Albumania!

It is consistently amazing to me just how much more a cappella product is being introduced on a monthly or weekly basis now than when I first started listening 15 years ago. At times, it is actually difficult to keep up with the latest albums, singles, YouTube videos, etc.

Well, I’m going to do what I can to help all of us in the aca-community keep up with recent album releases from contemporary pro and semi-pro groups. To do so with the college groups would be virtually impossible, though I will mention a few noteworthy albums here and there as well. In any event, since this is my first post on this, I will identify and summarize albums released in the past 3 months or so, and then list those which are rumored to be coming out in the next few weeks or months. In this case, we have reached that time of year where the holiday albums come out fast and furious. It is actually astonishing how many talented groups released a holiday album in the past two years, and there are a few with tremendous potential coming out this season as well.

Most of the albums which have already been released are available for purchase through various digital music retailers such as iTunes or Amazon. If you, like me, are unable to purchase every single a cappella album which seems interesting (though I certainly wish I could), some of these are also available for listening through Spotify, and you can use this terrific service to listen and decide which albums are worth shelling out your hard-earned money.

Without further ado, and no particular order, here are some recent noteworthy a cappella albums:

CommittedCommitted: The debut album from the winners of Season 2 of the Sing Off is full of sleek, heavily-produced tracks which make Committed sound like Take 6 on steroids (or HGH?). When the Sing Off ended last season, I believed the wrong group won. This album proves me very, very wrong. The arrangements on this record are fantastic, and the group drops surprising and mind-blowing chords and progressions like the rest of us drop spare change. The production is very tight, perhaps too much so at times (there isn’t a whole lot of air in the mixes), but there isn’t a bad-sounding track on the album. The group also takes some risks, like re-imagining the all-time southern-rock classic “Sweet Home Alabama,” a very bold choice for a song which many rock fans might well consider sacrosanct. The result? A fantastic version of the song which is as catchy and addictive as the original, but for totally different reasons. All in all, a really strong debut album and probably a must-have for any collector of contemporary a cappella.

Street Corner SymphonyUnpractice Makes Perfect: The debut album from the runners-up of Season 2 of the Sing Off is a breezy, light album with more than a touch of southern charm and a few smiles, but is perhaps a bit lacking in identity. In many ways, this album is the polar opposite of the Committed album, and it is perhaps unfair to compare the two considering the (likely) disparity in recording budgets. Contrasting with the dense, complicated arrangements which Committed chose to utilize, the arrangements here are generally more sparse, straightforward, cleaner, and more accessible to the listener. This is not a bad thing, as the performances really shine and the music is very easy on the ears. The production is clean, professional, and also accessible (meaning this is an album which will not likely cause non-acaphiles to suggest that an instrument was used in a track).  The biggest problem which I feel every time I listen to this album is a sense, about halfway through, that the group hasn’t gone anywhere and doesn’t intend to leave a somewhat narrow zone of music.  Yes, they do mellow music and laid-back charm very well, but the album doesn’t deviate from that model or grow a whole lot from start to finish.  The talent here is unquestioned, and there are some really terrific moments on the album, so I look forward to seeing what they can do with a little more time and ambition on the next album.  Bonus points for an album which features some a cappella original songs!

