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Pet peeve: an arrangement that completely disregards or misunderstands the meaning of a song.

Exhibit A: The recording of "Sail Away" on Tonic Sol-Fa's latest album "Just One of Those Days."

Let me state for the record that I think Tonic Sol-Fa is an excellent, hard working group. They're performing over 100 shows a year, tearing up the Midwest, bringing contemporary a cappella to long-standing fans while making new converts at every show. They deserve praise for their consistency and indefatigability. 

But let me also state that Randy Newman is one of my favorite contemporary songwriters. His craft is immaculate, and his social commentary is powerful. He's an American institution, addressing the dark underbelly of American culture. If you're only familiar with "Short People" (a song about racism) and "I Love LA" (an underhanded swipe at regionalism), I recommend you take a closer look at his music. He wrote the most powerful song in a movie in the past couple of decades (Toy Story 2's "When She Loved Me").

If you're not familiar with the original recording of "Sail Away", I recommend you find it and give it a listen. Here are the lyrics, which out of context are perhaps heavy handed, but in the context of the song work perfectly:

In America you'll get food to eat
Won't have to run through the jungle
And scuff up your feet
You'll just sing about Jesus and drink wine all day
It's great to be an American

Ain't no lions or tigers
Ain't no mamba snake
Just the sweet watermelon and the buckwheat cake
Ev'rybody is as happy as a man can be
Climb aboard, little wog
Sail away with me

Sail away, sail away
We will cross the mighty ocean into Charleston Bay
Sail away, sail away
We will cross the mighty ocean into Charleston Bay

In America every man is free
To take care of his home and his family
You'll be as happy as a monkey in a monkey tree
You're all gonna be an American

(repeat chorus)

Randy Newman's version of the song is lightly reverent, almost like a Gospel song, creating a dark spiritual underpinning to the song's message, especially as it's delivered directly to the listener. You're the one hearing this message. You're on the boat. Welcome to your new life.

But Tonic's Sol-Fa approaches the tune like it's a mid-tempo pop tune, giving it a light tinge of white soul, which makes it seem as though they don't understand the song's meaning at all. Think mid-era Rockapella, ala "Change in My Life." Fingersnappin' goodness.

And to further reinforce that notion, they change one crucial lyric: the word "wog" becomes "one," such that "sail away little one" comes across as inviting. Oof.

Moreover, they sing it with such earnestness that it's as if they decided that this catchy tune could make a great finger-snappin tune, but that "wog" word gets in the way. 

Except that it doesn't. Its the whole point of the song. With it, the lines about "monkey in a monkey tree" and "sweet watermelon and the buckwheat cake" belie the song's apparent concern, revealing the deep racism, foreshadowing the listener's future horror. Without it, it's as if they're trying to sing a song about how great America is. Which, of course, is audacious, at very least.

But it doesn't work. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that it makes me mad. Imagine stripping out the social element of "What's Goin' On" to make it a modern "Whazzup?" anthem.

You can take a lyric and repurpose it or even present it as is in a new context, creating an entirely new meaning. "Keep Young and Beautiful," the final track on Annie Lenox's superlative "Diva" album does just that, to great effect. The song is extremely catchy, yet the lyrics incredibly posit that a woman's highest purpose is to remain youthful looking, lest she be worthless.  

But this repurposing of a song about Slavery is the exact opposite, attempting to strip away the darkness and edge to reveal a catchy pop tune that's unburdened by the past. Whitewashing, literally.

Now, I could be wrong. The guys could be intentionally making a statement - the same statement Randy Newman is... but then why remove the "wog" line, and pop-ify the song? Everything about the recording strikes me as though they're not clear on the meaning of the song, and if they are, then they're actually poking fun at themselves and their own style of earnest, Midwestern white-guy a cappella. A Meta-meta statement that is completely out of step with the rest of their album, their image, their career. No, that just can't be it. This isn't a William-Shatner-Ben-Folds-expose-your-weaknesses-for-greater-insight kinda group.

So, I'm left with a bad taste in my mouth. Very bad.

Cover songs are at the very core of the a cappella's sound and style. We take well known songs and excitedly offer them to people with a new sound. Usually this process is harmless, if unremarkable. 

And sometimes it's sublime. Amazing music has been made with voices, and we all love it when an a cappella remake is "better than the original!"

But occasionally, rarely, someone gets it wrong. Very wrong. 

Don't get it wrong. Do your homework, understand the song, and make sure you know what you're saying when you're singing.

