HomeRecording Review: Simply Put's "Simply Put"

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Simply Put is a new (Contemporary A Cappella League – CAL) vocal jazz a cappella group based in Southern California. They’re made up of three guys and three girls, two of whom are alumni of USC’s excellent Reverse Osmosis. This is their first CD, a 10-track, self-titled album that’s available on iTunes.

Quick Look:
I have such mixed feelings about this album.

They do a lot of things really well, but they don’t have it all figured out just yet. On the one hand, this is a fun group with talented singers. On the other hand, it doesn’t represent the group well, and the soloists feel like they’re holding back. The arrangements are, at their best, great grooves and creative moments...but at their worst, overly simple and flat. And on the one hand, it’s admirable to record and produce a CD yourself. But on the other, the production is sloppy and never adds anything.

What’s striking about their song choice is that there are no jazz songs. Their website lists 15 songs in their repertoire, 10 of which are on the CD. And of the remaining five, three are jazz standards: “Blue Skies”, “Sing, Sing, Sing”, and “Route 66”. This is a vocal jazz group, and 20% percent of their repertoire is jazz standards, but they didn’t put any of them on their CD. The only unifying element of the track list is that it’s mostly very familiar pop. It certainly reads like an attempt to reach a broader audience, which, admittedly, is essential to keeping a new a cappella group afloat. But while it may boost sales, it doesn’t do the album any favors in terms of quality. Personally, I have no desire to hear another a cappella rendition of “Love Song” or “Hide And Seek”.

The arrangements are... simple. This group obviously values simplicity, but let’s establish a couple things here. Simplicity in arranging is effective when it supports the soloist and serves the lyric. Simplicity in the solo is effective when it facilitates expressivity and serves the lyric.

This is a six-person a cappella group. When there’s a soloist and vocal percussionist, that leaves four people for the backs. That’s already limiting, but I definitely get the impression that they’re trying to keep their arrangements simple instead of maximizing what they get out of those four voices. The majority of the time the backs are homophonic (multiple voices moving together in harmony) which just isn’t interesting after a certain point.

This group establishes great grooves, but they don’t go anywhere or effectively get into them. Their arrangements are sprinkled with creative moments, but they are too few, and the rest is too simple, repetitive, and formulaic to be truly compelling.

“Neon” is a great example of this. The chorus has a great groove, but it takes them half the song to get into it. Then it goes into a weaker section before repeating the chorus verbatim. And then it’s over. It doesn’t go anywhere.

Simply Put has too little respect for the lyric. I don’t mean for that to be as harsh as it sounds. It’s a fact and an artistic decision they made that I happen to disagree with. Take “Sir Duke”, for example. It’s impossible to understand all the lyrics because the backs are too loud and the soloist, Loren Smith, is exaggerating stylistic embellishments to the solo. Or “Hide And Seek”, which breaks into a club beat halfway through.

In their defense, you’ve never heard “Hide And Seek” done like this before, and it’s a refreshing break at this point in the album. It isn’t formulaic; it has a real arc to it. It’s constantly evolving till the end. The first chorus is magical, and Andi Gibson’s high D toward the end is just gorgeous. But this is still the strongest example of not serving the lyric. The original is musically all about the purity of the human voice, something Simply Put also values tremendously. But in this arrangement, that idea is totally lost. Again, it’s really fresh, but doesn’t actually make sense.

Let’s look at the arrangement for “Love Song”. It starts simple and effective, but when it hits the chorus, the backs start doing this questionable thing on the syllable ‘heh-y’. I am unclear on what effect they’re going for, but unless it’s confusion, it’s not coming across. It’s overthought and too…sung. What I mean is that it doesn’t fit in the song and it reads like something they’re trying to do rather than just an organic element of the song. Verse 2 is really nice. This is one of the few arrangements on the CD that makes changes to repeated sections rather than repeating them verbatim. The belted harmony over Melissa Stewart’s solo is one of their best moments, and it’s disappointing that they don’t do more of it throughout the album. Then a return of the ‘heh-y’ chorus. The bridge is a really great moment that actually serves the lyric and is effectively simple. It might be my favorite spot of the CD. The intensity comes way down and the backs are just really open before the intensity builds back up. This track is really a metaphor for the entire CD. It’s constantly throwing out ideas, of which some work and some don’t.

Here’s a question- is this really jazz? I can’t identify any specific jazz influences, but there is a jazz feel to most of their songs. The closest they get to an actual jazz song is “Over The Rainbow”. Loren Smith’s arrangement is great and hits some really rich chords. I especially love the progression right at the end.

But there’s tension between the ideas of jazz and simplicity. Jazz doesn’t have to be complex, though a lot of it is. And when you say simple jazz, what comes to my mind is elevator music. Obviously this CD does not resemble elevator music, but simple jazz is a dangerous realm to exist in. And their best moments are when the solos and arrangements are more complex.

