Album Review: Not Too Shabby

Not Too Shabby

Not Too Shabby

This is the best album of the year.

I’m talking about 2013, of course. Although I’d be surprised if this was topped in 2014, to be honest, such is the simply exquisite nature of this record. The Sons of Pitches have topped off what has undoubtedly been the best year of the group’s existence with a flawless four-track album that knocks any potential pretenders to the throne firmly off their perch. It’s modern, it’s funky, it’s unique, it’s stylish, and it’s bloody brilliant.

I sound like I’m gushing. Fine. Let me guide you through the reasons why this album is so flippin’ awesome.

The Sons of Pitches do not cover songs. They take songs, rip them apart, put an entirely new spin on them, add in some highly unconventional backing techniques, and put them back together again. They do this with flair and buckets of talent which any group would kill to possess – and the fact there’s only seven of them make it that much more impressive. The beatboxing is at worst excellent, at best frantically awe-inspiring; the bass has brief moments of glory which are taken with aplomb; some of the falsetto makes you wonder if they haven’t snuck a couple of girls in at the last minute; and even the more ‘common’ baritone and tenor voices have a little something extra than most other groups, whether it be a flicker of soul, a high, biting belt or an ooze of charisma.

Talent is one thing; displaying it in the right way is another. The Sons of Pitches know their strengths and play to them, track after track. The first, Daft Punk’s Get Lucky, is a marvellous romp that demonstrates everything the boys are good at. The awesome swelling “wah wah wah” backing vocals throughout the first verse add so much more than a simple “ba” or “da” that other groups might employ; they take this to another level with “shwah, shwah-dah, swiggedy-dah, shwiggah-dah” during the chorus (listen to it if you don’t know what I mean) followed by an awesome breakdown with an African feel, brought about by the “kum-ya-te” and the (admittedly highly produced but in the best way possible) muffled beatbox. I haven’t even touched upon the solo yet – Joes Hinds and Novelli harmonise seamlessly and produce a soaring lead throughout. Even the end is highly creative, with the solo dropping to a funky and playful close. A roaring opener.

The second track is Lose Yourself by Eminem, although it becomes apparent from the off that it brings in elements of Justin Timberlake’s Cry Me A River. Considering the first half of the track is predominantly rap, the arrangement is surprisingly highly musical. The eerie opening drops marvellously into the deliberate beat of Lose Yourself and correct me if I’m wrong but I’m pretty sure they got Eminem in especially to rap on the track. Either that or some sort of identically-sounding doppelgänger. The thematic eeriness continues in the staccato, echoing “ah-oh-ah-oh” behind the rap before the song drops into what is a moment of genius: a pause to hear the crackle of a record player before a slowly rising pianissimo of “You betta lose yourself in the moment…” which is a perfect example of how playful a cappella production can work like a dream. It’s the best moment on the album. Upon melding into Cry Me A River, many of the themes from Lose Yourself remain, which is vital for a successful mash-up, as well as the addition of yet more playful nuances which make each and every second of listening to the track new, fresh and exciting. This is a stonkingly good track.

Having ticked the rap and disco boxes, the boys move on successfully to a jazz version of Oasis’ Wonderwall, with baritone Joe Belham leading the solo with bags, nay, bucketloads of charisma. One minor, minor criticism of this track is that it doesn’t quite come off as entertaining as it does when it’s performed live, although that’s more testament to the Sons’ humorous choreography than a comment on the state of the arrangement itself. Belham’s saunter through the song is reminiscent of Robbie Williams in his Swing When You’re Winning days, while the comical yet perfect high-pitched “And all those roads are winding” from Hinds and Novelli add an extra lace of frivolity to the feel-good number. Topped off with Hinds’ belt of a top A at the end and you have a slick, smooth arrangement with a rich solo – top marks again.

The final track is the original track, You Are The One. It has everything good from the previous three tracks and more: a reverberating beatbox breakdown, echoed backing, more unusual vowel sounds, some frankly phenomenal bass and a really catchy solo that is great to sing along to. I would know. It’s a short track, under three minutes, but gets everything done that needs to be done while remaining very fresh.