Tufts BeelzebubsBATTLE: Ok, ok, I know I said no college albums. But the Beelzebubs are the exception to every college a cappella rule, right? They have been at the forefront of college a cappella for so long, and the list of their alumni in the contemporary a cappella scene (both on mic and behind the mixing board) is so extensive that each of their albums is noteworthy and closer to a semi-pro (or perhaps professional) a cappella album than to a standard college group’s album. Sure enough, they begin with a track (now on Sing 8: Too Cubed) that breaks new ground. If you are web savvy or listen to Mouth Off, you probably remember the Bubs inviting anyone with a microphone to sing a few refrains from the song “Kings and Queens” apb by 30 Seconds to Mars and email it to the group for inclusion on the recorded track. And sure enough, right before the end of the song, you hear a chorus which sounds very large indeed of singers who may well not be members of the Beelzebubs. This is not likely to be a gimmick which many groups will repeat, but it was a cool idea and I applaud the creativity. As for the rest of the album, it is really quite good. I know the guys on Mouth Off suggested that it wasn’t “ambitious” enough, but I think I disagree (or perhaps we have different applications of the word “ambitious”). The majority of the album consists of 3 types of songs: epic rock tunes (which are always ambitious to me, in the sense that they really cannot sound good without depth, experience, and a very high quality arrangement), R&B/Hip-hop tunes, and Indie Rock tunes.  The first category is ambitious for the reasons I stated; the second is ambitious because it is clear that very few college groups can really pull off R&B or Hip-hop without the listener questioning: “Why, oh why, did they try this and why did they not realize they would fail?” I think the Bubs were ambitious for knowing that they could pull these tunes off where other groups could not, and I think they were generally correct. As for the indie rock tunes, I’m not sure they qualify as “ambitious” but any group which wants to really make a Rufus Wainwright song work clearly demonstrate their ambition.

All in all, a great album with top-notch arranging and production.

The Boxettes- The Boxettes: This is the EP that will be considered the turning of the tide in contemporary non-collegiate female a cappella. The timing is right, with Delilah captivating on the Sing Off and Musae captivating online and at SoJam, but this is the first album that shows that an all female group can be as badass as the boys while sounding haunting and stunningly beautiful in ways the guys simply can’t. It’s only a few songs, I know, but trust me- you need to buy this album.

ForkPink Noise Live: Whaaaat is happeningggg?!?! I have never seen Fork live, but it was my understanding that they consist of 4 members. I know this because the interwebs tell me so. Listening to this album, I know either my ears are lying, or the worldwide web is. In reality, I’m sure they use a variety of pedals, processors, and other goodies to get a fuller sound. Nevertheless, it is impressive. Not every arrangement blows me away, but when I remember that they are only 4 corporeal bodies, I am generally impressed.

RedlineInbound: Just released on 11/11/11, I haven’t yet gotten my hands on this debut album. Considering it landed a track on Sing 8, it must be pretty impressive.

The BackbeatsThe Backbeats (from The Sing-Off): Another album released in the past 2 weeks, another album I have not yet heard. The samples sound good, and I think I read somewhere that Sing Off arranger Ben Bram was involved in the production. Can’t wait to hear it!

And some upcoming releases:

Straight No Chaser: Six Pack, Vol. 2– Due out on Nov. 29, this EP has such diverse songs as “Like a Prayer,” “Get Ready,” and “Buddy Holly.”

Sonos: I believe an album of original music is due out next Spring from this absurdly talented group.

Musae: Their first single, “I am Woman,” is up on iTunes and was played on the Nov. 13, 2011, episode of Mouth Off! Can’t wait to hear what else is coming from this up-and-coming female powerhouse group.

Euphonism: This Washington D.C. Contemporary A Cappella League group is busily working on their full-length debut, tentatively due out in January, 2012.

And some recent and upcoming holiday releases:

The Sing-Off- Songs of the Season: This album features holiday songs covered by numerous groups from Season 3 of the show, as well as one each from Committed and The Backbeats.

Eclipse- It’s Christmas Time: I have not heard the album, but the guys at Mouth Off gave it a great review on the 11/6/11 show right here.

Rockapella- A Rockapella Holiday: Just released this past week, this is Rockapella’s third holiday album, and their first with the current lineup. It appears to have all different songs from the previous 2 holiday albums, and features some very different songs such as “Happy Christma-Hanu-Kwanzaa Holiday” and “Ukranian Carol.”

CadenceCool Yule: Due out any day now!

Swingle Singers- According to their recent post on Twitter, the famous Swingle Singers will be releasing a holiday EP on November 27, 2011.

PS- DON’T FORGET, each song performed on Season 3 of the Sing Off is available for purchase on iTunes and available for listening on Spotify. I suspect that these are mixes directly from the soundboard, so you get a truer sense of how the groups are singing than listening on your television. And this, indeed, is a very good thing.

