Who knew that acapella music would make such a comeback in the last decade? The Warblers on Glee and NBC’s competition show The Sing Off demonstrate the enduring popularity of close harmonies with no musical accompaniment. One of the most unlikely stories to come out of the acapella genre is Straight No Chaser, an Indiana University-based group that found fame almost a decade after they broke up through their YouTube videos. Their whimsical yet impressive rendition of “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” originally recorded onstage in 1998, received so many viewings in 2007 that the group reformed, releasing new albums and attracting a devoted following. Their latest EP, Six Pack Vol. 2, continues their essential formula: giving modern tunes from rock and R&B an acapella makeover.
Formed in 1996, Straight No Chaser consisted of ten singers; after they graduated in 1999, the university continued the group as a vehicle for students. When the original lineup reunited due to popular demand, they released their debut album, Holiday Spirits, in 2008. A TV special and another Christmas album followed, along with another disc of covers, 2010′s With A Twist. Since then, some original members have left the group, but newer Straight No Chaser alums have since joined the singers. Six Pack Vol. 2 contains everything from Motown jams (“Get Ready”) to rock (“Buddy Holly”) to 1980s pop (“Like A Prayer”). Interestingly, their version of “Like A Prayer” is the standout track on the EP. Their harmonies resemble a church choir, the group crooning the lyrics quietly. The lead vocalist sings the words as if he means every syllable: “I hear you call my name/ And it feels like home,” he sincerely sings, lending the Madonna hit new depth.
While their harmonies remain intricate and their energy infectious, Straight No Chaser’s vocal percussion lacks subtlety present on their previous releases and in live performances. In fact, their vocalizations so closely resemble eletronic drums that I thought sometimes they slightly overwhelmed their intricate harmonies. For example, they certainly match the Temptations’ original enthusiasm on “Get Ready,” but the heavy beatboxing proves distracting. The same goes for their otherwise amusing mashup of “Poison” and “Billie Jean,” their beats melding perfectly. Again, their harmonies prove appealing, particularly when the group sings the string parts of “Billie Jean.” Vocalist Jerome Collins channels Michael Jackson on his solos, but manages not to verge on parody or mere imitation.
Their other mashup, The Plain White T’s “Rhythm of Love” and Elvis Presley’s “Can’t Help Falling in Love,” works well due to both songs’ charm, although “Can’t Help Falling in Love” particularly retains its staying power and proves timeless. Straight No Chaser also tackles rock by covering Weezer’s “Buddy Holly,” but again, that heavy vocal percussion almost overtakes the song.
Six Pack Vol. 2 concludes with their version of Marvin Gaye’s “Let”s Get It On,” which correctly utilizes finger-snapping and the group’s bass voice as percussion. As on “Billie Jean,” Collins shines here, although he wisely does not attempt to duplicate Gaye’s iconic performance. The rest of the group provides a luxurious cushion for his voice, illustrating their obvious love of R&B.
If nothing else, Straight No Chaser deserves credit for bringing acapella music to younger generations. Six Pack Vol 2 effectively showcases their talent for reinterpreting well-known tunes with their harmonies. In future releases, the group should consider toning down the vocal percussion and beatboxing so they are not the focal points of the songs. Otherwise, Six Pack Vol. 2 fits with their previous releases, and is a generally enjoyable listen.