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!)

Vocaldoings II

As always, there is so much going on in the a cappella world, I felt the need for another Vocaldoings post to update you all. If I have omitted anything big, please feel free to comment and if I remember, I’ll add it to the body of the post!

Live A cappella

Sing Strong, the terrific festival put together by Jonathan Minkoff, will be staged in Reston Virginia next weekend. There are a number of top-notch performers, including Pentatonix, so check out the website and see if tickets are still available. (wish I could go!)

Duwende recently completed a series of performances at the Java Jazz Festival in Jakarta, Indonesia.  A few other performers you might have heard of: Bobby McFerrin, Stevie Wonder, Erykah Badu, Herbie Hancock, and Pat Metheny. No big deal, right?! Congratulations to Duwende.

The House Jacks are currently on tour in the Pacific Northwest. In April, they will be heading out the east coast for a number of gigs, including one at the Bitter End in NYC (as far as I can remember, this is one place they always try to play when they are in NYC). If you have never seen them before, this is your chance- do it.

Human Nature, from Australia, are about to begin touring the U.S., and they just released their U.S. debut album, “The Motown Record.” They are also doing a contest on this tour seeking opening groups for each city. Check out the finalists here.

Get Vocal 2012– The weeklong vocal festival in Australia wraps up today. Hopefully there will be some video clips of the terrific groups from the festival, including The Idea of North, online soon.

A cappella Blog doings

Marc Silverberg, a part-time faculty member at Five Towns College in New York and alumnus of the Westminster Deaftones has started a new blog entitled “The Quest for an A cappella Major.” Some thought-provoking posts, check it out here.

Rob Dietz, over at Human Feedback, has a great new post identifying and explaining what he likes about certain a cappella tracks. Check it out here.

As always, the guys over at The A cappella Blog have a lot going on. They recently posted analysis of their ICCA competition bracket competition and offered Part II of their “Unauthorized History of the Acapocalypse,” an “episodic narrative” tracing the formation of a fictional a cappella group. Also, their Kickstarter campaign met its funding and then some. Congratulations to Mike and Mike.

Deke Sharon continued his insightful and provocative series of blog posts on CASA.org with a new post, “Commerce vs. Creativity.” Be sure to check it out here.

Albums

Euphonism, the terrific CAL group based in Washington, D.C., has released their new album, “Stuck in a Memory.” It is available on iTunes now.

As reader and fellow blogger LovedeAcapella pointed out in the comments section for the last Vocaldoings, Take 6 has a new album coming out called “One.” The album may not be entirely a cappella, but I’m sure it will be worth checking out.

Videos

Peter Hollens has a great new video up covering gotye’s “Somebody That I Used to Know” which you can check out here.

Pentatonix did a nice live cover of Rihanna’s “You Da One” which you can check out here.

Also from the Sing Off Season 3, Urban Method offered up a video of “Me and You” performed live in Colorado, which you can see here.

It’s not brand new, but since my last Vocaldoings post, Italian aca-geniuses Cluster posted a video in which they took an…interesting…. YouTube user singing something vaguely resembling Adele and turned it into something new altogether. Check it out here.

Kickstarter

Justin Glodich, singer, songwriter, member of The Fault Line, and former Potsdam Pointercount (my college group) is also a music teacher in Eldred, NY. The high school group he directs, the Eldred Key Elements, have a project aiming to help them record their first album. Check it out and pledge here.

Harmony Sweepstakes

You can find all of the specific awards and result here, but the bulletpoints are as follows:

New York winners: Audiofeels, from Poland

Los Angeles winners: Down 4 the Count

Pacific Northwest winners: Six Appeal (featured on my AcaVids segment a few weeks ago)

San Francisco (Bay Are) winners: Sing Theory

Mid-Atlantic winners: GQ

ICCA

All of the quarterfinals have completed, and you can check out the results here.

Last night, the UGA Accidentals won their regional semifinal and will be headed to the finals in NYC. Congratulations, guys!

ICHSA

You can check out the latest results on the high school competition here.

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.