The Sing Off- Time to Vote (Ep. 10)

Last week I was busy posting reviews of the Voca People show and the Sonos concert in NYC, so I did not get an opportunity to post about the Sing Off. I don’t have much to say about last week’s episode other than that I believed that either Vocal Point or the Aires would go home, and I didn’t have a major problem with Vocal Point going home. I do think that Vocal Point were generally more consistent musically, but the Aires somehow managed to out-perform a group (Vocal Point) who is KNOWN for being tremendous performers a couple of times. In addition, as the judges have suggested on more than one occasion, the Aires have an identifiable and killer “lead singer” or soloist in Michael which Vocal Point simply couldn’t match.

In any event, let’s move on to this penultimate episode, the result of which nearly led the aca-razzi on Twitter to stage a full-blown revolution.

The two themes of this show were “Mastermixes” (aka mashups), and “Judge’s Choice” (where the judges choose a song for the group to perform). The four remaining groups, Pentatonix, Afro Blue, Urban Method, and the Dartmouth Aires, put together the most consistently entertaining show of this season (and perhaps of any season).  Nearly every performance was at a very high level, making it difficult to predict who would go home.

Don’t forget you can find lots of information, including clips, analysis, and the ability to purchase tracks from the show at Sin3g.

Pentatonix: I liked the idea of a mashup of Cee-Lo’s “Forget You” and Kelly Clarkson’s “Since U Been Gone,” and in some ways it worked really well. The first part, which was the latter song, was nice and simple and smooth, and then they immediately shifted into “Forget You” and it started a little strange before settling in. Next, they had a short battle between Avi (bass) and Kevin (VP), which was entertaining, and then they started a real mashup with parts of both songs going and it was here that things were a little awkward. It just felt like the momentum and tempo were a little stilted.  All that being said, it was an overall good performance there is no question that these guys are the most innovative and consistent group in the competition.

Far more interesting to me, however, was the group’s cover of “Dog Days Are Over” by Florence and the Machine. As soon as the judges announced that this was the song they chose, I was intrigued. Florence and the Machine are becoming overcovered in college a cappella now, but I could really see this group doing some interesting things with the song, and I was pleased to be correct. The song started sparse, building through the verse and chorus, a very smart arrangement (as usual), and then boom: four dropped out, leaving Mitch with a beautiful solo. I think this was smart for 2 reasons: 1) the judges always praise the rhythm section (Avi and Kevin) and Scott (solos) and Kirstie (solos), leaving it to seem like Mitch was the weakest link– this section proved the group has no weak links; 2) the group just knows how to add dramatic flair. After Mitch floated through that solo, the group came back in on soft “ooh’s” which were just right, and then the VP picked back up and the group finished very strong. I’m not a huge Florence and the Machine fan, but I wanted to buy this song as soon as they finished singing it. And that’s what Pentatonix does so well.

Urban Method: The mashup of “Hot in Herre” and “Fever” was definitely a solid and smart performance from Urban Method. They were smart in choosing the female lead; she really nailed the sultry, breathy solo. The song started strong, and once they went into “Fever” they were sparse but full enough to not sound empty or awkward (as they have occasionally struggled to avoid in the past). The transition into the Nelly tune was seamless, and of course Myke was great with the lead. The backs here were a little pitchy, but not so much as to be distracting. I really liked the ladies singing a unison “I am getting so hot, I wanna take my clothes off” and then the saxophone sax was also very cool. Then they broke down the beat and mashed the two songs together, which worked well. All in all, they may have tried to do a little too much as the song went along, but ambition is only a problem on a show like this when the sound or performance goes down the tubes, and it really didn’t here.

“All of the Lights” was a little underwhelming. Granted, the fact that I have heard a few other covers of this song which I really like may have raised my expectations a little. As usual, the rhythm section and Myke were good, though Myke struggled a little singing the lower notes and was actually off a little on his timing in a few spots. And, repeating some of the problems from their earlier performances, the backs were inconsistent in terms of pitch and intonation. I thought the whole group rushed the female rap, and I got a little nervous that things were derailing but then I liked when they used the mics to segue into the breakdown section, which they did a nice job with. I think this performance proved that Urban Method can do some things really well, but struggles at times to make sure that their whole is greater than the sum of their parts.

