HomeRecording Review: Vanderbilt Melodores 2009-10: "Rain Check"

Among 7 or so a cappella groups at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, an all-male, 16-member group called the Melodores has released a CD. Rain Check is the title of their latest release and gets its name from Nashville's "1000-year flood" that brought great damage to Nashville in May of 2010. The CD contains both live and studio recorded songs, with traditionally performed a cappella repertoire combined with some choral works, medleys and an original. The Melodores, having placed 3rd in the 2011 ICCA finals, losing only to two familiar groups of “Sing-Off” fame (Vocal Point and Pitch Slapped), have produced an enjoyable CD with some big hits and some not-so-big hits.

Interspersed within the song selections are what are called MeloTags: THX, Horror, Smooth Jazz, and Original. Each MeloTag sings the name of the group ending on a chord that represents the titled MeloTag. I thought these were clever and different and I was taken back to my days in the show Forever Plaid where the show starts off with us singing our group name. Each MeloTag is only a few seconds long and I have to say Smooth Jazz was my favorite. Horror--not so scary. This may catch on with other groups and if it does, the Melodores 2009-10 will be considered trendsetters--except of course for the Barbershoppers who have been doing it for years.

Looking beyond the 4 MeloTags, there are 11 tracks that make up the album Rain Check. The CD was produced by Shane Stever, music directed by Suranjan Sen (both group members), and the arrangements were done by various members of the group with Sen doing more than half of the arrangements. Listed below are the tracks and my review of each:

“Papa Was a Rolling Stone”
The first time I heard an a cappella version of “Papa Was a Rolling Stone” was by a group called the Edlos when I was 15. Since then I have yet to hear one that blows me away; I have to say this was not the greatest opening track. The opening solo is a little over done and the intro goes on a little long even though I realize they were trying to keep the integrity of the original. The rap seemed extraneous. However, Seth Johnson's vocal trumpet is absolutely phenomenal and added a lot to the arrangement that seemed to lack panache.

“Supermassive Black Hole”
Not being too familiar with MUSE, I had a hard time getting into this piece. I know it is a favorite of the group but it lacks general population appeal. Kudos to Will Timbres for a nice arrangement. The mixing was well done for this song and I enjoyed the distortion on the guitar and voices. Again, smokin' guitar licks from Johnson.

“Don't Stop Believing” (LIVE)
It was nice to hear some live tracks on this album. Live performances give the listener a little more of a true sense of things like rhythm, tuning, blend, and crowd response. You can tell the Melodores have impeccable tuning and are loved by their fans. Rhythmically they are spot on. At first listen, you may think you are listening to the soundtrack of Glee, but listening a little closer the arrangement utilizes some great chord changes as well as rhythmic overlays. If you don't notice the rhythm section, it's usually is a good thing. I did notice in this song; the vocal percussion in “Don't Stop” could have been a little more creative. By far, the best part of the song is the last chord before the final "Don't Stop!"

After listening to track 6 I recognized the true talent of this group. Having worked with Eric Whitacre and performed his music, I know how difficult it can be to sing and tune. After listening to the Melodores’ version of “Sleep”, I knew it was going directly on my iPod. As much as I may be an a cappella freak and yearn for amazing arrangements of pop tunes and lots of vocal percussion, this was one of my favorite tracks on the album. It is superbly performed and I know Eric would be proud. The straight tone to achieve blend and tuning is top notch. Well done, Melodores.

“Zikr” is a very close second as my favorite track on the album. I simply cannot help wanting to dance when I hear it. I always like to encourage artists to work on original music because it is usually what they do best. Just about anyone can take a song that's already been written and "fancy" it up, but it's our originals that really define us as groups and singers. This could easily be a soundtrack piece to the next big Bollywood hit. Fantastic vocal percussion, great booming bass, and I especially enjoyed the rhythmic contrasts.

