bubbles and overtone singing (Oh hai, Avi) offering a hint of an eastern tinge to the song. The breakdown at 2:11 is great, as expected, but the song then takes a dramatic shift to a subtler, quieter verse. There’s nothing wrong with the singing here, I like the little faded individual flourishes and the production is terrific, but I just start to lose interest at this point. I must reiterate that a lot of this probably relates to the context; this recording was created as an opportunity for a whole lot of people to get in on a single all-star track, and there are only so many parts available at any given time in the song.

NOI5E offers a very different take on the song. Again, the arrangement is a function of necessity: it is more sparse, as it must be since there are only 5 singers. To me, this version feels like the song is being shone through the lens of an ’80’s pop tune. With the swirling synth sounds, the cracking  drum machine beat, I can almost see the John Hughes movie playing on the screen over the track. It’s a little treble-y for my taste, and a little too light on the low-end, but it’s a totally valid interpretation of the song and the performances are fine.

My favorite, the version which appeals to me the most, is the Level version.  It takes an upbeat, danceable tune and converts it into something with a sinewy, sultry groove.  The clustered chords, the bell tones/waterfall effect, the sparkling breakdown; there are just too many hooks implanted within this version which I want to go back and hear again.  In some ways this version feels fuller or richer than the others, and more satisfying too.

The great thing is that not one of these versions is bad and they all appeal to a slightly different aesthetic.  So, what do we learn from this? These groups/collaborations all include or rely upon skilled arrangers who took chances here tailoring the song for their needs and talents.  So, the next time you are asked or decide to arrange yet another Adele/Coldplay/Gaga/fun./[insert latest zeitgeist] tune, try to be that arranger for your group.  Spend a few extra minutes before you put pencil to paper or click to software thinking about how you can make your version of the song memorable and unique. And maybe listen through all of the “Lights” first for some inspiration.



2012- The Year in A Cappella

2012- my first full calendar year with the blog. A lot of new a cappella adventures for me personally, but also for the a cappella world in general.

Let’s begin with the 2 best stories of the year in a cappella:

1) Pentatonix blew up, y’all. If you thought Straight No Chaser was the group most likely to bring a cappella to the biggest chunk of the public, you were wrong. While SNC has peaked at number 29 on the Billboard Top 200 Albums chart, Pentatonix surpassed that mark in 2012, landing as high as number 14, number 5 in overall digital album sales, and number 2 for independent albums. Then, approximately 5 months later, their Christmas EP hit #45 on the Billboard Top 200 Albums chart, with peaks at number 5 for independent album and number 8 for holiday album. In the past few months, they’ve made appearances on the Tonight Show, the Katie Couric show, and the Talk, among other shows. They’ve also toured all over the country. Did I mention their YouTube channel has over 42 million– MILLION— views.

So, congratulations to Pentatonix for finally, unequivocally, and with appropriate humility and sense of self, breaking a cappella music into a new tier of mainstream success. Plus, they put out great YouTube videos at a surprisingly robust rate.

2) Remember when Mickey Rapkin wrote a book called Pitch Perfect, and the nerdiest of the a cappella nerds (myself included) rushed out to buy it and then enjoyed it, but were not necessarily blown away? Yeah. That book has been erased by the movie of the same name. A movie which took in over $5 million in its limited release opening weekend in the U.S. A movie which, as of today, has grossed more than $64 million at the box office in the United States and another $20 million abroad (according to Box Office Mojo).  Oh, and it was nominated for the “Favorite Comedic Movie” People’s Choice Award, Rebel Wilson was nominated for Best Actress in a Comedy by the Broadcast Film Critics Association Awards, it got a very respectable 80% rating from Rotten Tomatoes (compilation of movie reviews from a variety of sources), and there’s talk of a sequel. Did I mention the soundtrack hit number 1 on the Billboard Soundtrack chart?

There’s a slew of Pitch Perfect content on CASA which is worth checking out, seeing as how it was written by people who love a cappella music as much as you do.

Congratulations are certainly in order to producers Elizabeth Banks and Paul Brooks, director Jason Moore, screenwriter Kay Cannon, and especially to our own aca community members, and film music staff, Deke Sharon, Ed Boyer, and Ben Bram. By the way, if podcasts are your thing and you’re missing a cappella content on the pod-web-tubes (see my later comments), there was an interview with Ms. Cannon (the screenwriter) which you can check out here.

Other Noteworthy (not the group) Stuff in 2012

Books– There were a number of a cappella books released in 2012 which are worth checking out. The most important one, which I am still working my way through, is one which most arrangers should consider a necessary addition to their collection. A Cappella Arranging, written by Deke Sharon and Dylan Bell, is a true textbook on the art and science of arranging for contemporary a cappella, and it is written in a thoughtful, accessible, and fun way with examples and diagrams. I’m sure it is available from numerous online outlets, but I bought mine here. It is a terrific value and worthwhile investment.

Other books worth checking out (and which I have purchased, but not yet read) include Brody McDonald’s “A Cappella Pop” and “The A Cappella Book” by Mike Chin and Mike Scalise of the A Cappella Blog. And if you still haven’t read “AcaPolitics” by Stephen Harrison, you should pick that up as well. It is the first, and to my knowledge only, fictional book about the collegiate a cappella scene and it does resemble the Pitch Perfect movie (which it predated).

