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.”


A Cappella. No Instruments. So what?! (or Why Sonos Didn’t Deserve to Leave)

I had actually planned to write my first substantive post on the original subject line, and I’ll stick to that for the most part. But I did find it interesting that what happened on the The Sing Off last night ties into my thoughts on this thread.

Ok, so I have already demonstrated that I am a huge a cappella nerd (see existence of blog). And much of my family and friends have often tolerated my extreme interest in this genre, attending my performances, listening to House Jacks songs over and over (“this will blow your mind! again!”). But I do have a few friends or family members, as well as acquaintances, whose general reaction is: so what? What this typically stems from is the idea, which is understandable, that if they wanted to hear Lady Gaga or Coldplay, they would simply listen to the original.

Over time, I have come up with a few reasons why I think a cappella music is so intriguing to so many of us in the “tribe,” and a few ideas about what can/does draw the skeptical folks in more.

First of all, there is no question that the human voice has a unique power to the human ear. It is entirely natural, compelling, and powerful. It is why chant (gregorian et al) came first, and it is why American Idol is so successful today. It is, unfortunately, to some extent, why some classical music and jazz are far receding into the background of American culture. Whether or not you agree with the latter thought, the point is this: a human voice alone is compelling. Add a few more in simple harmony, and if they are locked in tight enough and you get the joy of overtones, it is chilling.

Ok, these skeptics say, but why would I want to hear a pop or rock song done a cappella when I love the original?

My attitude about the response to this question has developed over the years.  When I was in college, the answer was: “It’s fun! We add a little kooky choreography, a few fun syllables, and we make the song our own!”  But I don’t believe that is enough anymore. In fact, I listen to an AWFUL lot of a cappella music which nowadays makes me think: meh. Ok, it’s fine, but I’m not sure if I would put this on over the original version.

The shift started, however, when I started listening to The House Jacks, the first true vocal band. I saw them perform in the late 90’s, and they did a cover of U2’s Mysterious Ways with then-bass Bert Bacco on the solo. Wow, do I wish I could find a copy of that online today. Now, I am a big U2 fan, and at first it seemed a bit like heresy. But as I started to get into the groove of a real bass singing the solo, the vibe of the song started to suck me in, and before I knew it, I couldn’t quite get it out of my head. Even more so than the original.

The same type of feelings hit me when I listened to the first album by Sonos, Sonosings. They took songs which I already liked, and made them better. They reinvented the songs in new ways which sometimes, in my mind, surpassed the original in terms of intrigue, passion, or just pure beauty.  This is their gift- the ability to do this with popular songs. And they do it really, really well. So it really bothered me on The Sing Off last night when the judges essentially booted them off because they did not like the reimagination of the Jackson 5 classic “I Want You Back.” Now I will be the first to admit that I absolutely love their version of that song on the album. The bass line is one of the most infectuous in modern a cappella, the sinewy and sultry approach arrangement is creepy, dark, almost stalker-ish, and yet with the lyrics, it works unbelievably well.

I think it was clear from Ben and Shawn in particular that they simply felt you cannot “touch” a song as masterful as the original, as if it is a sacred cow. The problem is twofold. First of all, all music should be reinvention, since all music has been done before. To say that in a show about a cappella music, which is essentially (and completely on The Sing Off) about reinventing instrumental or popular music, is disingenuous at best. But the second problem is that it was hypocritical even within the judges’ comments last night. At least two other acts were praised for “making a song their own,” or putting their own interpretation into the song. If Ben and Shawn had indicated that the Sonos song was simply poorly performed, I could accept that. There is no question that what the judges hear in the hall is significantly different from what we are hearing on television. But for them to tear it apart because they didn’t agree with the interpretation was really unfair.

I have to also note that the producers did not do Sonos any favors by cutting the video clips together to repeatedly harp on the group’s discomfort about the lack of their effects pedals. I think that set an unfair tone to each performance, making it seem like Sonos was not cut out to do this show, and were struggling to find themselves. And perhaps they were, though it more likely had to do with them losing a male voice, Paul, back in December. In any event, the judges really harped on this throughout, rather than focusing on the tight, dissonant chords which make up Sonos’ style.

I saw a critique online earlier today which said that Sonos made a mistake in competing at all without their pedals, and without adapting their style to something more accessible. I completely disagree. Their style of sultry, dissonant, dark covers is their identity…it may not be everyone’s taste, but it is hard to say that musically, they did not perform better than at least 2 other groups last night.