Afro Blue: I absolutely loved the way the group started off this mashup of “Fly” and “I Believe I Can Fly.”  It was soft, smooth, and totally sincere. The  first solo (Christie), from “Fly,” was just so genuine and the arrangement in the background was really smart and well-executed through the beginning. The transition to “I Believe I Can Fly” was perfect, and the arrangement continued to impress. In general, the arrangement really allowed Afro Blue to do the things they do well, singing complicated or unexpected chords without any trouble. The transition to the rap was a little awkward, and I thought she rushed the rap a little, but of course Reggie kept things in check on the bass, and they then went back into a nice detailed and textured return to the mashup of both songs. Very well sung, well designed performance.

The second tune, chosen by the judges, was Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come.”  This group is so incredibly talented at making everything sound effortless while they are singing chords and progressions that most groups would find incredibly difficult. As usual, Reggie laid down a very smooth and grooving bassline to anchor the whole song.The solo (Christie again) was emotional and stirring. Once again, the arrangement was smart and effective, not wandering too far from the original but tying it nicely into what they do so well.

I got both comforted and concerned with the judges’ reactions to this performance. Ben Folds was actually a little tongue-tied, Sara Bareilles said she was emotional…I could tell the judges loved the performance, yet they seemed sad about it. This led me to believe that, despite the caliber of the performance, Afro Blue might well be going home. I was hoping, however, that the judges were just impressed enough to keep them.

The Dartmouth Aires: These guys started their mashup with “Sympathy for the Devil” by the Rolling Stones, and I really enjoyed the beginning. The rhythm section was grooving nicely, the group used its size to hit some nice arpeggios and some very full-sounding chords. Though the theatrical transition (the handshake) was cool, it was an awkward musical transition to Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way.” Of course, as always, Michael was killer on his part of the solo. I thought the bass started to struggle a little more in this portion, going sharp a couple of times. They really have the weakest bass section (1 guy? really? With this many members?) of the remaining groups. I also wasn’t blown away by the creativity or completeness of the VP. Of course, as always, these guys do the visual part of the performance very well. I thought it was a very high energy performance, great solos, great theatrics, good but not great arrangement and performance of the backing parts.

Well, the judges chose a curious song for the Aires to perform second, the Isley Brothers’ “Shout.” Of course this kind of song is perfect for the Aires in terms of energy and stage presence, but it is fairly boring musically except for the solo. This is one of my biggest problems with the Aires continuing presence on the show. They are undoubtedly the most interesting group visually on this Season. But if you remove the soloist (Michael), they are very middle-of-the-pack musically. I guess this presents the classic dichotomy in college a cappella, which is whether a group should/can try to be superlative at both the music and the visual component and whether it is even possible to be excellent at both. When I was music director of 2 groups in college, I always focused on getting the sound as tight as possible, though I now realize the total lack of focus on visual was very detrimental to our performances. On the flip side, when a group goes all out visually like the Aires did here, the music starts to sound like a big, hot mess of voices.

Don’t get me wrong, the Aires did some interesting things musically with a very simple song, but if you listened to the performance without watching, I think you would almost certainly place them 4th out of 4 groups. The judges obviously love Michael, and I do think he has huge star potential because he is a top-notch performer BOTH visually and musically. Unfortunately, the rest of the group really struggled musically. However, they do know how to blow the roof off the place with their energy.

Decision Time

I found the whole “Sing Off” between Afro Blue and the Aires to be a little contrived this time around. Unfortunately, I thought Afro Blue chose their 3rd or 4th best song of the show (“American Boy”), whereas the Aires chose the song which proved (later) to be their most successful and popular, the portion of the Queen medley “Somebody to Love.”  I have to hand it to the Aires, it was a very smart choice, and based on that alone they probably deserved to stay. But based on the full catalog of work, I strongly believed Afro Blue was a better group and a better candidate to make the Final 3.

