Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Compelling A Capella

The human voice has always been a musical instrument in its own right. It would be pretty hard to think of modern popular music without vocal elements. Sure, there’s the occasional Dueling Banjos, Harlem Nocturne, Wipe Outor La Villa Strangiato. But since 1955 most of what has been hot has a vocal component. But what about music that contains only vocal elements and no musical instruments at all?  In other words: A Cappella.

Words of Wisdom from WOOFS!

You have heard A Cappella  even if you don’t realize it. Do you remember the Prius  commercial from a few years back? The one with the cover of Let Your Love Flow? That’s Petra Haden daughter of jazz bassist Charlie Haden. The amazing thing about this song is that it is all vocals, every bit of it. Petra Haden recorded all the instrumental parts and harmonies, a piece at a time and then mixed into a coherent whole. (There is really no excuse for not having this amazing track. You can download it for free from Toyota’s site. Do that right now. I’ll wait. Good isn’t it?) This is a technique that she mastered when she used an 8-track recorder to record the entire album The Who: Sell Out. She even sang the guitar solos. Her version of Armenia City in The Sky and I Can See For Miles is incredible! The only effects were a touch of reverb in a few spots. On top of that she performed the whole thing live with a 10 piece choir!

Hard to imagine all that sound in one woman!

So where does this kind of music come from? I’ll bet some of you are thinking Doo Wop. Wrong. Ok well, maybe Barbershop quartet you ask speculatively? Nope.  Although that isn’t completely wrong. A Capella (This is Italian for “in the manner of the church” or “Chapel”) the form actually goes back to the 15th century. Some churches then and now still use music without accompaniment believing that such style is commanded by scripture. As you may suspect, the subject is still debated.

Monks Rocking Out!

Modern A Cappella does have its roots in the late 19th century with barbershop quartets and in the collegiate group the Yale Whiffenpoofs which formed in 1909 (Cole Porter was member at one time). But this kind of a cappella was basically choral in nature, even if the music was mostly popular music of the day.  Doo Wop is strongly influenced by A Cappella, It uses very simple instrumentation (if any )and a 4 part harmony.  It used simple onomatopoeia to represent the instruments. “bom bom bom” for the bass and other nonsense phrases to cover the other parts.
There was influx of new collegiate groups starting in the 90’s, the difference was that these group sang rock and used the human voice to emulate traditional rock instruments. Sadly (or maybe not), this isn’t new either. The Mills Brothers used the same technique in the 30’s.
Probably the best known A Cappella group is probably Rockapella. With 9 albums to their total they have recorded a lot of different music including the theme song for Where in the World is Carmen San Diego?

But they ain’t alone, not hardly.  The Persuasions recorded an entire album of Frank Zappa covers.  The Sweptaways, a Scandinavian A Cappella group recorded an unique version of My Darling Clementine that is not only A Cappella but also has parts of the song sung in round. Lastly, Straight No Chaser, recorded a mashup of I’m Yours and Over the Rainbow inspired by Israel Kamakawiwo'ole version of the 1939 Judy Garland Wizard of Oz classic.

There are dozens of collegiate A Cappella groups ranging from the Brown Derbies (Brown University) to Yale Whiffenpoofs (they actually have 19 recognized A Cappella grourps) making it a very lively scene. Many have put out albums but they are very hard to locate, selling mainly at shows and local venues.
This is all well and good but how do you know if you will like it? I mean, music without guitars and drums? That’s not rock. I have got a deal for you. One of the best music podcast around, Coverville (If you aren’t listening to this, you should be, you really should be), has given me permission to link to a few of his shows that are exclusively A Cappella covers. It’s FREE. Just click the links below and download one of his podcasts and take a listen. Also, some of these albums can be hard to find and pretty expensive when you do. So try and out his Acappellaville episdes to see if you like it.



Till next time, Keep Listening!
Wanna get started with some A Cappella? Here’s some links!

I Can See For Miles

Oh my darling Clementine

I'm Yours/Somewhere Over The Rainbow


Petra Haden Sings: The Who Sell Out

Mills Brothers 22 Great Hits

Modern A Cappella

Frankly A Cappella

Where In The World Is Carmen Sandiego?

Click the links to fufill your destiny!

1 comment:

  1. The Petra Haden stuff was awesome. I hadn't heard it before. As was the other links. One of my favorite pella artist is Bobby McFerrin. Well beyond "Don't Worry Be Happy" (which as entirelly a-capella btw) he was quite a remarkable recording artist.