Festivals– As the global a cappella community becomes more connected, the number of festivals across the world have grown. Here in the U.S., CASA introduced 2 new (or revamped) major festivals, BOSS (Boston Sings) and Acappellafest (Chicago) which were, by all accounts, very successful. Other festivals of note occurred in Toronto, London, Sweden, Australia, and Taiwan, among many other places. An international collaboration between myself and Florian Städtler resulted in this list of as many international festivals as we could compile for the year. We hope to get updates going for 2013 soon.

It’s also worth mentioning that the Contemporary A Cappella Recording Awards (CARAs), issued each year by the Contemporary A Cappella Society, were announced in a live ceremony at this year’s Boston Sings festival, and it appears CASA intends to do the same in 2013.

SoJam celebrated its 10th anniversary with an all-star concert featuring Fork, Pentatonix, and the Edge Effect, among others.

Sing Strong announced that it will feature not one, but two festivals in 2013, one each in Washington D.C. and Chicago.

Web– There were a number of new blogs and other web resources devoted to a cappella music, including:

There was the controversial list of the “coolest” people in a cappella generated by the A Cappella Blog, and a number of streaming a cappella performances including, on the same weekend, one from the Los Angeles A Cappella Festival and one from Denmark by Postyr Project (my takes on these here and here, respectively), in April, the House Jacks’ 20th anniversary concert, and then SoJam X in November.


At one point, Overboard was a group of guys from the Boston area who did a series of free songs every Friday for a year, who released a brilliant compilation of Beatles tunes reimagined to tell a story, you know- a group with a startling lack of vision (heavy dose of sarcasm). In 2012, the members of that group were everywhere. First (and to be fair, it was late 2011), founder Nick Girard joined The House Jacks to cover both VP and tenor (and a few other parts in their live show). Because, you know, that’s totally doable. Then,  a group called Blueprint, featuring OB members Alfredo Austin, Jeff Eames, and Caleb Wheldon dropped an acabomb at BOSS, followed by a stunning 5-song EP which yielded a track (“Sweeter”) for SING 9.  Not too bad.

Later in the year, the talented Mr. Austin joined a new group called The Exchange, joining with established a cappella singers and personalities like Christopher Diaz, Richard Steighner, and Aaron Sperber. This group toured the world, released a number of videos with varying levels of silliness, from this to this to this.

Lastly, Overboard itself tried some new things, with the permanent addition of Eric Morrissey to replace Jeff Eames, and the temporary/permanent(?) addition for many gigs of Johanna Vinson (of Divisi, Delilah, and Musae) and Donovan Davis.

Talented jazz-y group Simply Put called it quits, Duwende said goodbye to an original (and very talented) member, Ari Picker, and Dan Ponce (founder of Straight No Chaser) helped produce a new group called Gentleman’s Rule. Musae released their debut album, as did The Executive Board.

The Swingle Singers said goodbye to longtime bass Tobias Hug (11 years), and welcomed new bass Edward Randell.


The Sing Off China was a thing. There were a series of excellent blog posts following it here.

Sled Dog Studios held 2 separate production workshops, called Next Level, which featured talented instructors including Dave Longo, Tom Anderson, James Cannon, Tat Tong, Chris Crawford, Dave Sperandio, and Ben Stevens.

The ICCA’s have added a new region, the Great Lakes Region, and ICHSA added 2 new semifinals. The SoCal VoCals won ICCA’s for an astounding third time, and Vocal Rush from Oakland School for the Arts.

Six Appeal won the 2012 Harmony Sweepstakes. They will be performing the national anthem at the Sugar Bowl on Jan. 2, 2013.

Emerald City Productions released a benefit a cappella album for kids called “Sing Me a Song,” the proceeds of which go to organizations devoted to Cerebral Palsy research. The album features a cappella superstars like Nota, Overboard, Cluster, Rajaton, Peter Hollens, Postyr Project, and others. There’s some great insight about the project from Danny Ozment here, and I can tell you that my kids (ages 4 and 20 mo) love the album.

Voices Only Forte, a compilation of non-scholastic a cappella music from all over the world, was released. Corey Slutsky from Voices Only also put together this benefit track, the proceeds of which benefit the Intrepid Fallen Heroes Fund.

At the end of the year, CASA President Julia Hoffman stepped down, and she will be replaced at the helm by Tom Anderson in 2013.

The Worst of 2012

Sadly, members of the Persuasions (Jesse “Sweet Joe” Russell), the Penguins (Cleve Duncan), the Cadillacs (Earl Carroll), the McGuire Sisters (Dorothy McGuire), and (Dion and) the Belmonts (Fred Milano) all passed away. These groups were critical to the history of modern a cappella music.

On a far less tragic, but still disappointing, note the Mouth Off podcast apparently went on an indefinite and stealthy hiatus. It’s hard to say exactly what happened, because there didn’t appear to be much explanation via Twitter, Facebook, etc., but presumably it was related to Christopher Diaz being extraordinarily busy traveling and touring the world with various groups and to various festivals.

My 2012 in a cappella

– I became a reviewer for RARB

– I wrote a few pieces for CASA (herehere, here)

– I attended my second a cappella festival, the very first Boston Sings (BOSS)

– I began the Spotlight series on this blog and got to interview some terrific producers and performers.

– I got to meet some really great people in the a cappella community, something I hope to do a lot more of in 2013.

I’m sure there was a ton of other newsworthy content which happened in 2012. Feel free to leave me some reminders or jabs in the comments section.

Happy New Year to everyone, and here’s hoping to bigger and better things for a cappella music in 2013!

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.

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.”