And, for the second time this season, I felt that the judges’ comments and decision-making was also contrived. I tweeted shortly after the show ended that I absolutely refuse to believe that Ben Folds was more impressed musically with the Aires, unless he based his decision entirely on the strength of Michael as a soloist.  Later that night, Ben tweeted about the beating he was taking on Twitter about the decision, and he decided to respond in a blog post which you can read here.  He began by explaining that Afro Blue are his “personal favorites” and then danced around the actual decision, saying that it was very difficult for a jazz group, which would necessarily be an underdog in a competition like this, to win it all. He seemed to praise the idea that Afro Blue could even be cast, which was strange because the judges have made it clear at the beginning of each season that any type of vocal group (e.g. Maxx Factor [barber shop] and North Shore [Doo Wop]) belonged on the stage in this type of competition.  So what bothered me about the explanation (if you can call it that) was that he seemed to be saying that Afro Blue achieved a moral victory by being cast and hanging around for most of the season. I guess this was his way of avoiding talking about the fact that they were clearly one of the 2 most purely talented groups in the competition, and one of the 2 groups most likely to trigger an emotional response or goosebumps from the audience.

I have to admit, the decision to remove them at this point really bothered me for these reasons, and I found Ben’s answer totally unsatisfying. More importantly, even though I have frequently defended the producers of the show as ultimately doing the right thing, I feel that their presumed intrusion here to eliminate a jazz group which they might perceive as having insufficient prospects as a commercial act was deeply harmful to the integrity of the show.

Now, as I alluded to before, many of the members of the a cappella community, not the general public, went to Twitter to air their grievances. There, someone also commented that we should recognize that Afro Blue’s elimination only prevented them from finishing 2nd, as the a cappella community seems to assume (perhaps correctly) that Pentatonix will win it all. And while this may be true and it is a good point, I think Afro Blue really deserved the opportunity to make it to the Final 3 and show that jazz/gospel of this kind has a place in a final round of a show like that. Their visual performances may not have been as stunning as the Aires, but musically they were the most complete and maybe most overall talented group in the competition. I just think they deserved the respect of making the final round of competition.

In any event, I was disappointed, but went on to iTunes the next morning and bought any of their songs I had not already purchased as my protest from their dismissal. :-)   I urge you to do the same.

So, now we have 3 groups remaining: Pentatonix, Urban Method, and the Aires. If you haven’t already, you can vote in the following ways:

Text “1” for Pentatonix, “2” for Urban Method, or “3” for the Aires to 97979.

Vote on the Sing Off website here.

Or call Call 1-877-674-6401 for Pentatonix,

1-877-674-6402 for Urban Method, or

1-877-674-6403

You should vote NOW, before you forget. There are only a few days left to vote.

For what it’s worth, I still believe Pentatonix are (and should be) the favorites to win it all, as they have been consistent, creative, talented, and they certainly are young and cute, 2 attributes which will help them sell records and tickets. I really enjoy their distinctive style and take on songs, and I love their rhythm section more than any group I have seen in a long time.

Feel free to email me any thoughts or comments, and don’t forget to encourage everyone to tune in to the finale this coming Monday, November 28!

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.

VOCA PEOPLE: Inter-galactic Acas (Review)

According to the story, the Voca People are a group of extra-terrestrials whose spaceship crashed here on earth (in this case, in upstate New York) and is now stuck without sufficient fuel to return home. The only thing which will recharge the ship, we are told, is musical energy.

Sound weird or quirky? Perhaps, but it serves as an effective vehicle for what this show, Voca People (now playing 6 days a week in Manhattan), really offers: a performance of entirely a cappella music, featuring styles ranging from classical to movie themes to rock and pop music, interwoven with a terrific mix of choreography, humor, and audience participation.

When the show, seen last week at the Westside Theater (only a few blocks from Broadway) begins, the Voca People wander onto the stage chattering in an unintelligible language while their spaceship sits off to the side. They quickly establish the story by convincing an audience member in the first row to stand up and raise his hand, which an all-white clad performer grasps.

Through this contact, during which the entire cast shakes and shudders, they apparently learn our language (English) and much about American culture.

