HomeRecording Review: "Breakdown!" by Ithacappella

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Once you spend a good while in the a cappella scene, you start to recognize some names – Tat Tong, Bill Hare, Ed Boyer, Dave Baumgartner, etc. Of course there are groups that do the same thing. We’ve all certainly heard of Rockapella, Five O’Clock Shadow, and college groups like The Bubs and Off The Beat (no need to even mention the school;  you know who I’m talking about). And as a reviewer, I look forward to being called upon by such artists and groups (if Rockapella ever asked me to personally review their new CD, I’d probably die – not literally, of course.  Please ask me if you’re reading this!). I take pride in knowing that they have a sort of appreciation for my views, and I enjoy sharing my thoughts with the a cappella community because, let’s face it, everyone gets a voice on the internet, so I might as well. Recently I was asked to review one such CD – Ithacappella’s “Breakdown!”  Ithacappella happens to be one group that fits both categories for me – a group that I personally know and love, and a member of said group that I have a huge man-crush on, who shall remain nameless for his own protection.

So on with the review. Let me start off by saying I think that this CD is the perfect blend of a cappella, exactly what I like to see coming from groups like Ithacappella. I feel like a lot of groups out there (the good and the bad) hide their vocals and arrangements behind tons of reverb and effects, attempting to close the gap all the more between a cappella bands and instrumental bands. Ithacappella stays fairly true to pure a cappella (using little effects), but they don’t shy away from that stuff either with a couple of songs featuring auto-tuning and distortion. This album really harnesses all the cool things that a cappella can be if we just give it a chance.

The recording features a broad collection of genres; there really is something for everyone. We begin with an arrangement of “I Want You Back” by the Jackson 5. This high energy song really starts the album off on the right foot – everyone and their dog knows this song and will be bouncing along with it, amazed at the incredible lead vocals from Nate Tao; this kid really wails. The purity of their recording really allows the arrangement to take flight, to hear all those little intricacies that you normally find in a Robert Dietz arrangement.

The next is a great track from Panic! At The Disco called “The Only Difference Between Martyrdom and Suicide Is Press Coverage” (what a name). This track goes the opposite direction with effects – we have plenty of reverb and distortion to create the big Panic! sound without any of the instruments. My only qualm is that there are times where the lead vocals are all but completely drowned out by the background vocals and effects. Most choruses, I struggled to hear the soloist. Otherwise, this fast paced number sounded great. 

“Say (All I Need)” is a really interesting song, especially at the beginning with the pulsating voices. I love what Ithacappella does with the voicing to create that back and forth wave between the parts. Now, the only way this song can be done really well is if you follow the dynamics of the song. OneRepublic wrote this to build and build – starting very quiet and serene, and building through that last chorus, to a drop off at the end when repeating the first verse. I don’t hear this build very well on the recording, which is a little disappointing. Otherwise, this is a great track and I’d love to see it performed live to really hear that dynamic build!

The next track is an interesting choice. I’ve always wanted to do the solo for “Isn’t She Lovely” by Stevie Wonder, but I can never get past the lyrics. He’s singing about his baby girl that was just born! I sure hope none of these guys in Ithacappella have a kid (of course, if you do, I’m sure you’re a great dad). However, since I’m not performing this, I’ll put that aside. I must point out how great of an arrangement, this is first off. The addition of “Knocks Me Off My Feet” in the middle of the song was so seamless that I almost didn’t notice the change. However, coming out of that back into “Lovely” was kind of jarring – having multiple vocal hits (“My Feet” and then the “Daht Daht”) in succession really threw things off. The mixing at the beginning, giving the old time radio feel, was perfect. And I also liked the hint of the B3 organ in the bridge. Great number all together.

Funny story about Sufjan Steven’s “Flint”, the next track on the CD: I saw my brother the day before I got Ithacappella’s album in the mail and he told me “you have to hear this guy. The music is gorgeous and just makes you want to kill yourself” (his words, not mine). That artist was Sufjan. I had never heard him (or of him) before, but after listening to the album one time, I remembered one line of one of the songs – “I lost my job and lost my room.” Well when I popped in “Breakdown!” the next day and heard that line, I almost died (again, not literally). This song is beautifully woven together.  There are really some intricate blending and rhythmic tricks going on in this song that fills the track out so nicely.  I’d swoon to it if it wasn’t talking about dying alone.