I’m genuinely running out of superlatives for this album. If you haven’t bought it yet, you should, even if you don’t like a cappella. I repeat: this is the best album of the year. By far.

You can buy Not Too Shabby right here.

Album Review: Furplay

Furplay is a studio recording of The Alleycats' 2013 Voice Festival UK set.

Furplay is a studio recording of The Alleycats’ 2013 Voice Festival UK set.

If We’re Not Kitten, the Alleycats’ eighth studio album released last year, was the culmination of two significant litters’ worth of Alleycat, then the brief yet accomplished Furplay is perhaps a teaser of positive things to come from the new bunch. Despite its release last month, Furplay was recorded back in May while MD Brendan Macdonald was still at the helm; in a way, this album may also be seen as his final offering as creative head of a group into which he has poured so much.

The benefit of having such a short sample of the Alleycats’ 12/13 repertoire (indeed, a sample they felt worthy of making up their Voice Festival UK set earlier this year) is that each track is musically tight, diverse and shows off the best of what the group have to offer. There is no room for filler on an EP, and this works to the Alleycats’ advantage here.

The album opens with their ‘L.O.V.E. Mashup’, which incorporates What Is Love from Haddaway, Let Me Love You from Ne-Yo and Justin Bieber’s As Long As You Love Me. This is perhaps one of the most seamless mash-ups of the year, and is pulled off with aplomb by the entire group. What Is Love and As Long As You Love Me are smoothly and effortlessly worked into each other from the very beginning, and the strong start shows no signs of fading throughout the entire number. Ollie Hayes unleashes his gorgeous, smooth vocals on the Bieber section, which is far more pleasant to listen to than the original – as the new co-MD of the group, it seems they are in safe hands for the time being. The group capitalises on the anthemic nature of Bieber’s chorus by unleashing Hayes’ strong higher chest range and boosting it with some effective, if a little predictable, soprano harmonies. We only get a brief snippet of Ne-Yo, but once again, this addition is blended superbly with the other two numbers that it almost feels like one song rather than three – a hat tip to Brendan Macdonald for a superb, flowing and ultra-smooth arrangement which allowed the group to pull it off with such apparent ease.

The middle song, Robyn’s Dancing On My Own, has recently just reached number 8 on our countdown of the top 10 tracks of 2013, and sounds marvellous both live and on the album itself. The highlight is undoubtedly the solo from Ayanna Coleman, and, credit must go to Macdonald again, who doesn’t taint the talents of the soloist with too complex an arrangement, and expertly slows down the original, more dance-infused number into a more mellow ballad. The backing is so restrained that it washes over you with a calming sensation, and, for perhaps the first time in any Alleycat recording that I’ve listened to, it was very difficult to pick out any individual voice, such was the blend created throughout the number. (Credit is perhaps due to Matt Chinery and Liquid 5th, the production team on the album, for this). Coleman’s vocal performance is flawless throughout and brings that element of soul to the number which is inherent in any performance she gives. An enjoyable, pleasant and soothing middle number.

The final number, Shake It Out, led competently by Jill Wyman, Steph Bown and Tommy Rowe, is also fantastic, but for some reason I’m always left slightly underwhelmed after each listen. Don’t get me wrong, the trio of lead vocalists complement each others’ voices perfectly, and Rowe in particular on occasion has some compelling, refreshing and challenging harmonies, but the song doesn’t quite build to enough of a climax to make the journey through the song worthwhile. There doesn’t appear to be much range in volume: the group start loud and get slightly louder, and while the arrangement drops out in the more tender parts of the song, but the leads keep attacking the solo with the same energy and volume as before. The group also tend to use very similar vowel sounds in all their numbers, which can lead to this song almost verging into ‘going-through-the-motions’ territory. In spite of that, this is the number on the album which I enjoy listening to the most – it’s poppy, upbeat and conforms to much of what I love in a song – but I just feel with even just a small step a little further out of the group’s comfort zone, this track in particular could have turned a really good, solid number into an outstanding one.

