HomeStraight No Chaser's "With A Twist" Breaks Records, Increases A Cappella Visibility

Evan Feist's picture

DISCLAIMER: I am reviewing the deluxe version of Straight No Chaser’s With a Twist, which includes three extra “bonus” tracks.

Straight No Chaser’s newest album With a Twist recently debuted on the Billboard 200 at No. 29! When I asked guru and father of contemporary a cappella, Deke Sharon, how it felt to be involved with and have an arrangement on a Billboard Top 40 album, he said it felt “...unbelievable.  First of all, I knew some group would lead the charge back onto the pop charts, but a reformed collegiate group that gets signed to Atlantic [Records] on the strength of a viral video of 'The 12 Days of Christmas'?  You can't make this stuff up.”

Personally, I was anticipating this album since I saw their holiday show this past winter in NYC, and it’s finally here!  I have to say, it’s GREAT that SNC was able to break out of the holiday pigeonhole and land right smack in the middle of the “charts”. 

The album itself is marketed as “classic cover tunes” and it is exactly that. I have to say that, at least for me, this is partly a problem. The repertoire choice is slightly disappointing on this album. I know that this is a major crossover album and I’m not trying to knock the enormous accomplishment.  It’s just that as an a cappella aficionado/aca-nerd, I’ve heard these songs by every college group out there. 

On the subject of the tracklist, Chaser Dan Ponce said, “When we started working on our first pop album, we thought it might be cool to have some kind of theme weave through the tracks. But in the end, we just went with the best arrangements we had - and that meant an album with lots of variety. Because we're signed to a major label now, and our executive producers Craig Kallman and Steve Lunt had the final say for the track list.  The group presented 19 songs and they chose their favorite 12. We're really happy with the final picks. Where else can you have a Barry Manilow song (with him singing it) along with the Red Hot Chili Peppers? Oasis and Jason Mraz? Coldplay and Frankie Valli...Our fans expect variety from Straight No Chaser, and that's what they're getting on With A Twist."

And this makes sense because SNC started out as a collegiate group AND they’re trying to rope in new fans.  As we all know, the easier way to attract a crowd to a cappella is to exploit the novelty of showing people songs they know. They DEFINITELY go way beyond novelty here, yet I was somewhat surprised that Coldplay’s “Viva La Vida” was not on this album.

So, I choose to view this as an introductory album (which is strange because it’s their third).  But, the first two were holiday albums (which can be respectfully dismissed from a pop lexicon) and I can foresee the next album having more personality.  One of the things that became abundantly clear from repeat listens of With a Twist is that SNC are great singers. They don’t yet have an iconic sound (Rockapella or Fork), chord voicing (Take 6), or syllable (Brown Derbies).  They are a group of guys that, above all else, sing well. Although, their pure blend of 10 voices is unmatched.  They simply sound great together.

“I can't stand heavy effects.” Dan goes on to say. “It drives me crazy when a cappella groups go nuts with studio tricks. I think less is more. In my opinion, the more natural a group can sound, the better. We still have fun with vocal percussion on some songs, and we'll occasionally throw in an effect as a small accent to our songs, but our goal is simple:  we want our live songs to be as close as possible to the recordings. I think our natural sound is the reason why SNC has had so much success - audiences are tired of all the over-produced, AutoTune'd music that's on the radio. 10 voices, 10 microphones - that's who we are. We hope the audience finds it refreshing.”

Again, I view this album as a way to re-introduce the world to the human voice. It was brilliantly released alongside Bobby McFerrin’s "VOCAbuLarieS" (which housed his first No. 1 single since “Hush” in 1992). In this world of hyper-production, this album is wonderfully organic sounding. Not to sound like an irritable old man yelling at kids to get off his lawn, but most music today is over processed. From Kanye’s AutoTune revolution to pristine pop-punk perfection, I’d love to see music sway back to what Straight No Chaser is saying they’re all about.  “I spent many late nights contemplating the very fine line we have to walk between making them [Straight No Chaser] sound full, rich and current (to meet the expectations of pop listeners) and yet still sound like voices ("Random Joe" has to be able to tell that it's only their voices).”  says Deke Sharon.  And I think they definitely succeeded in bridging that gap."