The group of 8 performers onstage consists of 3 male vocal parts: the bass, baritone, and tenor; 3 female parts: the alto, mezzo, and soprano; 1 vocal percussionist and 1 beatboxer (though these two cross over onto each other’s turf several times throughout the show). The group begins by working through the evolution of music, a process which includes both Mozart and Michael Jackson, then performs a medley of movie themes, before the central thread of the show becomes clear: the group must garner audience response and participation which will help produce the “energy” necessary to power their ship.

As an a cappella junkie, I attended this show with an interest and focus on the music rather than the storyline. In other words, I entered the theater expecting to watch an a cappella concert with a superficial story loosely designed to tie together a lot of music .  Considering this mindset, the quirky story and the frequent use of audience participation were a bit jarring to me initially, which says more about me than about the show itself.  As a result, it took some time for me to relax and absorb the entire experience. Once I did, however, I was thoroughly entertained. The show features no real “set” or props to speak of, other than the spaceship which sits on the side of the stage and progressively lights up as the musical energy is harnessed (read: as the show progresses). The show also features little scripted dialogue, other than occasional explanations or instructions from the psuedo-narrator, the beatboxer.  As a result, the performers are forced to keep the audience entertained with a constant flow of singing, dancing, facial expressions, and gibberish.  To this end, they did a terrific job. The use of frequent audience interaction was also a very effective tool. At various points, the performers exited the stage and “read”  or translated audience members’ thoughts (through sounds or music), used audience members as props for instruments that the performers mimicked vocally (my friend Pat, sitting in an aisle seat, had his arm used as a prop for a pretty impressive vocal guitar), and even offered a fresh take on the standard a cappella fare of choosing a woman from the audience to serenade. The resulting jealousy by the three female Voca’s, leading them to pull three male audience members up onstage and perform a sketch far more entertaining than a standard ballad, resulted in some of the funniest moments of the show.  I would say the audience participation component, which clearly changes based on the personalities of the audience members selected, made up 15 or 20 minutes of the show and generated the vast majority of the comedic moments. The choreography throughout the show was also simple yet effective.

Since I was listening with a critical ear as a former a cappella singer and current a cappella blogger, I felt a need to pay close attention to the quality of the arrangements and the vocal performances themselves. To begin with, the vocal percussion and beatboxing were stellar, with a steady drive and some outstanding scratches that really impressed me. Behind them, the singers were equally talented. Their voices held up well across a wide range of music, and the women in particular offered some outstanding and passionate solos. The bass was very solid, resonant, and his pitch never faltered, a fact which allowed the other parts to thrive on a potpourri of vocal imitations, including guitars, horns, and strings while avoiding the intonation problems which can result from such mimicry. Though it was likely through no fault of the performers, the percussion and soprano mics were a bit loud in the mix, leaving the middle parts  muddled at times in this particular performance. I think this was harmful to the quality of the overall blend, but again, I suspect that, aside from a few moments of genuine pitch struggles, the problem was frequently happening at the mixing board and not onstage. Any moments where pitch was a concern in those middle parts can be attributed to, and expected in, an 80-minute show with singing, dancing, and general entertaining.

As with any music involving medleys, the transitions are critical to the effectiveness and success of the performance. Impressively, the transitions here were well-executed and essentially seamless. The songs included within the medleys were generally well-known and identifiable to the audience, though there were a few numbers which I (and those around me) did not recognize.  Nevertheless, the song selection was perfectly adequate and offered what would certainly be more than a few staples from any karaoke bar or radio playlist from the past 30 years.

This show was funny– at times shockingly so– and entertaining for a solid hour and a half, and it will surely appeal to those young and old, musician and non-musician alike.

In a sense, those of us in the a cappella performing community are all “voca people,” trying our best to use just voices, stage presence, and occasionally humor to entertain and provoke a response from the audience. The Voca People conclude towards the end of the show that “music is life, life is music,” and this is surely a foundational belief that drives the a cappella community.

If you are able to catch the Voca People before they blast off for another city, I highly recommend it. They are, after all, “our” people. Or “people.”