If you like your a cappella easy on the ear and demonstrative of the array of talent inherent in this generation of The Alleycats, especially on lead vocals, then this is the album for you. It ticks all the boxes of a three-track a cappella EP – a flawless mash-up, a soulful and gloriously sung ballad, and a climactic clincher – but never gets close to thinking outside the box. The Alleycats have got classic contemporary a cappella sorted down to a tee – now’s the time to focus on pushing the boundaries a bit more.

Furplay is available to purchase and stream on Bandcamp and on the group’s official website.

Sons of Pitches Release Début EP

Not Too Shabby is the Sons' first ever studio release.

Not Too Shabby is the Sons’ first ever studio release.

One of the biggest groups in recent years, University of Birmingham’s Sons of Pitches, have (finally) released their début EP, entitled “Not Too Shabby”.

Recorded, Edited and Mixed by Eric Scholz and Carl Taylor at Liquid 5th Productions, the EP contains the group’s fantastic VF-UK Final set as well as Daft Punk’s Get Lucky.

From the small amount we’ve heard here, the album sounds pretty damn good, and is available here for the measly price of $4 (that’s roughly £2.50) – or more, if you feel that way inclined.

Keep your eyes open for a review over the Christmas period!

Album Review: Vive Album

Vive's debut album is a 6-track record and features several numbers that were used in their Voice Festival UK award- and title-winning set.

Vive’s debut album is a 6-track record and features several numbers that were used in their Voice Festival UK award- and title-winning set.

After their winning performance at this year’s Voice Festival UK, I thought it was about time I got round to reviewing Vive’s short debut album, which was released in January this year and was a taster of what we were witness to at the City of London School for Girls last week. The six-strong group, consisting of five guys and a solitary female, might on first sight be compared to Pentatonix, but their sound couldn’t be more different.

While I’m not the biggest fan of jazz music, safe to say this album shows off the musical ear that the group were so highly praised for at the Final last weekend, and demonstrates a capacity not only to put a fresh, original take on well-known numbers, but also the inventiveness and musical precision that is presented in the two original tracks on the album, Your Motivation and Voices.

The group show off the insane variety of harmonies that can be used for one note during the start of High (Forever You And Me) by the Lighthouse Family, with some gorgeous falsetto from Sam Robson delicately soaring over the top of the blend. Emily Dankworth takes the solo, which is angelic but the complexity of the harmonies throughout the piece means it is probably the least interesting part of the song. There are some exquisite slides up towards the bridge, and I enjoy how the group drops the beat during the first chorus and sings almost in unison, a unique and brave choice which pays off, with some complex jazz harmonies once again shining through. The most impressive thing about this number is the group’s ability to turn a lovely yet uninteresting original into something in which a new and interesting rhythm, chord or beat is just around the corner.

They segue into the second track, Ezekiel saw de Wheel, a spiritual piece, which incorporates some incredible high harmonies and a gorgeous tenor solo from Sam Robson of which I am insanely jealous. Some of his runs are just insane, especially towards the end when everyone else drops out and he is left to have free reign on the solo, which he fully utilises. I enjoyed the group’s slide towards the end note again at the end of this one. The first original, Your Motivation, written by Sam Robson, is great. The group splits the solo between the boys, each one of them proving they are no less talented than the others, with each one of them showing careful control of their soothing voices. Again, great jazzy, original harmonies throughout.

Just as things stray near the danger-zone of becoming ‘too same-y’, the group bring out two more well-known numbers in Kiss From A Rose and Somewhere from West Side Story, the latter of which is the highlight of the album. Kiss is the straightest cover on the record, and it is refreshing to hear the group stick more closely to the original, despite the fact they have a good play about with the rhythms towards the second half of the track. The vocal percussion is used sparingly here but effectively. Somewhere is phenomenal, simply because for forty seconds, the group sings ‘Ooh-Aah’ to about a hundred different notes, with almost every single combination of notes different to the others and thus capturing the attention of the listener. Dankworth’s solo is beautifully floated over the top, and Robson’s falsetto descends, ascends and resolves with precision and delicacy several times. The final chord is unreal. Just unreal.