Comments

and further

I always hope that all groups will pay very special attention to the lyrics of every song they sing, from the fluffiest pop creampuff to...something like you're describing, Deke - a pointed, crafted social commentary. Because pop music can be pointed and important and still be hook-y, and I think that may be where some groups go off track. They may assume that a hook, an ear-worm, is not much more than that, and there can't really be a "message" there. I've had people say to me, "I don't really care all that much about lyrics. I just listen to the music", which strikes me as patently absurd as the uninformed people who say that a cappella is "singing without music" (hello, Piers Morgan, supposed music "expert"). The lyrics ARE the music, as important as every note you sing, as important as every chord, as important as your delivery. They are not just another syllable to support a pitch. They were, if you've chosen a good song (and sometimes even if you haven't), carefully crafted by the original writer, and my belief is that you owe that writer the courtesy of presenting the words 1.) as he/she wrote them, unless you're taking liberties in a very deliberate and reasoned way and 2.) as they were originally intended, meaning, that the writer's message is also your message. In other words, misheard lyrics aren't ok here, and if you choose to just go with what you THINK the line sounds like, that laziness will undermine your performance integrity. A little research here is key.

Even given these "restrictions", we can still be wildly creative and give a song our own spin while honoring the song's message and tone.

I was listening to my friend Jim Infantino's band's (Jim's Big Ego) song "Boston Band" (go listen; I'll wait) last night and it really struck me how the the song is both 1.) hysterical and 2.) incredibly touching. Because it starts:

We're a local Boston Band
another local Boston Band
another local *bleep*ing Boston *bleep*ing Band
and we're here
to rock your world
and we're here
to get you laid
and we're here
to make you boogie all night long
and we're here
and we're here

[hilarious]

but then goes on:

My friend Kate says she wants to be a big rock star and her parents just
don't understand
they spent a lot of money on her college education and they'd really like to
see some results
but Kate's got this big fire inside you should see how it burns her up
when something forces you out in front of strangers to sing it's as powerful
as any love

To touch such emotional extremes within a song is a skill that few writers have, and I'd hope that anyone covering him would GET that the song is both comedy and pathos in a pop song package, and do it justice. That's, in my opinion, our job as musicians who cover anyone else's material. From Bach to Sean Altman, the lyrics have intent.

Amy Malkoff http://www.amymalkoff.com/harmony CASA (Contemporary A Cappella Society) Program Manager + Director of Web Content - http://www.casa.org Judge - ICCA, ICHSA, Harmony Sweepstakes, etc.

A mondegreen perhaps?

Don't you think this could be a result of TSF mishearing the lyrics? I have heard the Randy Newman version many times and I always heard the lyric as "climb aboard little one". However, upon re listening it is most certainly  "wog". Interesting.

Lyrics aside, I think the most egregious offense is their "take" on this song. In the TSF version, the song is completely stripped of its reverence (possibly to make a statement, possibly not). The song ends up sounding like Lionel Richie 's "Easy". 

Agreed

It was the mood and feel of the song that caught me at first, and bugs me the most. Listening to clips, I heard it and said to myself "you've GOT to be kidding - this must be a mistake..." and then purchased it to hear the whole song, which is when I realized they changed "wog." 

- Deke Sharon • 800.579.9305 • http://www.dekesharon.com

I think that a strong example

I think that a strong example of a group using existing material, making it their own while still honoring the intent of the oringal songwriter is the King Singer's "The Beatles Connection". This album actually helped me to really appreciate the true genius and beauty of Lennon and McCartney's songwriting. I don't know if it is the poor sound quality of the original recordings or me just being oblivious at the time, but I just couldn't get into the Beatles music enough to truly see it for the masterpiece that it truly is.

Unlike the TSF example and other similar bastardizations of original works, the King's Singers actually enhanced the songs and helped  me to see them in a setting that I could actually relate to. The arrangements are absolutely a thing of beauty. They are lush, complex, ultra-creative and original. They literally gave/give me goosebumps on my arms every time I hear them.

This, to me, is a classic example of a group that truly understood the songs they were covering and took extreme care in paying homage to the intent and meaning of the original works.

I am now a huge fan of the Beatles and because of this album being so accessible to me, I was able to go back to the original recordings and appreciate how special and groundbreaking they really were/are.

So if you ever want a case study to look at for guidence on how to handle covering original works, I highly recommend that you get this CD and listen to it over and over until it envelopes you and you can live in it and appreciate it's greatness. The style may not be everyone's personal taste. But, at the very least you can appreciate the skill and care that went into crafting this, in my opinion, groundbreaking work of art.

Del

Agree!

Del, I totally agree with you.  LOVE that album, and when I listen to those songs, I marvel at the original material and at how amazing cool the arrangements are to make them King's Singers gems.  Great stuff.

Speaking of Beatles, the flip side to your example is every multi-group compilation Beatles tribute album I've heard (which does not include that one a cappella one, I haven't heard that).  Let's get today's hot artists and have them record Beatles songs!  Who cares if the style or voice or interpretation match, just record it because it will SELL!  

Result: one or two decent tracks, the rest are mostly appalling.

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