In a nutshell, I’d like to hear more NBC "Sing-Off" tracks and less "Glee" “perfection”. I just realized that statement both compliments and digs at the Tufts Beezlebubs. So, we’re even?

Anywho, back to the album. One of the most interesting things about this album to me was the way SNC got me to LOVE songs I originally hated. I’ve heard about a billion versions of Soft Cell’s “Tainted Love” (aca and not) and hated pretty much every one of them. But, the perfectly sequenced (as track 2) version on With a Twist gets my toes tapping every time. I’m not sure if it’s the out-of-time crunchy 7th chords, the Merseybeat, or the quick tempo, but I don’t care. That song alone would make me turn the radio back on.

If you’ve ever been to a SNC show, you’ve heard the SNC “theme song” and I have to say, it’s one of my favorite pieces they did. When asked why it didn’t make it onto the album, Dan said, “Glad you like our theme song 'Straight No Chaser.'  I wrote that song during college and it's really cool that it's still so popular among our fans. The week before the spring tour started, I wrote a song called 'All My Life.'  It's a mid-tempo ballad that we perform regularly now.  That song also has gotten great reaction. After every show, fans tell me that would like to hear it on an album. I hope both songs will be recorded for our next album, and I also hope to have several more originals up and running this year!”

One of my other favorite tracks on this album is “Joy to the World”. Knowing SNC, upon hearing the opening of the song, I immediately thought of the holiday SNC I know and love so much.  The arrangement is fresh and fun. A lot of these other “classic” tunes are done so close to the original that it could be performed by any group. This sound is different than the rest of the album and is carried throughout a handful of the tunes. 

On the other side of the tracks, songs like “Under the Bridge”, “I’m Yours”, “Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You” and “Time of the Season” are probably on 7 out of every 10 collegiate album and at least 2 BOCA CDs. And no offense, but there are definitely better versions of these songs out there. And yes, of course, there can always be better versions, but specifically these three tracks sound like every version I’ve seen on YouTube. Yet, not all of these songs are derivative and/or boring, which brings me to my next point. 

For some reason, the last minute or so of each song is invariably the best of the whole song.  I’m not exactly sure why this is, but the cynical side of me says that by this point, they’ve exhausted the arrangement and need to just “riff” and that’s where the proverbial magic happens.

When you buy this album, and regardless of my criticism, you should, buy the deluxe version. Their version of “Till There Was You” alone is more than worth it. It’s splashy, fun, full of great little lines and hooks, and above all, great great singing. 

In closing, I have to mention a few things, like how incredibly happy I am that the face of modern commercial a cappella is, well, voices. This album shows off Straight No Chaser as a kind of new age Temptations. I would say that it’s more for non-aca people as a sort of “gateway group” into the wonderful world of a cappella. I could absolutely see showing this to my mother or non aca-hip friends.

Deke’s final words: “What will launch as a single? Will there even be a successful single?  Who knows!  'You're My Best Friend' got some attention around Mother's Day, but will it go viral?  Will the label push a single via current radio channels, or will they continue to operate via other marketing channels?  Only the shadow knows!"

"I think it's important to note that this is an enormous victory for the group, who is now breathing a collective sigh of relief, because much as they love the holidays they did not want to be pigeon-holed into being a holiday novelty act. The success of this album, plus their sold-out national tours, two PBS specials and month-long Atlantic City show indicate they're going to be around for a long time. This is only the beginning.”

Buy it. Now. In triplicate.

About the author:
Evan Feist has been composing, arranging, teaching, and singing a cappella music and vocal percussion for over eight years and has his Bachelor’s Degree in Studio Composition and Arts Management from SUNY Purchase's Conservatory of Music and is working towards his Master' Degree in Music Education at Columbia University, Teacher's College.  He has created and managed many successful groups, such as the A Cappella Innovations’ honored Choral Pleasure, SUNY Purchase Soul Voices, and the Plainview-Old Bethpage JFK Honors Choir.  Evan is the founder and president of Oven Feast Productions, and the business manager of Stacks of Wax Records, currently based out of Jersville Studios. He dabbles in all things musical and plays the piano, drums, percussion, trumpet, shofar, bass, and guitar.  Evan is currently building a collegiate mixed a cappella group in NYC (open to ALL students in the area)