May was an interesting month for a cappella, for a variety of reasons, but perhaps the two biggest reasons may have been overlooked by the a cappella community to some extent.
It may be just me, but my experience participating in the a cappella community over the past few years, particularly on Twitter and Facebook, has suggested that groups like Take 6 and Straight No Chaser are taken for granted, if not outright overlooked, by many in our little world. Of course I exclude the Chasers (SNC die-hards) from this, and it is certainly true that many of them have come into our otherwise insulated community in recent years and joined the rest of us in praising or enjoying groups that lack the mainstream power of SNC or Take 6, groups like Duwende or The House Jacks, or a few dozen other groups.
However, excluding those fans, I often get the sense that many in our community are far more invested or interested in the new Arora (formerly Sonos) album or The Boxettes than SNC or Take 6. In May, both of these groups reminded us why they are not only relevant, they are (excluding Pentatonix) the best hope we all have for a cappella mainstreaming, and they’ve been working towards it for years.
First, we have to talk about Take 6. This is a group which spent a week headlining the Blue Note in New York City in May while they celebrated their 25th anniversary as a group. Let’s break that sentence down for a second- an a cappella group headlined at the Blue Note, one of the most famous jazz clubs in the world. For a full week. That’s huge! Also, that group has been celebrating 25 years together- they existed before Deke Sharon invented a cappella! The same week, Take 6 appeared on a number of television morning shows in the area, including Good Day NY. Did you know they’ve won 10 Grammy awards? 10! And a slew of other awards too. Oh, and they’ve toured all over the world.
If you ever attended a CASA festival workshop on arranging, I would bet a significant amount of money that Tom Anderson, Deke Sharon, or one of the other panelists mentioned Mark Kibble’s skills or Take 6’s arrangements.
When I first started listening to a cappella music in the early 90’s, Take 6 were still frequently mentioned or discussed among people listening to vocal music. Now, it seems they’ve become less relevant. I happened to attend one of their shows at the Blue Note, and I can tell you it was one of the best live performances I’ve ever seen. They are not only talented singers, they’re tremendously entertaining performers.
I couldn’t speculate about the reasons we don’t acknowledge them more often; maybe it’s their eclectic style (gospel, R&B, jazz, motown, so much more). Maybe it’s the fact that they occasionally use instrumental tracks. I don’t know. Either way, my advice is for you to take a moment sometime in the near future and play one of their albums on Spotify or better yet, buy one. Listen to what they’re doing; if you’re reading this blog, I guarantee you’ll appreciate and respect it.
The other group which gets overlooked in some ways (to a lesser extent) is Straight No Chaser. Yes, I know they have a huge following of Chasers, I know that they tour and frequently sell out all around the country. But like Rockapella, I think they’ve built a large audience of casual fans who don’t go out and buy a ton of a cappella music. There’s nothing wrong with this- it’s admirable, impressive, and the biggest sign that they can continue to help a cappella grow in the mainstream. I was a little surprised, however, that when they released their new album in May, I saw few mentions of it on Twitter outside the Chaser community. Setting aside for a moment that the group was on the Today Show and did a flurry of other publicity for the album, there’s one huge reason that our community should have made a bigger deal out of this album. The collaborations.
This is an album which features appearances/collaborations/solos with some of the top-selling pop artists of ALL TIME. Stevie Wonder?! Phil Collins?! Elton John?! ARE YOU KIDDING ME?! This is not them performing as the backing band on a single track on a Phil Collins album- this is Phil Collins performing on THEIR ALBUM! HOW was this not bigger news?
Perhaps it was because they are…a little…safe? I was not a big fan of their debut feature length non-holiday album, “With a Twist.” I felt it was a little too standardized, clean, safe. There was nothing bad about it, just nothing that really grabbed me, or made me want to listen more than once. I could see how it was a good introduction to vocal music for the non-a cappella fan, but it also didn’t seem representative of the changing dynamics of a cappella music, like the Sonos album which had come out the prior year (as one example).
With “Under the Influence,” it’s true that SNC has kept things on the safe side. There’s not much vocal processing or effects, not much grit, and the vocal percussion is very…vocal. In other words, it’s not beatboxing, it’s not edgy or processed. Still, the album is actually quite good. The arrangements are solid, the production is great, and the soloists are…Stevie Wonder?! Phil Collins?! Elton John?! (plus more recent phenoms like Rob Thomas, Jason Mraz, and our favorite, Sara Bareilles).
***Incidentally, I know Chasers were actually outraged that many of these songs featured solos from people other than SNC singers. All I can say to that is…Stevie Wonder?! Phil Collins?! Elton John?! Relax. There will be more albums without all the guest stars. This is an incredible moment in the crossover between a cappella and mainstream pop…enjoy it***
Let me just note that I’m not at all a SNC-hater. In fact, I was in college when these guys were in the original Straight No Chaser, and I own their first two albums, purchased through the mail (!) with a check back in 1997 or 1998. I LOVED those albums, though even then they were a little bit less edgy than the stuff the Beelzebubs or Off the Beat were doing. “Hi-De-Ho” was one of my favorite a cappella songs for years.
If you are someone who really enjoys the latest cutting edge a cappella, your Postyr Projects or Musae, or a dozen other groups, let me suggest you take a moment to listen to or buy that new SNC album. It’s better than you might think, and it’s a pretty remarkable achievement too.
What’s the point of this post? In thinking about these groups recently, I was questioning why I can listen to Duwende or the House Jacks or Postyr Project or Club for Five a few times a month, but haven’t put on a Take 6 or SNC album in years. I know we’re always looking for the next exciting big thing, and there’s no doubt that Pentatonix have seized that mantle for good reasons. What they have accomplished is also stunning, but we all know about it. We share their every video on Twitter/Facebook, we buy everything they release, we talk about them a lot. And yes, they are the strongest representative we have for crossover success. But we shouldn’t forget about the groups that have been doing it longer (Take 6) or bigger (SNC). Show them a little respect, maybe take a listen or buy a ticket to see them the next time they’re in your area. They’ve earned it.
Please feel free to share some thoughts on these groups, and if you agree that they get overlooked sometimes, why?