HomeRecording Review: Straight No Chaser – "Christmas Cheers"

brodymcd's picture

This is my first album review for CASA, so let me just say a few things off the top:

  1. If you’re like me and want the gut reaction first, here it is: "Christmas Cheers" is a solid album with a lot of high points, some curveballs, and a couple things I wouldn’t have chosen. Still, it is worth owning, so I recommend you get it (or at least parts of it, if you aren’t into buying whole albums).
  2. I’m stoked that SNC has managed to (pardon the pun) strike a chord with the public, so I hope they sell a lot of CDs so record companies will pick up more a cappella artists.

OK – now to the dissection.

First let me say that Straight No Chaser is a likable bunch of guys with talent and creativity on their side. Like many who will pick up the CD, I had already heard of SNC from the “12 Days of Christmas” YouTube phenomenon. I have followed their career since, so my take that these guys are the musical equivalent of the “still-single college buddy with the awesome rec room who hosts poker night” is therefore prejudicial, but there nonetheless.

Whether you’ve heard “12 Days” or not – do yourself a favor and don’t jump straight to it. Listen to the rest of the album first. “12 Days” is the best cut, so if you hear it first, you’ll spend some time wishing the rest of the album was like that. For example, “Christmas Can-Can” is a clever arrangement, and right up the alley of what SNC does best (sing well while being witty and charming). If you listen to it first as the CD intends, you’re set up for a nice ride that finishes strong with “12 Days.” If you listen to “12 Days” and then start the CD over, it feels like SNC tried to get lightning to strike twice in the same place.

With the help of iTunes, I divided the CD into three playlists: NOMI (not on my iPod), SOLID, and YES! Interestingly, the three categories are almost evenly matched, but NOMI is larger for me because of some singular bugaboos that might not bother you – your mileage may vary. Let’s start with SOLID, circle back to NOMI, and end positively with YES! I like it when reviews end positively.

Solid:

  • The Christmas Can-Can: a clever arrangement that plays into the strength of SNC – there’s lots of subtle humor like one member who musters a sad “ho.” throughout the song, or the drunk guy slurring  “fa-la-la-la.” here and there. There are musical quotes woven throughout this arrangement of “Can-Can,” and it provides enough interest that you will find yourself listening multiple times to get all the chuckles out of it.
  • Christmastime Is Here: this almost made the NOMI list because while it is a lovely arrangement, it is sung almost robotically. There is no rubato or nuance, which is a shame. This is the time you think your college buddy should start growing up. These guys are clearly fine musicians. I just don’t get why this is so square. Still, it shows off one of the best traits of SNC – their choral blend. The lush sound pushes this into SOLID
  • Donde Esta Santa Claus: I like this laid-back Latin-feel song more each time I hear it. It has a variety of textures that make good use of all 10 members and some solid mariachi trumpet sounds. There’s lots of little guilty pleasure sing-along moments, and if you had this on with some egg-nog, you’d soon be shouting “ole!” right along with SNC. 10 more listens and this song might move up to YES! for me.
  • Jingle Bells: Dan Ponce has served us up a jazzy arrangement that starts bop-like, with a quick running bass and intermittent scat licks in the background. It switches to a slow groove in the middle and then picks up again at the end. Like “Christmastime is Here,” it seems like there could be more sparkle throughout. There’s a key-change early on where the energy drops rather than lifts, and also the use of minor chord substitutions that only dampens the spirit. I think that the general public will find this track interesting, but I find it to be like one of those big Swiss-army knives. Yes, there’s 5 blades, a saw, fish scaler and an awl – but do any of them work very well? I would like to hear what Firedrill! would do with this chart.

Not on my iPod:

