HomeBlogsDekeSharon's blogAlbum Review: "Holiday Spirits" by Straight No Chaser

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In 1996, ten college guys formed Straight No Chaser at Indiana University (known for its excellent music department). In 1998 they made a video of their concert, which they posted to Youtube in celebration of a ten year reunion concert. One video, a jumbled arrangement of "The Twelve Days of Christmas" (that ends with Toto's "Africa") became the most viewed video last December, with over eight million views.

As a result, the impossible happened: Atlantic Records offered a record contract to a bunch of college grads spread across the US. Eight original members pulled in two later SnC grads to make a round ten, and recorded an album that was released on October 28th.

So, what did I think? Or, more importantly, what will you think?

In short, the album is a line drive up the middle. A happy, friendly, safe presentation of holiday a cappella that certainly doesn't break any new ground (or even pick up a shovel), and yet I'm sure that was the intent from the day they were signed.

Sometimes a club sandwich and a vanilla milkshake hits the spot.

The songs are all Christmas themed, with an emphasis on more recent classics ("Jingle Bell Rock"), and a mix of the religious ("Silent Night") and the, um, playfully profane ("Little Saint Nick").

I have a feeling that anyone who likes vocal harmony but knows nothing about the contemporary a cappella movement will love it. And they should. Well sung (bright, unified vowels and nice solos), well produced (gently tuned, clean sound), well executed. These are the kind of guys you'd take home to meet Mom, ladies.

There are brief moments of some harmonic complexity ("The Christmas Song") and soul ("This Christmas"), but for the most part this album is geographically smack dab in the middle of Indiana.

There are two originals on the album by member Dan Ponce ("Christmas Wish" and "Indiana Christmas") which is perhaps my favorite thing about the album. I'm always thrilled to hear new original a cappella, and both tunes fit right in with the albums undisputed classics, which is high praise indeed.

All that said, if you like your a cappella a little more spicy, this album might be a bit bland for you.

The arrangements, all very solid, could easily have been written in 1985. "Doo" is the predominant syllable, with the voices in a two unit (bass vs. upper voices) configuration throughout the majority of the album. No vocal instruments, no dense textures, no vocal percussion, no interesting production choices, nothing chancy.

If you don't really understand what I'm saying, then you probably won't care.

But that's technical, and simple can be fantastic as well. Yet I can't quite call the album fantastic because, to my ear, it needs more emotion. More passion. Simple a cappella singing can really grab your heart or send shivers up your spine, and this album doesn't do that, I'm afraid.

These guys are in their 30's now, yet it sounds a bit like fresh-faced, wide-eyed teenagers. Maybe that's OK, as Christmas isn't usually the holiday to celebrate Weldschmertz (Bob Geldof and crew nothwithstanding).

I can't say that I could pick a standout track, but that's after only a single listen. Every one of the songs is pleasant and if none of them really grabbed me, none of them were displeasing in any way either.

Their live "12 Days of Christmas" is in the middle of the album, and does stand in a bit of contrast with the rest of the tracks, being live, having been recorded a decade ago, and having a comedic element that's not anywhere in the rest of the album. I can see why they included it, but it's a commercial decision more than an artistic one.

In summary, a lovely and sweet if simple Christmas album that would be right at home in any vocal music collection. Excellent tree trimming music.

Nicely done, gentlemen!

Here's hoping you, and Atlantic Records, have a very nice holiday season (nice enough to record a sophomore album, fingers crossed!)

"Holiday Spirits" can be found anywhere you buy albums nowadays, or can be purchased at www.sncmusic.com for a mere $9.99.