Voca People (New York)

Westside Theatre

407 W.43rd St., New York

http://vocapeoplenyc.com/

The Sing Off Episode 8- Rock and Pseudo-Country Music

I have a few other posts in the works this week, so I’m going to keep it relatively short  for my summary of this week’s episode of the Sing Off.  I was a little surprised by the result, but even more surprised by the general level of inconsistency with the groups. I thought the only groups to perform two songs at an average or better level were Pentatonix and Urban Method, the first of which did not surprise me, and the second of which DID surprise me.

Without further ado…

Pentatonix– Despite the potential great disparity between a classic rock tune and a country tune, several of the groups chose to perform songs which weren’t all that different from each other. Pentatonix, however, started with a sneering, growling version of “Born to be Wild.” The rhythm section drove it, and the other backing voices were appropriately subdued to let Avi and Kevin just burn it up. This was fun, articulate, and top-notch, as usual.

For their second tune, Pentatonix chose a laid-back, clean, smooth version of Sugarland’s “Stuck Like Glue.” The reggae section in the middle was a little closer to a typical “Pentatonix-style” performance, but even in the beginning and end, the song was consistent, well-sung, and very hard to pick apart.

Dartmouth Aires– Starting with Twisted Sister’s “We’re Not Gonna Take It,” the Aires offered yet another high-energy performance full of visual, visceral power. The arrangement was fairly busy from the get-go, and I actually found it a bit overwhelming to the point of perhaps distraction. It wasn’t bad, but I felt like it was just a little heavy on the ears (which, to be fair, is true of Twisted Sister’s original too). I really did enjoy the little transition (“and now we’re going to the bridge…”), and I really did not enjoy the joking attempt at choral singing. It was a cute idea, and I even sang a rock song or two in college with my group that had just such a segment, but I found it a weak distraction from the driving force of the song. Overall, the song was pretty good, if a bit sloppy musically.

As for the Brooks and Dunn cover, many of the same criticisms and praises apply. These guys always crank out absurd levels of energy in their performances, and they didn’t seem so far out of their element with this song, largely because it isn’t the most traditionally classic “country” song. My biggest problem, again, was the very crowded arrangement and sometimes blaring sound of the backing voices. I know it isn’t always easy to arrange for 15 singers (although it can be a lot of fun) on a very upbeat tune without sounding too busy, but I felt that this song was also a little heavy on the ear. Nevertheless, it was hard to take issue with the overall performance, and I have to say they definitely nail the showmanship aspect of performing each song. Now if they could be a little tighter and more nuanced with the music, they could have a real shot at reaching the finals.

Afro Blue– Oh, Afro Blue. Why do you seem so lost the past 2 weeks? The good news is that the group still does what it does really really well. I mean, the problem with this song wasn’t the actual performance of the song, as they hit every crucial chord and executed the song very well. I thought the problem was the arrangement, specifically the choices they made with the arrangement, and maybe even with selecting the song. I mean, there are plenty of classic rock artists and songs out there which Afro Blue could have chosen which they could really manipulate to make their own in a smarter, more natural way which works to their crossover strengths. I just felt very lukewarm about the overall arc and choices they made with this song. This got me a little worried about where they would head with their second performance…

Which was SO much better. Lady Antebellum’s “Need You Now” really allowed the group to emphasize their emotional, vulnerable, subtle capabilities…something which they might do better than any other group in the competition (other than Delilah, but sadly they are gone). Nice belltones to start, light smooth “oohs” act as a pad underneath the very delicate solo and harmonies… this is one thing which Afro Blue does so well.  I was so glad to hear them regain their sensibilities with this song. It wasn’t perfect, it wasn’t one of their top 2 or 3 performances on the show, but it was clearly very effective.

Delilah– I thought “Dream on” started out great, sparse with the pedal just like the original. Then things got… complicated. The ladies had a few pitch problems once the song hit the chorus, and I can’t decide after several listens if the problem may have been related to the syllables they were on, which produced a very spread (and potentially grating) sound. It also seemed like some of the inner parts were really struggling to find a pitch center. As usual, Amy rocked the solo and the VP was very good.  The ladies went all out on this song, and I totally respect their choices, which were legitimate and well-founded. But, as with some of their past performances, the pitch problems left them a bit exposed (and no, I do not think that the problem here related to the fact that they lack any male voices).

