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.