The final track, Voices, is kind of Your Motivation 2.0, a solid arrangement with some decent solos and gorgeous jazz chords, and this brings me to my only criticism of the album – there is no denying that Vive are a mega-talented bunch of musicians, and that their jazz/spiritual vibe is very much lounge music and not even close to the realms of sing-a-long pop, but there isn’t a huge amount of variety here. They know what they are good at, and they do it superbly, perhaps a little self-indulgently, but I’d love to see them tackle more numbers like Somewhere on their next album that give them the opportunity to blast out and hold some really meaty chords – a lot of the most impressive and unique chords in a lot of the numbers were so fleeting that you weren’t given enough time to really enjoy them.

That said, the group has way more musical proficiency than I could ever dream of, but from the point of view of a listener, this isn’t an album I’d choose to put on – rather, something I’d add to a lounge playlist to stick on during a particularly long and stressful Russian essay. There is no doubting the group’s musicianship, which is frankly phenomenal for a group this young, but it is their ability to entertain and the replay-factor that doesn’t quite come across here. No doubt the group has a massive future ahead of them, and I can’t wait to see how the group develops and further improves in the coming years.

Vive’s album can be bought on Bandcamp. For more information about the group, check out their Facebook Page.

Album Review: The Other Guys’ Christmas

The Other Guys' Christmas is the first Christmas album to come out of a UK a cappella group and it the Guys' fifth studio album.

The Other Guys’ Christmas is the first Christmas album to come out of a UK a cappella group and it the Guys’ fifth studio album.

by Carys Evans

The Other Guys have once more delivered a stylish, unique and highly commercial production, and just in time for Christmas! There is no doubt that this will make a wonderful present for pretty much anyone, but it also shows just some of the breadth of The Other Guys’ abilities.

With its over-the-top Season’s Greetings to their holiday ‘broadcast’, the album immediately gets you into the mood for Christmas, though it is immediately apparent that they have their tongue placed firmly in their cheek. It’s easy to dismiss some of the fare as quite standard – with most of the tracks being very familiar, and even very traditional – but they have worked their own spin on every one, whether it’s through changing the lyrics, such as in Carols Not From Kings, which incorporates carols with pop songs and a whole new set of wonderful, hilarious lyrics, changing the harmonies, such as in the slightly experimental-sounding Silent Night, or giving the songs a whole new beat – God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen’s soulful beats make it one of the best tracks on the album!

The album’s single, Christmas Gets Worse Every Year, sums up this album in one song. It sounds familiar, like all good Christmas songs should, it references other Christmas songs, with the ‘Ding Dong’s beautifully done and the nod to Hark the Herald Angels Sing emphasising these boys’ strong choral ability, but it is also an original song, with a provocative title and heartwarming lyrics. Few a cappella groups seem brave enough to sing original songs, but this shows just how much it can pay off, with Oscar Foxley’s song having received praise from the likes of Stephen Fry, Neil Gaiman, and even the Scottish Parliament. These boys are not afraid to take risks, whether it’s in their lyrics, their decision to do a seasonal album (which may only sell at this time of year – though I’m sure it will sell a lot!), or indeed by putting themselves out there and getting themselves on to the charts.

I hope that other groups can learn from them – it may not be the perfect album, with some over-produced vocal percussion, and a reliance on the fact that those buying the album will like Christmas songs (believe it or not, some people don’t), but it is quite unique in the university a cappella world. And for that reason alone, this should be Number One on your Christmas list.

The Other Guys Release Christmas Album

The Other Guys, from the University of St Andrews, have today released a Christmas studio album, entitled The Other Guys’ Christmas, and in doing so have become the first UK collegiate a cappella group to release such a festive record.

The CD contains seven tracks, including an original number entitled Christmas Gets Worse Every Year, alongside various other covers of Christmas classics. The album was released at ten o clock this morning and is already 5th on the BandCamp sales charts.

Rumours are that the boys will be releasing another YouTube video and single in conjunction with the album, with more news to follow in the next few days.

You can buy the album right here.

Album Review: Music Up!

Music Up! is Out of the Blue’s eleventh studio album, and was mixed and mastered by the likes of Bill Hare and Dave Sperandio.