I just come away with a really muddy picture of who this group is. But, Simply Put has been together for less than a year, so what they have accomplished so far is impressive. But going forward, they would benefit from a clearer identity.

The standout soloist of the CD is Drew Tablak, who sings “RockSteady” and “Human Nature”. The solos are not elaborate, but there is a moment in each song where he just goes off on it and you can’t help but smile. He has a really great presence that demands your attention.

Some of the solos can get a little indulgent, like the beginning of “Killing Me Softly”. It’s one of those spots that is simple in the sense that it’s either monophonic (just a solo voice) or homophonic, but it actually feels overanalyzed. Every second of it is mapped out and doesn’t come across as natural. The soloist, Marisa Esposito, also sounds like she’s holding back. There’s actually a more recent recording of this song on YouTube that is notably better.

My favorite track is the opening, an original called “Soundcheck”. It sounds like they’re just goofing around in the studio, and I was literally laughing out loud the first time I heard it. It’s fun, shows a lot of personality, and no one is holding back. But it’s not just funny. It’s also complex and virtuosic.

The whole album needs stronger bass presence. I don’t mean that the balance is off. It needs more interesting parts. The bass sticks out (in a good way) as being separate from the other harmonies because of the registeral difference, but it’s generally only used as part of the homophonic harmony. That’s not using the bass to its greatest effect. The most interesting bass part is in the chorus of “Neon” when it’s totally doing its own awesome thing.

“Neon” is a great song to fuel a discussion of VP. You may well be thinking, “But Patrick, there is no VP on that track.” Precisely! It’s the only track without it, and it’s because the soloist, David Stal, is also their sole VPer. This means that live, there can be no VP when he solos. But that’s no reason not to have VP in a studio recording. Much of the arrangement is about space, but some kind of vocal percussion would definitely add to it. This leads into a larger point that the VP on the whole album sounds like it’s pretty much just a single track and could definitely have been expanded upon.

I’ve mentioned everyone else at this point, so I feel I should mention Joe Sofranko. He’s the 7th person on the CD, a ringer listed as Sub Baritone/Vocal Percussionist. It’s not clear which tracks he’s on.

The album was produced, recorded, and mixed by David Stal, who is also the group’s baritone, vocal percussionist, arranger (along with Loren Smith), and music director. While it is admirable and no doubt a tremendous learning experience to do it all by himself, the result is disappointing.

“Killing Me Softly” is sloppy. It starts with just the girls singing the solo in harmony, and ending consonants are rarely together. It amazes me that something so glaring could have been overlooked. And there are chords that don’t lock right away like the second to last one in “Love Song”. The album feels like it was recorded in a vacuum. Like they tried to do it all by themselves. But when a single person is responsible for as many elements as David is, it’s easy to lose perspective.

Outside opinions are invaluable. If you try to sing, arrange, music direct, and record all by yourself, minor defects in the arrangement that are normally cleaned up by the music director or producer are instead magnified and manifest themselves in the form of sloppy cutoffs and other things you won’t notice at so close a distance. Take “Sir Duke”, for example. David Stal and Loren Smith heard all their ideas in the backs and the solo how they wanted them, but to an outside listener, the words are hard to understand and the backs are covering up the solo. Even in the scat section. Jazz tradition dictates that the backs should come way down in a solo section, but they actually build through it, which takes the focus off Loren’s awesome scat solo.

The production here doesn’t add much. This is a subject of great debate in the world of a cappella because some groups thrive in the studio and use it as an opportunity to make music that’s impossible to replicate live. But purists would say that a cappella should be only about the voice, and anything that detracts from that should be avoided. But “Hide And Seek” is a song that could have really benefited from more production. Their version strays pretty far from the heavily produced original, and it would have provided some cohesion between the different sections and made the aesthetic more appropriate for a club beat.

This is a fun and talented group, but this CD is hindered by overly simple arrangements and poor production. I look forward to their growth as a group, and I’ll be anxiously awaiting their next effort.


About the author:
Patrick Hockberger is a diverse musician with interests in jazz, musical theatre, film scoring, and electronic music, as well as a cappella. He is in The Undertones of Northwestern University and is a double major in composition and voice, studying with Jay Alan Yim and Keven Keys, respectively. He has also studied trombone with Max Bonecutter, and is a self-taught pianist. In 2008, he and 8 other young composers attended the National High School Music Institute directed by Michael McBride, and in 2010, he returned as Michael’s assistant. He has acted in musicals, plays, and operas, and has performed with various university ensembles in venues such as Orchestra Hall in Symphony Center and Millennium Park. Patrick’s first a cappella experience was with the all-male Cloud 9 at Waubonsie Valley High School. This incredible experience led him to audition for his current group, The Undertones, where he is currently assistant music director and a frequent arranger. He hopes to pursue a career in which he can tell stories through music, whether it be through performance, composition, directing/producing, or music technology. Patrick currently works with choral composer and director Paul Caldwell at the Youth Choral Theatre in Chicago.