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:

http://www.reddit.com/r/acappella/

http://www.acafeed.com/

http://acappellaquest.blogspot.com/

http://lovedeacapella.wordpress.com

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.

Groups

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.

Misc.

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!

Recorded A Cappella Review Board

I am very honored and excited to announce that I will be joining the Recorded A Cappella Review Board (RARB), which you can (and should regularly) check out here.  When I first learned about RARB back in the *cough cough* late ’90’s, I remember being so grateful that there was a resource available for me to discover new a cappella albums from all over the country. For many years, really up until the web exploded with opportunities to preview music such as Pandora or Spotify, RARB was the number one advisory guide for my a cappella purchases. If an album was panned, I saved my money and waited for a different album with better scores or commentaries. As with everything critical in nature, I recognized that these reviews were subjective, but the idea that 3 people who love a cappella could agree on an album was usually a sign that I would enjoy it as well, and that has proven true with an amazingly high success rate.

In any event, I am really excited about this opportunity and I cannot wait to get started. In the meantime, you should head over there now and check out some reviews. They only have 1100+ of them. 😉

(Special thanks to folks like Kimberly Sailor, Michael Marcus, Jonathan Minkoff, and everyone else at RARB for welcoming me into the fold!)

The House Jacks in NYC- May 11, 2012

The Bitter End in New York City bills itself as “Greenwich Village’s most famous nightclub” and its owners claim it “has been the showcase for every major musical and comedic talent in the United States.”  You can read more about it here and here. It is true that a lot of very influential and innovative musical and comedic talents have performed in the relatively small space, and you can feel that history when you walk through the place. The walls, the floors, the stage all emanate an intangible feeling, a sense that pioneers of rock and roll, blues, jazz, comedy, and other genres walked the same dark, cluttered room. I thought about this as I sat waiting for the House Jacks to start their set on Friday night, staring at the wall behind the right side of the bar where numerous artists’ names are handwritten in sloppy cursive. I’ve seen the House Jacks here before, along with quite a few other less memorable artists, but on this night I was thinking about music history and journeys.

I heard about the House Jacks in 1997, when I ordered their second album “Funkwich” from the Primarily A Cappella (or was it Mainely A Cappella?) catalog. When I first played the CD, it blew my mind. I was a freshman in college, and was just learning about some of the better college groups out there from the BOCA compilation and a few Beelzebubs albums I had ordered, but this was a whole new level. It was, as they identify themselves, a real vocal band. In some ways, that album changed my life: I would say that after listening to it hundreds of times in 1997-98, I knew that a cappella music was more than just a hobby for me- it was a serious passion. I saw the group perform in New York that same year, I believe at the now-defunct Bottom Line, and they did, as their first album (“Naked Noise”) suggested, “Tear Down the Walls.”

This is a long way of saying that I have been a big fan of the group for a long time, and am certainly a little biased. I have seen them 6 times in total, which featured 3 different configurations of members. This past Friday was the first time I saw them with new members Nick Girard and John Pointer, and the group seemed to have a fresh energy along with some new flexibility onstage. In their press release last November which introduced Nick and John, the group indicated that both men sing both tenor and vocal percussion. In Friday’s set, they did in fact split the VP duties and alternate on tenor and solo parts as well. (I think I also saw Nick singing bass on a tune where Troy Horne, the bass, was singing lead.)

Here’s another example of the group’s current flexibility.  By the time the group had finished its first 6 songs, each of the 5 members of the group had already sung a lead. So, you have a group with not only 5 singers, but 5 soloists. Many groups announce that they are looking for precisely this when they publicize auditions, but there are few groups who succeed and actually get a legitimate front-man in each singer. With the current iteration of the House Jacks, however, any one of these guys could and would be a legitimate lead singer in a rock band or vocal band. That is flexibility and talent.

It was also surprising and exciting to note that a few of the early songs were originals that are not on any current House Jacks albums. The songs were quite good, so let’s hope they end up on a new HJ album soon.

