Category Archives: Reviews

Deke And Dylan’s Wisdom Distilled in “A Cappella Arranging”

Every writer has faced stumbling blocks: the threat of a blank page; the surfeit of inchoate ideas; the troublesome passage that resists clarity, even after its third reworking. An artist who has tried her hand at arranging vocal music—in any genre, for any number of singers, and with any level of technical proficiency—has met these foes, plus some more that are custom-built to annoy the arranger: you suddenly find that you can’t cover the third of the chord without your tenors making an awkward jump; you found a mistake, fixed it, and then found that the ‘fix’ threw something else out of whack; your charts made perfect sense when you were typing, but now the parts seem confounding in rehearsal. Oh, what we wouldn’t give in those moments for some practical, hands-on advice.

Deke Sharon has been distilling, popularizing, and proselytizing the art and science of arranging vocal music for two decades. He has shared his hard-earned wisdom in the form of one-hour workshops at a cappella summits, multi-day intensives in and around his San Francisco home, and CASA blog posts. Most recently, he has partnered with prolific arranger Dylan Bell to produce what they hope to be the definitive manual on the topic of contemporary a cappella arranging.

Read the full review on CASA.org.

“Black & Blue” by the JMU BluesTones

Instructions for experiencing “Black & Blue” by the JMU (James Madison University) BluesTones:

1. Load up the album on a portable music player.
2. Apply decent headphones.
3. Bundle up. It’s March.
4. Press play.
5. Go for a walk.
6. Strut unintentionally.
7. Marvel at the girl drummers’ kick drums, especially on the third track.
8. Also at some strong solo performances, especially on the third track.
9. Enjoy the relaxing wind-down of the last two tracks.
10. Go home and make some cocoa. That was a cold 44 minutes. (But worth it, right? Good. I’m glad you thought so.)

Where is the Annie Lennox, the Anna Nalick, the Imogen Heap, the Sara Bareilles? Delightfully absent, that’s where. WIth no offense intended to pop covers—believe me: I, too, have sung my fair share of Sarah McLachlan—it’s refreshing to hear an album of the power ballads we shall call Diva Rock. The song choices are equal parts R&B (Beyoncé, Jordin Sparks) and country (Carter’s Chord, Jessie James), with a dash of straightforward rock at the beginning (Paramore) plus one misplaced gem of the indie singer/songwriter persuasion (the Rescues).

Read the full review on CASA.org.

An Interview with Imogen Heap

Imogen Heap is a Grammy Award-winning British vocalist and songwriter (as well as multi-instrumentalist and producer). To contemporary a cappella singers and fans, Imogen hardly needs an introduction: between her three solo records and her work as half of the duo Frou Frou, Imogen’s songs like “Let Go” and “Hide and Seek” are ubiquitous in high school, college and professional a cappella. Imogen chatted with CASA writer Marisa Debowsky about singing, songwriting, and her recent project, surrounding the song “Earth”, which has generated a wave of energy as well as exposure to new fans for many a cappella groups in the past year.

Marisa Debowsky (CASA): Tell me about your vocal background. How did you start singing? How do you think about the voice?

Imogen Heap: I started singing naturally: I like talking, and talking became melodies; I accompanied myself on piano when I was younger, and started putting words to melodies at 12 or 13 — puberty, mood swings, bullied at school, so I had subject matter to write about. I sang in school choirs when I was younger and did some writing every year for the choir (a carol or hymn as end-of-year project). Singing was just fun, really; I never planned on doing it professionally, just a natural thing that I liked doing. I knew that I wanted to do music, so studied classical music, arrangement, composition, and anything to get to grips with how to write for orchestra (cello, clarinet, piano); the older I got, the more songs I started to write; I played around with a keyboard, making up beats, writing with computers. At 15, I started recording, and I could hear the things I’d play, how they sounded back. Then I started to layer them up.

I always treated my voice like an instrument, because that’s how I was taught. My singing style comes from a cross between classical and learning instruments and how to accompany. Rather than thinking of vocals as the lead, I might think of a vocal line as accompanying something on piano. A vocal line is also a way to record an idea quickly: rather than getting up to get other instruments, it’s quick to record a vocal track. I like making sounds with the voice, as well as making lyrical lines.

The only pop music I listened to as a kid who had influence was Michael Jackson: he uses lots of vocalism that’s not lyrical, which I subconsciously incorporated. I breathe rhythmically, often filling in space with vocal sounds.

Read the rest of the interview on CASA.org.