“All These Things I've Done”
The Killers are a great band to cover. I don't know that this is their best song to cover, though. Great voice in soloist Ben Edquist who sounds a lot like Brandon Flowers with even a little more emotional depth to his voice. The speaking part in the original seemed awkward to me and it does in this arrangement as well. However, I love the backing repeated chorus--clever chords used, once again. Nice arrangement by Sen.

“Why Georgia”
The acoustic guitar is probably the hardest instrument to recreate with voices. Sen does an admirable job in this arrangement of John Mayer's “Why Georgia”. John Mayer has such a distinctive sound; Matthew Thompson does a great job of making it his own. Shaun Kahler spits out some mean VP in this ballad that helps add another dimension to the song.

“Let's Get it On” (LIVE)
Great intro to this live performance of Marvin Gaye's “Let's Get it On”. Tyler Verdell has got some pipes and croons out a fantastic cover. Great backing vocals by the group once again. This is a great song for an a cappella group and the Melodores definitely do it justice.

“Whatcha Say”
Jason Derulo's “Whatcha Say” is fantastically arranged by Shaun Kahler, the group's vocal percussion specialist. I thoroughly enjoyed this track. I especially love the lack of autotune that can be heard in the original. This version has a more authentic sound for all of us purists out there and it has a great chorus for the group. My only criticism is that I wished the percussion and bass were a little more present. Probably Kahler just being modest in his own arrangement.

“Cry Me a Medley”

JT's in da house y'all. Justin Timberlake's greatest hits in one a cappella medley—well, maybe not his greatest hits. This near 9-minute medley seems like a great idea, but falls a little short. The transitions from song to song are not entirely smooth. This is also the first track in which I notice tuning issues, especially in the Señorita portion of the medley. The teaser of “Rock Your Body” did not deliver and that was disappointing. Granted, this undertaking was a little ambitious, but I believe it could have been a little tighter especially within the transitions and a little less disjunct overall. But props once again to the VP section.

“Lonely Island Medley” (SNL)
Can we say Parent Advisory? I have to hand it to the Melodores, they are not afraid to push the envelope. True to their clever ways, the Melodores have comprised a medley of Saturday Night Live featured originals sung by Andy Samberg and Justin Timberlake. With the help of SNL and YouTube, these songs have been shared and laughed at for years. Now the Melodores have brought them to new life in these a cappella renditions. Sen does not disappoint with the arrangement and the transitions between these songs were more of what I was hoping for in the “Cry Me a Medley” track. The opening rap was a little hard to hear over the background vocals in the beginning, but perhaps that was intentional. If you are in to this sort of humor, you will find it very funny. I am just curious as to how they perform this live. All in all, very well done.

Before I will purchase an a cappella CD, I have to ask myself a few questions: do they sing in tune, is there a good blend, is the mixing well done, are the arrangements well done, and is there good vocal percussion? If I can answer yes to all of these questions, I can determine that there will be repeat “listenability” and the album with be worthy of my money. So what are the answers for Rain Check? Yes. I would probably buy this album just for the recording of “Sleep”. But I would also be inclined to buy this album because of the humanitarianism being displayed by the Melodores. A portion of the album's profits will go to organizations and people who are trying to rebuild their lives due to the 2010 Nashville flood. Very admirable. Rain Check definitely offers a variety of tunage for the a cappella lover in all of us.

About the writer:
José “Chach” Snook grew up in Napa, CA and has performed in 44 states and 13 countries. For 10 years, Chach lived in NYC as a professional singer/actor and appeared in many shows including "Forever Plaid" and "Altar Boyz" (pre-Off-Broadway reading). Chach has been singing a cappella since his freshman year of high school and was last seen as a member of the NY-based, jazz a cappella group Pieces of 8. With Pof8 he recorded 2 albums and was featured on United Airlines’ in-flight music. Chach has a Vocal Performance degree from Northern Arizona University and currently teaches choir and theatre in Tucson, AZ where he lives with his wife and 2 children.