“She Paints Me Blue” is possibly my favorite track on the CD, and I’ll explain later in the review why that is in a new feature I’m calling “The Best 10 Seconds.” This is a really nice arrangement. It’s a pretty chill song even with the extra percussion in the background moving the beat along. But it’s a simple arrangement as far as I can tell. A little rhythmic vocal section (maybe two or three parts) and the rest are just holding down the chord foundation. Very nice full sound.  The one thing that is a little irritating is the dental d’s that the background is doing (causing a lot of t’s to be heard throughout the piece). It was okay the first time, but then I noticed it and it almost ruined the song because I can’t not notice it now. And DANCE BREAK! While we listen to “Closer” by Ne-Yo. This is a great song and a fun arrangement. There’s not much I can say about this track.  Ithacappella does a first-rate job replicating the dance beat and rave feel that this song begs. If you’re a purist that doesn’t like production sound, you probably won’t like this track, but get over it.

Mark Hasman solos on a beautiful and simple song called “We All Need Saving” by Jon McLaughlin. There’s really not much to this song but beautifully sustained chords and a simple droning bass drum. I think a lot of a cappella groups forget that complicating arrangements isn’t the answer to making great music. Sometimes it’s about going back to the roots – striking harmony, ringing chords, and making people smile.

And a track that will make most anyone smile is “Soul Man.” This is a really fun arrangement that includes that B3 organ that I like. This song really features the background vocals with parts like “He’s a soul man YEAH!” and “Time for the bridge!” And of course without that lick in the chorus, it wouldn’t be “Soul Man.” This track is a nice big way to bring out the close of the album.

And Ithacappella chooses to wrap up their album with Peter Gabriel’s “Down To Earth”. I like this as a final song because you think it’s going to be a chill ending, but then the chorus comes and hits you like a truck. Featured soloists are Robert Dietz, who has certainly grown into his voice since the last time I saw/heard him, and Matt Zeitler. 

All in all, I think this is a great CD – great choices in songs, great soloists, fantastic vocals, and the arrangements that are works of art. For me (and this is probably the purist coming out of me), I feel like the mixing really brought some of these songs down from where they could have been. Having sung some of Robert’s arrangements in the past, I know that they are littered with interesting rhythmic variety and hidden gems (Easter Eggs if you want to call them that) that are lost in some of these songs unless you are listening really hard. On the other hand, it could be argued that, the more you listen to it, the more you hear and, in that way, it keeps bringing you back. Personally, I’d like the music bringing me back, not the search for new interesting things.

Now, to wrap up, I promised a new feature called “The Best 10 Seconds.” The idea behind this feature is that every CD has that one 8 measure phrase, or that kick ass key change, or a power breakdown that you would listen to on repeat for hours if you could. I found myself replaying this one section over and over again, and it comes 15 minutes and 53 seconds into the CD (and is actually 12 seconds, not 10).  Track Six, 2:15 – the bridge of ‘She Paints Me Blue’ which, in this arrangement, is actually the chorus of “Dark Blue” by Jack’s Mannequin.  The bridge just hits so hard in the middle of the song, it becomes this amazing breakdown; I can actually see Ithacappella performing this – everyone stopping and facing the audience in this strong stance singing “Dark blue, dark blue have you…” This part of the song is so cool that I wanted to hear it twice over – sing the entire chorus!  On top of that, I’d love to hear the full song done a cappella like that.  Absolutely amazing. 

Please leave your thoughts and comments below.  I promise that I do read them and will reply when I can.  Thanks for reading!


About the author:
Jeeves Murphy: "I've only heard the a cappella version of that song before." If Jeeves had a nickel for every time he's said that, he'd be a rich man. Jeeves has been singing ever since he can remember (even before he was "Jeeves"). He's performed in classical and renaissance a cappella groups, as well as contemporary groups and barbershop quartets.  He helped found multiple groups while he was in college, including the first of it's kind at UMBC (The Mama's Boys) where he graduated with a degree in English Literature. Jeeves currently works in Columbia, MD as an ITS Engineer. In his spare time, he is an all around musician - playing piano, bass guitar, cajon, and of course singing Tenor (high-tenor), arranging, and vocal percussion. He's the Maryland State Ambassador for CASA and writes semi-regularly for the site (or at least when the mood strikes). Jeeves' articles focus mainly on performance and CD reviews.