Music Up! is Out of the Blue’s eleventh studio album and the group’s self-proclaimed ‘largest scale record ever attempted’, with production taking place in four different time zones. Of all the albums I purchased at the Edinburgh Festival in August (and believe me, there were a lot of them), this is by far the one I listen to the most, and great credit must be given to the boys, especially Musical Director Nick Barstow, for producing yet another album that is filled with fun, character and musical precision which is again ridiculously easy to listen to.

I have expressed my appreciation of Laurie Cottam’s skyscraping tenor previously, and so to hear him taking the lead on the opening song, The Beatles’ Got To Get You Into My Life, which remains my favourite on the entire album, made me very happy. This is one of those numbers which you can turn up loud in your car and sing along to shamelessly, not giving a damn about the odd glares that passers-by give you along the way. The arrangement itself is busy and energetic, but while the merge into Stevie Wonder’s Isn’t She Lovely works well as a refreshing change up, that particular section isn’t quite as musically interesting at the previous song. Still, it’s my most played song on my iTunes this month, so the boys must be doing something right.

There are many highlights on this album: the wall of sound that hits you on the opening of Fat Bottomed Girls; the goosebump-inducing With Or Without You, which is magnificently and purely sung in two octaves; the mash-up of the Spice Girls’ Stop and 5ive’s Keep On Movin’ which, for a 90s kid like me, is a welcome blast from the past; the lively VF-UK arrangement of Jessie J’s Domino, sung by Nick Barstow with real emotion and character; and the musically superb California Girls, which is mashed-up from start to finish in a real triumph of originality. Oh, and the beatboxing in the bridges of the latter is frankly astounding. In fact, I could quite easily make a positive comment about every single track on this album, such is the quality of arrangement and execution of every single number.

There were few negatives. I’m still not won over by their Lippy Kids arrangement – I’m not sure why. It’s minimalistc, but still requires precise timing for the majority of the backing parts, which comes off well, but the number just doesn’t make me feel anything. It doesn’t make me tap my foot, nor does it appeal to my emotions. It’s musically flawless but I can’t help but listen with disinterest when it comes on. Their arrangement of Skinny Love is good, but does seem a little fast and again leads to a slight loss of emotion that the original otherwise provides. However, the dual solo section and the build up towards the climax at the end is phenomenal.

These are very churlish, personal criticisms on what is otherwise a very, very impressive album. I think the real triumph of this album is how different and unique all the arrangements are. While the boys do have a distinct sound and image, they are still able to distinguish between soul, pop, rock and hip hop, and inject the relevant elements of each genre into their music. Equally impressive is that at times I find their arrangements to be better than the originals, which, for a student a cappella group, is extraordinary.

Buy this album. You won’t regret it.

Album Review: Take Your Mama

Take Your Mama is the sixth studio album from The Oxford Alternotives, who also hit the US for a tour earlier in the academic year.

Having only really been involved in a cappella for the past two years, I had not been in the community for the release of The Oxford Alternotives’ previous albums, most recently the intriguingly named Get Naked With…The Oxford Alternotives, and having only seen them live for the first time at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe Festival, I was very intrigued to hear what the group had to offer in the studio. While there are significant strengths as well as areas in which to improve, the album makes for a thoroughly enjoyable listen, punctuated with three or four truly sensational numbers.

Two things strike me as I listen through their latest album, Take Your Mama – one is that the female soloists seem to be a lot more vocally solid and assured than their male counterparts; and the other being that the group seem to have developed an inherent skill at covering the slower numbers with great proficiency. Two songs demonstrate these two remarks excellently: the first being the hauntingly beautiful Samson, originally by the magnificent Regina Spektor. When I saw this live, I didn’t expect it to be topped on the album, as it was incredible live, but I was wrong – Sarah Anson handles the solo delicately and with passion and a beautiful pure tone. The real triumph of this track, though, is the high soprano line, which is simply flawless. There were occasions at which that line lingered longer than the others, and the tone to these lingering notes was unbelievably good. The second song is perhaps the even more impressive Can’t Make You Love Me by Bonnie Raitt, which again has a phenomenal solo from Natasha Heliotis, who riffs effortlessly and just the right amount throughout her silky alto solo that strolled into my heart. The arrangement itself was simple but effective, and allowed this wonderful solo to deservedly shine through.