  • Let It Snow!: I really, really, like this arrangement. It has a cool groove. The soloists (Jerome Collins and Michael Luginbill) do a super job. Why, then is this not on my YES! list? Three chords – “Snow-woah-woah!” Every time I listen to this track, I get so into it, and then in between each section is this repeated set of three chords that just pulls me out of my mood. I’m seriously thinking about pulling this track into ProTools in an attempt to remove each occurrence of these chords. Without them, this is hands down my favorite on the CD, even more so than “12 Days.” They might not bother you – and this track has so much to offer, so don’t let me stop ya from downloading it. It’s worth $.99 for you iTunes cats. UPDATE: while shopping tonight in Bed Bath and Beyond, I heard from out of the air... "Snow-woah-woah!" SNC was on the radio in the store! I'm still not thrilled about these three chords, but now at least they will always remind me of the outstanding work SNC has done bringing a cappella to a wider audience. :)
  • Hey Santa!: This track is like a Stray Cats Christmas, but it lacks punch. The studio seems to have taken some joy out of this one. I bet that live, this chart kicks! In fact, I bet it is best heard at night, at the after party when the boys of SNC are hanging out, glass-in-hand.
  • You’re A Mean One, Mr. Grinch: This is probably the one track on the album that I just can’t abide. It is a treatment of “Grinch” that I haven’t heard before. Their execution is good, but I think the plan is just bad. There’s nothing sinister about this slow groove. The bass is mostly vocal fry, then the melody jumps to the tenor.  With any song, there is a management of expectations. For me, tackling this iconic song takes a huge risk. For me, no bass = no Grinch. Check out the Acoustix on their album “Cool Yule” instead.
  • O Holy Night: This arrangement by Walter Chase is creative and cool. The soloist, Jerome Collins, does a soulful job. This track for me, is like “Grinch” and “Let It Snow” combined. It takes a risk by changing the vibe of an iconic song. This pays off huge – the guys sound fantastic! There’s just one thing… on the climactic high note (you know the one), Jerome flips over into a falsetto run. I’m so into the song but then I feel let down.
  • Santa Claus Is Back In Town: SNC chose to tackle this song by being cutesy and mocking Elvis. Like “Hey Santa!” it might work live when the crowd is primed to laugh at everything, but it seems self-indulgent on the CD. Ryan Ahlwardt has a good voice and I would’ve preferred he just sang the song. The one redeeming feature is all the commentary Ryan-Elvis makes regarding food, “Baby, have you ever had a candy cane made of mayonnaise? It’s delightful!” It’s clever and funny, but really doesn’t hold up after one listen.

YES!

  • We Three Kings: This is when I like SNC the best – solid, homophonic singing with some clever changes. This song is alternate parts “Mission Impossible Theme” and a slow swing – great arrangement, Deke Sharon! The soloists’ voices have great character. Winner!
  • Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer: this a quick shuffle-swing treatment that really works. It is set up and closes with an old-timey radio announcer. The second verse has altered lyrics and cool accents. The energy is high in this song, and fun abounds.  It is just 2:21 and has one trick up its sleeve, and sometimes that’s best. I love it.
  • God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen: the contemporary jazz-waltz version of this just works, much in the same way “Rudolph” does. Nothing too fancy – just a clever version done very well.
  • Who Spiked the Eggnog?: This is the song “Hey Santa!” wants to be. It is listed as an original that was written and arranged by SNC and Deke Sharon. The trick here is that SNC uses coolness to full effect. Voices just can’t provide the loudness of a swing band, so coolness gives the edge to this song that “Hey Santa!” lacked.
  • 12 Days of Christmas: This is what started it all, and I just won’t say more. If you haven’t heard it, I’ll let you enjoy it with fresh ears. If you’ve heard it, you know what the fuss is about.

RECAP:

SNC is at their best when they are being fun-loving guys who are all-over-the-place-on-purpose or when they take one clever idea and really exploit it. Sometimes they try to throw too many gimmicks at once or under-perform a key element of the song. Still, they are talented and charming enough that we will forgive them. This album is like a review of Christmas Day itself. There’s always a few home-run gifts, some nice things you wouldn’t have thought to buy yourself and one or two things to take back. Still, it’s a wonderful day.

This is an album I would recommend buying (if you buy whole albums). If you just buy singles, really listen to all the previews before you decide. The things that bothered me on many songs might not bother others. I applaud SNC for being something for everyone, which is why they are grabbing new fans for a cappella across the country. No question that SNC has given us all many "Christmas Cheers".

http://www.sncmusic.com/

About the author:
Brody McDonald is the Director of Choirs at Kettering Fairmont High School. Fairmont’s ensembles have appeared at OMEA conference (2003, 2005, 2007, 2008) and consistently receive the highest ratings at state-level adjudicated events. Fairmont’s concert choirs have been featured performers on university and church artist’s series, have performed with the Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra, and have shared the stage with artists ranging from The Texas Boys’ Choir to Kenny Rogers. Fairmont's pop/a cappella group Eleventh Hour has sung backup for Kenny Loggins, opened for LeAnn Rimes and The Beach Boys, and has been selected to perform at the American Choral Director's Association Central Division Conference in 2010. Eleventh Hour has numerous studio CDs, have appeared on BOHSA 2008, 2009 and SING V, and won CARA awards for Best High School Album and Best High School Song. Eleventh Hour recordings are available for download at www.acatunes.com