As I mentioned, the group seemed to have a different energy onstage from the last time I saw them back in 2009 or 2010. Specifically, they seemed to be enjoying themselves more, offering more smiles to both the audience and each other than they were a few years ago. More importantly (and perhaps related to that), they sounded great. Intonation and blend were actually a lot better than the last time I saw them, and maybe even one or two times before that. If you have not seen the House Jacks, they are, for all intents and purposes, a vocal rock band. They get loud, they distort their syllables and singing to simulate instruments, most notably guitars, and it is only natural for this style combined with the adrenaline and energy to create pitch problems.  It has never been particularly disturbing because they offer so much else in terms of stage presence and rhythm section groove, but it was nevertheless something which nibbled at the edges of their sound the last 2 times I saw them. Not so on Friday, however. There were very few moments where I even thought about pitch for a second. Whether this improvement was related to the new members, a different sound tech, or something else, it was notable and impressive.

The group seemed very comfortable onstage with each other, and they went off-mic quite early in the set to do a nice original which I think  Troy wrote. A lot of groups wait, offering their off-mic tune much later in the set, but the group seemed eager to show off their harmonizing chops and the roots of the genre early on, which I took to be a good sign for the show ahead. Here’s them performing that same song earlier this year:

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ANY CHARACTER HERE

Before I go on, I also have to mention John Pointer. The man is not so much a singer as a force of nature. He has energy, charisma, a scorching rock tenor (he absolutely  destroyed Led Zep’s “Kashmir,” a song from the aforementioned Funkwich album which I swore they could never pull off live and which I had never seen them do in 5 prior shows I attended). He is also a very impressive beatboxer. Here’s a recent solo he ripped off at a concert in PA:

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ANY CHARACTER HERE

It must seem more than a little unfair to other professional a cappella groups and vocal bands in the U.S. that the House Jacks have had such an incredible lineup of VP’s, with prior members Andrew Chaikin, Wes Carroll, and Jake Moulton. But to have a guy who has significant skills in that department and can also shred Robert Plant seems downright obnoxious.

And to be thorough, I should note that Nick did a terrific job with the challenging VP on that same song (“Kashmir”) and similarly crushed his own solo on Cee Lo’s “Crazy.”

The group offered a nice mixture of originals and covers early in the set before turning to a staple of any House Jacks performance-  the segment in which they take audience requests. In and of itself, the audience request is not a particularly impressive thing for some bands to pull off. What the House Jacks do that most other groups do not, however, is invite the audience to request songs that the band has never sung before. This is not only impressive, but requires what my friend calls huevos gigantes. Let’s just say it means chutzpah. Guts?

In any event, the group will sing almost any song requested for 20 seconds to a minute so long as at least one person in the group seems to know the song. The result is often high comedy, as resulted when an audience member Friday requested “A Natural Woman,” made famous by Aretha Franklin and for those of us there Friday, now by Troy Horne.  I was sitting at the bar, and the waitress who had been mostly uninterested in the set started to pay attention at this point. By the end of the audience request section she was shouting out requests, laughing, and cheering wildly after each tune. While the group as an entity is always funny during this section, it seemed clear that a good sense of humor is another trait that all of the current members share.

Later, someone requested “The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” a song which the group normally refuses to perform unless the request also specifies that the song be done in a unique style. The request was for a reggae version, and the group honored their rule with Austin Willacy on lead. Other songs included “Eye of the Tiger,” “The Greatest Love of All,” “Man or Muppet” (from the recent Muppet movie, a song which they turned into some kind of rap), a few others, and then the big mashup where they took another 9 or 10 requests and squeezed them all into one (including, among others,  the theme song from Mr. Rogers “Won’t You Be My Neighbor,” “The Rainbow Connection,” “Thriller,” “Moon River,” “Dynamite,” “If I Had a Million Dollars” (mashed up with “Bills Bills Bills”), and “Back in Black”). As always, this part of the show was a huge success.