And that brings me full circle. The Deltones, a mixed group from University of Delaware. They were not bad…but to me, they were like virtually every other mixed college group. Fairly bland arrangements, both harmonically and stylistically, and nothing really interesting which would make me choose that song over the original. The Collective, on the other hand, tried to bring their own style. I just thought they were very mediocre at it. The blend was shaky, the rhythm section was shaky, and I wasn’t blown away by any aspect of their performance.

I think it is difficult to say that Sonos performed worse than them, and the judges appeared to really like the Sonos version of the Coldplay song. They simply disagreed with the interpretation of I Want You Back, and penalized Sonos badly for it. This did a disservice to the show, I believe, and to those groups who try to forge their own identity like Sonos.

I have more to say about the answer for why a cappella can surpass the original, but it will have to wait since I felt the need to talk about last night’s development.

For what it’s worth, if you listen to the 2 terrific albums by Sonos, I think you’ll agree that they do their own thing, they do it really well, and they are immensely talented. I hope, for the judges’ sake, that a single group which advances in The Sing Off is able to produce one such album.

A Cappella. No Instruments. So What?! (INTRO)

Not a bad question, I suppose. Except for the tens (hundreds?) of thousands who have performed in (American) college or high school a cappella groups in the past 15-20 years.  Many of those folks would likely respond with stories. Stories of rehearsals. Stories of performances, of audiences, of beautiful or silly or deeply moving moments. Moments on stage, moments backstage, moments on road trips or in the hallway or the (gulp) bathroom. Each moment can be attributed to one of the oldest and yet somehow newest methods of performing vocal music. A cappella. Oft-misspelled, occasionally mocked, and yet it has real power to it.

I take the name for this blog from a comment made by a judge recently on a television show which features a cappella music called The Sing Off.  Before performing a song on the show, a college group offered a background piece illustrating how several members gained acceptance and friendship upon joining the group.  After the group performed their song, judge Sara Bareilles explained how she recalled a notation from her diary made after she had joined a college a cappella group.  The entry indicated that she had found her “tribe.”

I thought this was a very apt description of what a cappella groups can be to their members.  While not everyone who joins a group necessarily feels this way, there is no denying the sense of love, commitment, acceptance, and companionship which can accompany membership in such a group. I sang a cappella in high school and throughout my college years. More on my background is available in the “About” section. But the proof of the power which a cappella groups harbor is evident in my life, 10 years after graduating college. I convinced my wife to date me and later to marry me when I sang to her with a group of friends [more on that in subsequent post here]. Many of my best friends today are people  I sang with in a cappella groups. And many of the best times of my life occurred with those same groups.

It may sound corny, but it is a tribe. A group of persons with a common interest and/or character. A group which is accepting, competitive, fiercely protective of its own. And frequently, it’s a fairly diverse group of people in the tribe. When I started a group at NYU, it was a true assortment of people with different backgrounds, interests, ethnicities, personalities, politics, and geographic origins. But what drew us all together was the desire to sing music, without instruments, for others. To be a part of that collective effort to make music. It didn’t matter if it was for people walking by on the street, or for a few hundred (or more) people in the auditorium. It was for us as much as anyone else. And that is a big part of a cappella.

I think it is also important to note how friendly and communal the a cappella community generally is. When I was in a college group, we frequently called or emailed a group at another college to ask about performing there on our tour, or inviting them to come sing with us (for no money), and the groups were often completely fun and agreeable. Even better, I recall being interested in starting a semi-pro group of 5 men during one of my college summers. I was a member of CASA, and I emailed then-President Deke Sharon (aka THE MAN in contemporary a cappella). Deke Sharon- founder of The Contemporary A Cappella Society of America, former Tufts Beelzebub, founder of the first true vocal band (The House Jacks)- responded. He not only wrote back with ideas and advice, he actually sent me a few arrangements of songs he wrote or co-wrote! It was one of the coolest, most gracious things anyone who I respected so highly had ever done!

It’s also crucial that the very foundation of a cappella music is built upon a very exposed, communal concept. The music cannot happen, it cannot work unless the parts are together, in terms of pitch, intonation, and rhythm. It is a vocal dance, a ballet of timing and musicality which requires absolute cooperation. If the pitches are off, everyone sounds bad. If the rhythms are off, everyone looks bad. But if it is done right, if all those elements come together, it is something which can be compelling and perhaps even transcendental.

