What's an album gotta do to get your attention?
The abundance of a cappella albums released each year has made it difficult for groups to distinguish themselves from the noise. It's hard to believe that there was a time that competence in collegiate a cappella was notable. For listeners, the increase in releases and quality is certainly welcome but can be overwhelming.
Pulse, the latest release from the Cornell Chordials, has no problem being heard above the noise. The Chordials have further developed the percussive arranging style they first experimented with in their 2009 hit "Ramalama (Bang Bang)" and the result is often brilliant and always interesting. I can hardly believe this came from a college group because it is so polished, inventive, and mature. From the wild "What's A Girl Gotta Do" to the sultry "Touch" to the atmospheric "Cosmic Love", there's a lot to love on this album.
You’ve never heard a cappella like "What's A Girl Gotta Do", originally by electronic dance music duo Basement Jaxx. I mean, seriously. Just listen to the original. What kind of people would hear this and think a cappella? I've played this track for all my a cappella friends and reactions have spanned from fascination to disgust. But regardless of your opinion, this is a track worth talking about.
"Touch" is phenomenal. They nail the sultry feel, the solo is killer, and the arrangement supports the lyrics of the song. At the end of the sparse first verse, they swell into an appropriately big and sultry groove on the first line of the chorus, "'Cause I come alive with your touch". It's one of the best moments of the album.
I've been listening to "Cosmic Love" on repeat all week. It's stimulating. The track transports me to a rich musical world that I don't want to leave. It somehow manages to be both energetic and introspective. If Sylvester Stallone directed (and starred) in a Siddhartha biopic, this song would play during the meditation montage as he becomes the Buddha. Listen to this track and be enlightened.
Not coincidentally, the three weakest tracks, "Rolling In The Deep", "The Other Side", and "Skipping Stone", all lack the signature percussive style that pervades the rest of the album.
Did you know that the chord changes at the beginning of "Rolling In The Deep" are syncopated? I had never noticed this, but the Chordials forced me to with their hard attacks in the opening. The syncopation works in the original because it's just a lightly strumming guitar. But it's hard for 15 singers on "jen" and "dum" to sound light. And the Chordials actually accent the chord change. So instead of being light and subtle, the syncopation is abrasive. Without Adele on the lead, more of my attention moves to the lackluster backs. And though the arrangement is an accurate transcription, their execution fails to effectively recreate the original. Does the world really need another uninspired cover of "Rolling In The Deep"?
I can't help but compare "The Other Side" to the other version to come out of Ithaca, New York last year, off Ithacappella's album Off The Hook. Ithacappella's is the superior version and it is epic. The one here suffers from lackluster VP and a disappointing female soloist. It sits lower in her voice and lacks all the intensity of a high tenor. High tenor solos sung by girls in the original key are usually disappointing, as is the case here.
You wouldn’t know it from this arrangement, but Janelle Monáe's "Sincerely, Jane" features trumpets, trombones, and French horns. The song begins with pizzicato bass and timpani, and this sound is effectively recreated by the Chordials' basses with the syllable "din". They use this syllable for the rest of the song, but eight bars into the solo of the original, trombone is added to the bass to give it some serious punch. Fatter bass sounds, perhaps some growly, nasal "bah dat dow"s, would have added a lot. The VP is also barely present. As is, the chorus lacks all the intensity and unique character of the original.
Understanding the lyrics of "Sincerely, Jane" is a struggle, but it doesn't matter because Carolyn Rodgers' solo is so good and the success of her solo is not dependent upon understanding the lyrics. It’s ironic that Carolyn’s own delivery as a lead is rounded to the point that you can hardly hear the consonants when her arranging style is so percussive. I wish this dichotomy between the way the lead voice is shaped sonically and the way the backs are shaped had been explored further in other tracks because the effect is compelling.
The diction when the Chordials quote "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" in "Skipping Stone" is silly. I can tell that they practiced putting a big "t" on the end of "chariot" and the result is distracting and not natural, not to mention stylistically inappropriate.
The same problem exists with syllables that distract me and take me out of the song. The goal for diction and syllables is the same- to be clear and natural. It is right when you are not aware of it. When it gets out of the way and allows the music to take center stage. It is ineffective when it steals your focus away from the music. In the second half of the chorus in "Sincerely, Jane", the sopranos sing what is originally a fast string part on "shek uh ding ah shot..." (approximately). The result sounds nothing like strings and is distracting. Syllables should not draw attention to themselves.
A huge part of this album's success is the brilliantly diverse song choice that also includes the soulful "Papa Was A Rollin' Stone" and the Latin-influenced "Smile For The Paparazzi". These are perfect choices that highlight the strengths of the Chordials' arranging style and sound.
Listen to this album with your a cappella friends. I guarantee it will spark an interesting discussion. Even when its wild ideas don't work, Pulse is more interesting than 98% of what's out there. Combine that with the Chordials' unique percussive and texturally rich arranging style and a maturity of sound rarely found at the collegiate level and you have one hell of an album.
About the writer:
Patrick Hockberger is a RARB reviewer and a student at Northwestern University studying music composition and vocal performance. He is music director of the Northwestern Undertones.