When they began “If I Die Young,” I thought they might redeem themselves from the first performance. The intro did a nice job of building upon the solo and growing with nice layers. I thought the song was incredibly expressive and tender, and really a very convincing performance overall. At first I thought there pitch issues, but as I relistened, I realized the problem was more the sagging energy under the persistent “aaaahs” that they sang through the first minute or so.  There were also a few issues with timing on syncopated sections. Tremendous solo, really rich bass part, and the lower sections did a nice job playing off each other. I thought this was a very moving performance, if a bit low on energy in the backs.

Urban MethodI really liked how these guys started “Here I Go Again” with the simple harmonies and kick drum, then the bass dropped in and the chords built a little, and then… BAM! New style which Whitesnake never considered for the original (I would assume). I think this was a risk which worked, particularly because of Myke’s ridiculous skill and his recreation of the rhythm and the use of two trios in the second chorus. In the past, I have been unimpressed with the backing vocals utilized by this group either as a result of arrangement issues or pitch issues. For this performance, I actually liked the arrangement, and heard no serious pitch issues. As always, the rhythm section was tight, and I thought the ladies sounded very controlled on the backing vocals. Overall, a smart arrangement and great performance.

The second tune, “Before He Cheats,” was a little more straightforward and more typical a cappella cover from a group which rarely does that. This time, the group really went away from their typical strengths, and did a very convincing job. Though she is not a typical “country” singer, the soloist (Katie?) was terrific. The 2 female harmonies were very solid, and the rhythm section was predictably successful. For the second time on this show, the backing vocals had no pitch problems, and the parts worked well together. Overall, I wouldn’t say this was a top-notch performance, but it was definitely hard to find serious flaws in it.

Vocal Point– Now THIS is how you use a guitar feedback/flange sound which other groups have failed to produce earlier in the season. The beginning of “You Really Got Me” is dark and twisted, sinister almost. Slow kick drum drives through it, picking up until they turn it into what the song actually sounds like… sort of. And that’s where they lost me a bit. I mean, let’s be honest, the song is something of a one-trick pony, by which I mean it just repeats over and over again. The soloist worked hard to make it interesting, and he did a great job, but the backgrounds were simple and generally uninteresting until they went through the hammering chords into the breakdown, which was pretty sweet. Then it dropped back into the regular rock beat and backs, and I was somewhat uninterested again. End it all with a series of jazzy chords and a high note on the solo, and I’m back in. I guess I found the song inconsistent, but it certainly wasn’t due to any flaws in the performance. Chalk it up to another situation where I just didn’t love the arrangement, but these guys clearly know how to energize any performance.

Interesting choice (and smart) to take a rock song, “Life is a Highway,” which was later covered by a country(ish) group. The arrangement was fairly smart, if somewhat simple, and they did a terrific modulation towards the end which really locked. As always, these guys sounded great. They have rarely demonstrated any problems with pitch or rhythm, and that was equally apparent here. The soloist did a nice job, and the overall feel I took from the group’s performance was “Safe.” I would have liked to see them take a few more risks in the arrangement, vocal effects, or something else, but you really can’t fault them for choosing a song they could probably could do in their sleep (especially given their apparent return to school and the travel schedule).

As always, these guys are fun, talented, generally smart about their choices.

Overall, I thought it was an interesting night. My first reaction to Delilah’s exit was shock, but now that I have listened to the entire show again (and again, and again), I can see the judges didn’t really have much choice.  At this stage, there were only 6 groups left, each of which has a particular skill set and undeniable talent. I really liked the emotion, soloists, and niche that Delilah brought to the show, and for those reasons alone I thought they had a chance to make the finals.  Unfortunately, they also suffered from periodic pitch problems, and their arrangements occasionally failed to temper the potential problems they had in featuring a slew of powerhouse voices who were frequently forced to sing background parts (can’t all sing solo all the time).

I really enjoyed them the first two performances and the last 3 or 4 performances, and I know at least a few of them are going to be performing with Musae this weekend at SoJam, so these ladies will be back in some shape or form. For now, the wheel keeps on spinning and next week we get to watch another talented group go home.

Thanks for tuning in!