Imogen Heap’s “Earth” Project

Imogen Heap is a Grammy Award-winning British vocalist and songwriter (as well as multi-instrumentalist and producer). To contemporary a cappella singers and fans, Imogen hardly needs an introduction: between her three solo records and her work as half of the duo Frou Frou, Imogen’s songs like “Let Go” and “Hide and Seek” are ubiquitous in high school, college and professional a cappella. Imogen chatted with CASA writer Marisa Debowsky about singing, songwriting, and her recent project, surrounding the song “Earth”, which has generated a wave of energy as well as exposure to new fans for many a cappella groups in the past year.

Imogen Heap’s musical life began with singing, and throughout her career, her albums have been layered with creative vocals. “I always treated my voice like an instrument,” Imogen recalls. “My singing style comes from a cross between classical and learning instruments and how to accompany. Rather than thinking of vocals as the lead, I might think of a vocal line as accompanying something on piano… I like making sounds with the voice, as well as making lyrical lines.” Going one step further: both Imogen’s last record (“Speak For Yourself”) and her newest record (“Ellipse”) feature entirely a cappella tracks.

“My first a cappella song was Hide and Seek,” says Imogen. “It’s three takes of vocals (one at the beginning, two in second chorus, three at end), and then I played the harmonies through the keyboard.” By contrast, “Earth” is a heavily layered and complicated vocal track. Like a poet looking to deepen her focus by putting free verse on the shelf and setting her pen to a sonnet, Imogen approached the song with the intention of using her voice as the only instrument: “I decided to do “Earth” a cappella as well. I had written a b-side called “mic check”: it’s just me saying “mic check” with various drum beats, and I enjoyed that challenge. It’s good fun: I like giving myself limitations — it makes me be creative in different ways. For example, writing a song with only piano: I might use the sustain pedal as kick drum, or tapping of hammers as a rhythmic part. So when I recorded “Earth”, I got to make all kinds of sounds that I couldn’t possibly do myself.” The result is an energetic, imaginative, beautifully-engineered track.

In concert, Imogen often performs complicated vocal arrangements (and even improvisations) using live looping, but recreating the studio version of “Earth” was never the goal: instead, the concert version of the song became a collaboration with other singers around the globe.

Read the full review on CASA.org.

Bobby McFerrin, “VOCAbuLarieS”

“take away the words, letting all the sounds just play” –“Say Ladeo”, VOCAbuLarieS

When an incredibly gifted artist devotes seven years to creating a magnum opus, it is worth perking up one’s ears.  Bobby McFerrin’s VOCAbuLarieS is indeed a great work: a collection of sonic poems, born of his incredibly creative improvisations and embracing the full range of his voice and the broadest possible range of styles.  The record is aptly named: he uses vocals—his own voice and those of many talented guests—and many of the earth’s languages to create an aural vocabulary.

And what vocabulary is that?  The words themselves are in English, Latin, Sanskrit, Spanish, Italian, Zulu, Russian, Hebrew, Portuguese, Mandarin, Japanese, French, Arabic, German and Gaelic.  The musical vocabulary calls on R&B, gospel, sacred choral music, Gregorian chant, African tribal music.  The poetry in the writing  could be classified as the vocabulary of ‘sacred music’: it is spiritual, and it weaves in the traditions and stories of many major religions, old and young.  And some of the words are simply of Bobby McFerrin’s own invention: it is truly a vocabulary all his own.

Read the full review on CASA.org.

2010 Harmony Sweepstakes, Boston Regional Competition

The Boston Regional Competition of the Harmony Sweepstakes (on 4.18.10) was a smashing event this year. A stellar line-up, a full house of a cappella enthusiasts, and a smoothly-running show — what more could I ask?

At a competition like this, every viewer is a judge (and I’m no exception). I watched the show critically: I want to see a set from each group that is balanced, visually compelling, and that sounds good. But this isn’t just any music: it’s a cappella. So I ask more questions: why is the group performing this song with only voices as its instruments? (Is it a cover that’s an impressive imitation of the original, or, better yet, a re-imagining? Or is it an original song intended for voices only?) Are the singers (and arrangers) using their voices effectively? And—most importantly—is the audience having fun? The answers came back a resounding ‘yes’ for much of afternoon.

Read the full review on CASA.org.

NYU APC Rhythm “All Things Go”

“All Things Go” is a neat, clean album, showcasing some great soloists and making bold choices in the arrangements.  It’s not just a pop/rock album: the standout tracks are gospel and electronica, demonstrating a real breadth that most college groups don’t approach.  And fortunately, the risks they take in the arrangements pay off: it’s their tasteful use of vocal flange (a technique formerly abused by college groups) in surprising places, like the 90’s pop “Hollywood” and the country/gospel “Home,” and their creative endings, like a church bell ringing out the end of “Beautiful Day” and notes like glass ringing the end of “Love Song,” that bring this album from “good” to “really very good indeed.”

Read the full review on CASA.org.