Ok, so what’s the deal with this blog? I have now been out of college for 10 years. In the first 2 or 3 years out, I was convinced I could start a semi-pro a cappella group which would be fun and productive. I called a few friends from college, and we posted ads on various a cappella-related websites or listservs about auditions for a new all-male a cappella group on Long Island (NYC suburb). I figured we were close enough to New York City that we’d get a bunch of other a cappella alumni interested in joining us. I somehow failed to realize that people who live in “The City” tend to think of Long Island as a faraway land requiring two forms of transportation (Long Island Railroad AND a car? Forget it!) and unparalleled expense.

Anyway, we got a group going for a few months, but people somehow just could not maintain a commitment to one rehearsal a week. This was something of a shock to me, as our college group had rehearsed 2 or 3 times a week for years, but I suppose it is far easier to drag oneself away from the bar, er, books than from one’s spouse/girlfriend/family/television.

We tried to get that group up and running a few times, never lasting more than a few months. Then I gave up and went to law school.

A few years later, after law school, I tried a different approach, inviting many of the alum of my other college group, the Potsdam Pointercounts, who lived nearby to come over and sing. I figured if we could get 12 or 14 people interested, we could surely have at least 1 person covering each part for our “rehearsals” (which were typically an hour of singing and equal time for beer and snacks). This arrangement did not work for very long either.

And then I stumbled across a new podcast called “Mouth Off.” It was fascinating to me- two guys (Dave Brown and Christopher Diaz) who loved a cappella as much as I did, who were college graduates and were [then] not actively performing in groups, talking about the a cappella world. It became the most important part of my week, listening to their show. It was a chance to learn about new groups, or groups of which I had never heard, sometimes from places I didn’t know embraced such a cappella (Finland- Club for Five– whom I will discuss in another post). It was an opportunity to learn about individuals in the a cappella community, focus on detailed aspects of a cappella music such as arrangements or chords or vocal percussion. It was amazing, not only because Dave and Christopher clearly loved a cappella as much as I did, but also because they were like me. They had been deeply impacted by their collegiate a cappella experiences, and they realized that exiting college did not mean you could not still love and be a part of the a cappella community.

Anyway, after listening to them for a few months, I thought about publishing my own a cappella blog. But life intervened with the birth of my first child and a heavy caseload at work.

This year, my second child was born and work has continued to be busy, but I also attended the voCALnation a cappella conference in New York City. I wasn’t part of a Contemporary A cappella League group, but I was very interested in attending some of the workshops, such as one with terrific arrangers like Tom Anderson, Nick Girard, Christopher Diaz, and Clare Wheeler, and also some of the recording workshops like one put on by Dave Sperandio. I had a great time, and even ran into an old friend from my high school a cappella group.

Also, this summer, I stumbled onto (with help from Peter Hollens) a website called Turntable, where a bunch of people, both fans and performers, involved with a cappella music were interacting, playing their favorite groups or songs and chatting about upcoming performances, group membership changes, and so on. It was thrilling to learn about new groups and interact with people whose names I had heard and people who I had never heard of before, all of whom shared this common interest. (I was there under the handle “db1bulldog”, a reference to a college nickname which need not be explained here).

Between this and VoCALnation, I had ideas. Ideas about songwriting (from the amazing Duwende workshop), about arranging, about recording. About being involved again. So, even though I had put aside a cappella for years, acknowledging I was too busy, I couldn’t resist the need to sing again. Recently, I auditioned for an a cappella group which wasn’t really looking for what I had to offer. But the truth is committing to an a cappella group now would be difficult if not impossible. In fact, it would not be fair to any group, because my family and my job have such a grip on my time right now. Being in an a cappella group requires commitment and patience, time and effort and practice– at least if it is done right.

I hope that when things calm down for me in another year or two (is that even realistic with 2 kids?), I will try again to start up a group of my own.  Until then, however, I needed an outlet for my thoughts on the a cappella explosion which is going on in pop culture right now and the rapid and exciting developments which are occurring within the a cappella world itself. More importantly, I needed a way back into the a cappella community. The acatribe. I needed to communicate with my people.

So, here we are. I have a LOT of thoughts about a cappella music. About what I listen to, what I see, what I like (and don’t like), and what I want to see more of. I am more interested in professional and semi-professional groups in recent years, so you may notice more of a focus on those categories, but I also listen to college recordings from the BOCA and SING series and will certainly touch on those groups as well. Sometimes I’ll write things which interest acafans who are not singers. Sometimes I’ll write highly specific or technical thoughts about more advanced a cappella ideas or concepts. Perhaps nobody will care. But dammit, I’m putting it out there anyway.

Where’s the pitchpipe?! Let’s get this show started!