HomeRecording Review: "Lacking Supervision" by University of Vermont Top Cats

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The title of this album is misleading – Lacking Supervision might lead one to think that one is about to hear complete chaos, illogic, and mayhem. Nothing could be further from the truth, leading me to think that either these young men from the University of Vermont are unusually mature and even-tempered for their relatively tender ages, or that they have a mentor with deep skills in arranging and coaching.

Or perhaps, in this case, both. Coach, arranger, singer, beatboxer, and all-around charming dude Nick Girard definitely has his very capable hands all over these tracks, but even a superhuman like Nick has to have something pretty darn good to work with in the first place.

Opening with a snippet of completely old-school male collegiate a cappella fare, the (Yale) Whiffenpoofs’ arrangement of “How High the Moon’ gives us one piece of information right from Jump Street: these guys know how to sing, and sing well. We’ve hardly had a chance to process the balanced harmonies and perfectly blended vowels before we’re sliding into “Heartbreak Warfare” (John Mayer), a far more contemporary-sounding and multi-layered arrangement, with capable and secure lead vocals and VP by Eli (all group members are identified by first name only in the track listing).

Gavin DeGraw’s “In Love With a Girl” shows off David’s emotional lead vocal, with a tasty groove beneath.

The opening of “I’m Yours” (Jason Mraz’s mega-hit) made me smile – the Top Cats totally captured the sweet hokiness of the ukulele accompaniment. The smokiness of Andy’s lead vocal is very nice, but since I’m old enough to be his grandmother I will admit to a moment of worry about what damage might be occurring from the tension of all those glottal strokes. By the way, I worry about Jason Mraz too, so it’s all good.

The church-like opening of “21 Guns” by Green Day was stunning, followed by David’s rock-solid lead, which totally recreated the original’s vocal attitude. The listener can totally picture the sarcastic sneer. Nice work.

“Momma’s Boy” by Chromeo was not a familiar piece for me, and I was definitely caught up in the catchy and crisp rhythms and harmonies. The jury is out for me on the obviously intentional use of AutoTune for effect – there’s something sort of unearthly and fascinating about it, but I would love to hear Leo sing the piece without it too. Yes, I’m old. What can I tell you?

Another unfamiliar piece, “You Found Me,” by The Fray, confounded me a bit by offering an accompaniment figure that didn’t sound like a voice at all (although I know it must have been). Devon’s lead was very personal and emotionally evocative.

A very interesting mash-up followed, two songs I’d have never thought of together – the theme from “Reading Rainbow” and “A Milli” (Lil’ Wayne). A masterful arrangement that makes you shake your head a little (but with a smile). Kudos to Jon, who arranged, sang lead, and beatboxed this track.

Seamlessly sliding into “Lollipop” (another by Lil’ Wayne), it occurs to me that although I have spent some time in New England, these guys no longer sound like any Vermonters I ever met. Don’t get me wrong, I love Vermonters. But this track has a very gutsy groove that wasn’t nearly so well-behaved as my Vermonter friends usually are. This is a good thing. There’s more AutoTune in use here, but it’s true to the original.

Switching gears again, the Cats offered “Ruby” (Kaiser Chiefs) – again, not a piece with which I’m familiar – by settling into a more traditional, straight-up collegiate sound. And I mean this in a good way! For the first time I heard their youth, but also the tremendous flair and polish, with terrific vowel blending.

It’s always amazing to me when an a cappella group can make me like a song I’ve never liked before. How does that work anyway?? Points to ponder. In “Fix You” (Coldplay) they not only made me like the song, they made me think – momentarily – about giving Coldplay another try sometime. It’s okay, I took a couple of ibuprofen; the feeling passed. Spencer’s lead is just lovely, though, and the harmonies are rich and gorgeous.

As noted earlier, I am old. So I am tickled when “these kids today” find something to love about the music of my youth. Steve Miller Band’s “Fly Like an Eagle” was ubiquitous when I was in high school. (I’ll wait while you do the math… ok, everyone back? Onward.) The Cats chose to do this one a little slower and smoother than the original – the tempo was a little problematic for me, and at first, so was the smoothness – but then I realized the song was about flying like an eagle. Duh. Smooth. As much as I always enjoyed the little “angular” points in Miller’s original, I get the reasoning behind the change. Reimagining a classic in a way that makes someone like me listen closely again? Priceless. Plus, the verbatim version of the song’s tag? All kinds of awesome. It made me so happy.

Another seamless slide into the final track, “Time to Pretend” (MGMT) – a complex, multi-faceted piece that made me think of The Who’s Quadrophenia. (You younger folks will have to look that one up.) Masterfully done, with a lot of maturity when needed and a nice build in intensity.

All in all, a very pleasing bunch of tunes from some very talented young gents. I’m sort of hoping that they may decide to get a little less civilized next time – maybe a little Rhode Island in their Vermont? With or without supervision, though, I think these guys will keep making interesting music wherever they go. Congrats, you guys.

http://www.uvm.edu/~topcats/Welcome.html

About the writer:
Melinda L. Thomas was a piano performance major at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music and at San Francisco State University.  She has been singing all her life as well, and has performed with the San Francisco Symphony Chorus, Conservatory Opera Theatre, Sacred and Profane Chamber Chorus, and was a founding member of Voci women's chamber chorus.  She has also been a music director for many theatrical productions, including Godspell, Grease, Pippin, West Side Story, and Dracula: The Musical?  These days, she sings with an early music a cappella quintet called Harmonium. She is also a Northern California CASA Ambassador.