After that, the album descends into enjoyable songs that work well as a cappella arrangements but all have imperfections. The ‘best of the rest’, as it were, is the penultimate track, Janelle Monae’s Tightrope, with the tricky solo being tackled superbly by Olivia Willis, climaxing to a very deliberate finish with suitably punchy backing, which was an impressive finish to a dexterously arranged track. One expects the opening track to generally be one of the stronger ones on the album, and indeed Canned Heat is an energetic, lively start, setting the mood well for the rest of the album, with some solid bass. There was some noticeably accomplished beatboxing on the title track, Take Your Mama, with a sturdy solo performance throughout from Alastair Livesey, while the Beach Boys section of California Girls was tackled with some very atmospheric 80s pop breathy-ness that really set the summer mood, despite the dreadful British weather of recent times. And Dom Burrell’s low, dulcet solo during Say My Name was honeyed and soothing – a lot of the time I wish basses got more of a chance to take a solo, because a lot of them can have a great quality and tone to their voice.

There were unfortunately some letdowns. Thriller and Lost felt a little like non-entities, neither of them really grasping my attention, with the former a little flat and the latter simply not that musically ornate. While the closing track, Spandau Ballet’s Gold was on the whole thoroughly entertaining, it did lack a little of the oomph necessary in the chorus. Nevertheless, these were minor glitches in an otherwise excellent effort from the oldest group in Oxford.

While the production value of this CD is not quite as high as some of their contemporaries, namely their all-male counterparts from Oxford, the Alternotives clearly have a lot of good arrangers in their midst, as well as some very strong female soloists. The album could be slicker, tidier and tighter, but these are churlish comments, and on the whole an album well worth setting aside your money and time to purchase and listen to. I look forward very much to what they produce in the coming academic year.

The Techtonics Announce Debut Full-Length Album

A year after their trip to Croatia for the Vocal Marathon competition, the Techtonics are releasing their debut album, Groundbreaker.

The exciting aca-news keeps flooding in left, right and centre, and none more exciting than the news that Imperial College London’s premier all-male group, The Techtonics, are releasing their debut full-length album, Groundbreaker, on September 5th.

The boys have been a little quiet since the London Regional of the Voice Festival 2012, but have clearly been making the most of their summer by heading to the recording studio, and the result is their highly anticipated debut full-length and professionally mastered album, which follows in the footsteps of several other collegiate groups who have also released new albums this summer.

The Techtonics did release an LP back in 2010, but this effort is the first to be fully released since the group’s inception.

This time last year, The Techtonics flew to Croatia for the Vocal Marathon competition, and we are interested to see what kind of impact that extra competitive experience will have had upon their music.

For now, we must wait, but get excited for the second debut album of the year.

The Techtonics can be found on Facebook.

Albums Galore On Sale in Edinburgh

We here at the UK University A Cappella Blog are almost overcome with aca-excitement as studio album after studio album are falling into our possession up here in Edinburgh. No less than six brand new albums, some full length, some extended plays, have become available over the past two weeks.

The Oxford Alternotives have released their sixth studio album, entitled Take Your Mama, with ten sensational tracks on it. Meanwhile, Out of the Blue are on an incredible eleventh, Music Up!, which is packed full of energetic, powerful numbers that the boys do so well, many of which can be heard in their Edinburgh show. On a different note, All the King’s Men have released a five-track EP It’s Reigning Men, which was recorded live, and should bring a slightly different perspective to their music. The majority of the album consists of their recent Voice Festival UK winning set, but there are some amazing extras on there too.

All-female group from Oxford In The Pink have released their sixth studio album, She Who Dares, while fellow Oxford group The Oxford Gargoyles have released Up The Scale, which is a mixture of studio and live tracks, and is sure to be a thoroughly professional effort. And We’re Not Kitten is the latest of a string of fantastic feline puns for the new album of The Alleycats from the University of St Andrews, the first group from Scotland to release a full length album this year.

If you can’t make it to the Fringe Festival, these albums are sure to be available for purchase online in the next few weeks, but why miss the chance to see the groups live at the best arts festival in the world? Details of each of the shows can be found below.

Alleycats
All the King’s Men
Alternotives
Gargoyles
In The Pink
Out of the Blue