The only thing I wondered about the group’s stage setup, and it was probably related to the rotation of VPists, was that the VP and bass were on opposite sides of the stage. I would think, and I do have a little experience performing each (at a far inferior level), that the rhythm section might feel more locked in if they were standing together or at least near each other. This is simply my own curiosity, however, as I did not notice any deficiencies in the groove and in fact, the quality was fairly consistent (high, though stylistically different) between John and Nick. Of course Troy kept things locked down on the bassline,  just as he did on Season 3 of the Sing Off with Urban Method, regardless of who was doing VP here.

As always, I was stupefied by Deke’s vocal trumpet on “Summertime,” and when I play that section of the track from their live album, I am always quick to point out to whomever will listen that it is even more impressive in person because there are clearly no tricks, no pedals, and no comprehension in the audience as to how he does that.

The Bitter End is a club which typically books 3-4 acts per night, allowing each to do an hourlong set (approximately). The House Jacks were on first, and by the time they were wrapping up their set, a bunch of people were standing by the door waiting to see the next band. I heard at least a few of those people commenting about how cool the group was, asking their name, etc.   The House Jacks were clearly at the top of their game Friday night, and they likely accomplished the difficult task of impressing longtime fans (such as myself) while simultaneously drawing in brand new fans, some of whom may not know or appreciate anything about contemporary a cappella music. I heard one guy say, with obvious surprise in his voice, “These guys rock!”

And that is why the House Jacks are one of the only contemporary a cappella groups in the world that has been around for 20 years, endured 3 (or more?) lineup changes, and yet somehow keeps elevating their game to new heights.

The House Jacks may have been the first of four bands playing at The Bitter End on Friday night, and the place may have been only half full when they started their set, but there is no question in my mind that they are to contemporary a cappella music what Woody Allen and George Carlin were to comedy, what Neil Diamond, Peter, Paul and Mary, and countless others were to their respective genres- revolutionaries and leaders.

For more about the House Jacks, check out their website here.

Sonos conquers NYC (Review)

Frequently, when I go see a professional or semi-professional a cappella group, I find myself spending a lot of time watching the individual singers carefully, trying to pick up tips on how they use their mics or make certain sounds, how they move or use their bodies, and how they interact with each other. It is rarely the case that I forget about this process and the potential opportunity to learn and simply sit back and let the music wash over me like a cool breeze on a hot summer day. I think it is therefore the highest form of praise I can offer that this was precisely what I did last night watching Sonos perform at the Triad Theater in Manhattan.

Last night was the first time that I have seen Sonos live, though I have been listening to their first CD for 2 years now. I think my earlier Sing Off posts demonstrate that I am a fan of their style and talent, but I was tentative going into the club. Many groups whose CD’s I loved turned out to be somewhat (if not very) disappointing as live performers, and there was a small part of me that worried the same would hold true of Sonos. SO glad that turned out to be an unwarranted fear.

While the group acknowledged early that Chris(topher) (Given Harrison) was not feeling well, there were virtually no moments where that was apparent or particularly harmful to the group’s sound. Sooo…. I guess he is superhuman, because I know when I am not feeling well, my voice sounds approximately like this

In any event, the group offered a relatively short set comprised of (arguably) their most popular songs (“I Want You Back” and “Wicked Game”) and a bunch of originals, which they indicated would be part of a new album to be released this coming Spring. The latter were a huge step for a group like this, as one thing which really brings a professional group to the next level is its ability to write and perform original material. A professional or semi-pro group can only survive and entertain for so long doing a set full of covers of Coldplay or Lady Gaga, and that’s why it was so exciting to hear the original material from Sonos last night. More importantly, the songs were actually quite good. They hewed to the group’s strengths, namely haunting, breathy, sexy vocals from the ladies while Ben McClain provides a solid and spectacular beat and Harrison covers one of the many different background parts he sings with or without an octave pedal.  I don’t think there is any question that Sonos has its own style of tight, intricate chords where the voices weave in and out like a champion boxer. Perhaps the most surprising thing last night was just how cleanly they can sing those spidery parts. Their voices sounded dead-on accurate and this allowed the tension created by those parts and the resolutions (where they appear) to really shine.

