Straight No Chaser might just be the best group you've never heard of. Why? They are not exactly the same type of regular music people typically found on the radio. In fact, they hit their biggest stride last year with the release of "The Twelve Days of Christmas" — the song, not an album.
A bit of a background is in order. Fall 1996 at Indiana University. Ten guys form a group dedicated to singing a cappella. In other words, no accompaniment — which is as difficult as the image implies. One goof, and the audience instantly knows it. A couple of guitars and a keyboard would at least cover up part of the bad singing, but this form of vocal performance relies solely on what comes out of someone's mouth. Perhaps the best way to describe a cappella is to imagine auditions on American Idol where the contestants that viewers get to vote on are chosen. Everyone simply sings, whether or not they should.
Dan Ponce, who founded the group, has two requirements for those who wish to become members. First, they need solid vocal chops as well as the ability to blend well with everyone else. Second, personality is absolutely critical. If they are going to perform in front of other people, it helps if the audience likes them. Does it work? This is an understatement. Lou Rawls has had this group for an opening act. Footage of their efforts can be seen on YouTube where they are singing in front of crowds at Wrigley Field. Chicagoans appreciate them. Even Carnegie Hall is not an obstacle. The National Championship of Collegiate A Cappella bestowed first prize on these guys. With the release of their third album, 50,000 copies were sold.
The only thing which stands in their way is graduation. After all, this is a college group. No worries, those who are leaving make sure to handpick the next set. This helps the dream continue. About those YouTube videos – Indiana University decided a 2006 reunion was in order for the original team. Randy Stine, a member, produced a DVD and posted clips for the guys to enjoy. Needless to say, "The Twelve Days of Christmas" got more viewers. Try to wrap your brain around seven million in 2007 alone. Craig Kallman, CEO and Chairman of Atlantic Records, saw them too. The rest, as they say, is history.
Six Pack is an EP of six selections which are not in the holiday genre. Both popular and classic songs make up the collection, which just might help broaden the appeal. "Rehab" kicks things off. Originally by Amy Winehouse, it's a good choice. Opening notes pop with a kicky beat, entrancing and fun. Jerome Collins, the soloist, sings the actual song, but everyone has a part to play. Several can be heard in the background contributing an "ah". They make a pleasant harmony. Some split off into a fresh group, which is also delightful. Clapping helps keep a strong rhythm going.
"I'm Yours" mixed with "Over the Rainbow" hit a few snags. What is first heard is a Caribbean-type beat. From what I could tell, this just might be an original arrangement. Where did it go wrong? The mix. I expect to hear a song which someone else covers with a version matching the familiar. As in, Judy Garland sings The Wizard of Oz. The bits Straight No Chaser threw in clashed with what they started out with.
"Signed, Sealed, Delivered, I'm Yours" is my favorite song. Not only does it sound like the Motown hit, the fun is contagious. Jerome Collins solos again, and I almost thought he was a carbon copy of Stevie Wonder. From the opening to its end, this is flawless. One small item: "I was Made to Love Her" is listed on the cover. Not only is it not on the CD listing itself (when it gets played, a list comes up with titles to show where the listener is exactly), it never played! Whoops.
"You Send Me" has Ryan Ahlwardt as the soloist this time. A much slower tune, it works with Ahlwardt's tenor voice. There is a crooning which makes for a nice earful. Some noises akin to bullfrog croaks are a bit off-putting, but this is a personal thing. Another may like what I am not keen on. The ooohs and ahs are a sweet touch.
"Can't Take My Eyes Off You" should also be something of a ballad. The pop version which these guys come out with sounds a bit off. I have to wonder if perhaps the issue is having all ten performers singing this. What I keep hearing is a crying baby and a train passing by. The words are lost in the background of those.
For the most part, I like this CD. There is no question of anyone's singing ability. Yes, some stuff could use a bit more refinement. It could simply be due to the songs chosen for a cappella versions. What works for a band is different than what works for vocals only.