Ben McClain is also clearly not human. I have seen many a cappella groups perform in the past 15 years, and in terms of pure skill as a vocal percussionist, I have to put him in the top 3 or 4. His beats are solid and unwavering, his sounds are varied and compelling, and he transitions easily and flawlessly between styles, often within a song. While some vocal percussionists use their whole body or their movement to augment or help generate their sounds, he is generally a minimalist in this sense. Though he moves around to the beat on stage, it is independent of his creation of the beat, more a product of just feeling the groove which he has already created.

This brings me to another point: everyone in the group seems to really feel the music and their movements reflect as much. This might sound silly to comment on, but it is important. I sang in a college group where I was often the only person (of 12) actually moving with the music, and while I am not talking about choreographed movements, there is something which the audience gains from seeing a performer clearly feeling the music in his or her body. (Side note: it is indisputably hilarious to watch some of the vids of my college group where you fast forward and watch soloists appear to turn to stone with virtually no movement in the background, and my awkward VP-bop moving at hyper speed).

Finally, I have to comment on the ladies. Oh, the ladies. It seems unfair to the rest of the a cappella world for Sonos to have 3 ridiculously talented and sexy ladies with such killer voices, and there’s no question they are each stars in their own right.

Sonos may well be one of the best sounding a cappella groups I have heard live. Now, the big controversy on the Sing Off was their inability to use their effects pedals, and they did use those pedals last night. To which I say: So what?! When I walked out of the show, my reaction was that they do not rely upon their pedals as a crutch, but rather use them to augment what is already an amazing group sound. They use them for flourishes with effects in some spots, and they use them to have a woman sing bass with an octave pedal where the only other male part (Chris) is singing solo. But watching them work their way through their set, you just know that they could pull off any song they wanted to without the pedals. Instead, they use the pedals to great effect, enhancing an already good sound to create a fuller, more lush sound for the audience.

So, yes. Halfway through the first song, I gave up trying to learn from them. I sat back, relaxed with a drink in my hand, and enjoyed a terrific a cappella performance.

Check out Sonos at http://www.sonosings.com/home.cfm and they are on Twitter @sonosings.

–The Red States opened for Sonos last night, and I have only a few quick comments on their performance. First of all, they opened with a very strong rendition of Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep,” a song which is not on their album but which they do have available on iTunes. For those of you who do not know, the Red States is a Contemporary A Cappella League (CAL) group of about 12 members (at least, I believe that’s how many I counted last night). They won the Contemporary A Cappella Recording Award (CARA) for Best CAL Album, and they have gotten their song featured on Perez Hilton’s website I believe. I have seen them before, approximately two years ago, and they have definitely improved since then. The problem with a group of 12 is that not everyone can have a microphone (without a far more complicated setup and far more intensive work at the sound board).  The Red States chose to mic their soloist, VP, and bass, and I can’t really disagree with this decision. However, the result was something of  wash of the background vocals. I was sitting a little more than halfway back in a very small venue, maybe no more than 50 feet from the stage, and I frequently was unable to hear any of the particulars of the background parts. The result, unfortunately, is that any possible blend or pitch problems actually jumped out a little bit. There’s also no question in my mind that a big part of the problem with the sound was related to the acoustics of the room and the stage itself, so I can’t really do a full or detailed critique of the sound.

The group is clearly talented and certainly has a number of really solid soloists, and I look forward to seeing them in a better space in the near future.

Check out The Red States at http://www.redacappella.com/TheRedStates/Welcome.html and they are on Twitter @redstates.