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Music Review: Straight No Chaser – Six Pack Vol. 2

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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 Straight No Chasergraduated 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.

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About Kit O'Toole

  • Donna M Stefani, Chaser

    Sir, you need to check & re-check your facts, & not malign SNC’s reputation by printing untruths!
    In no way are there any electric or synthetic drums, or any other instrument other then their voices, used in any of these or any other recordings! Do you even know what a cappella is? It means without instrumental accompaniment!
    Please issue a retraction as I’ll be forwarding this to the group & their management.

  • LovedeAcapella

    I agree. I believe that saying they use electric drums is misinformation. You could (and should) easily fact check by contacting the group’s management. Or by seeing them LIVE. Or even by reviewing the multitude of videos on YouTube.

  • Kelly Elder

    seriously? Have you seen them perform live? What you call ‘electronic drums’ IS the beatboxing you say is missing.

  • Kit O’Toole

    Thank you for your comments. I have a feeling that perhaps my points were unclear, so I thought I should respond to a few issues brought up here:
    1. First off, if you check my writer page, I’m a woman. If you are contacting a writer to argue a point, it’s generally better to do a little homework first.
    2. I’m not “maligning” the group in any way. I am, in fact, a fan who has their albums and has seen all their YouTube videos and PBS specials.
    3. I listened to this EP several times, and what I heard was, to my ears, not beatboxing. They did not use a beat on every song, as I mentioned in this review.
    4. Finally, yes, I do realize what acapella means (which is misspelled in the comments above), and that’s exactly my point. Acapella does mean without instrumentation, so the electronic drums were not needed.
    I will be happy to edit the review if the band (or their representatives) contact me directly. Otherwise I stand by my review.

  • Donna M Stefani, Chaser

    You’re points are not unclear!
    Homework? Where was your homework when you
    flat out said they used something other then their voices?
    You’re going to comment on what you call our misspellings when you’re publishing untruths? A cappella is not mispelled, it has 2 p’s, & can be with the a attached or without.
    You’re going to be eating some crow when they contact you direct.

  • Jordan Richardson

    Donna, I’m willing to bet “they” will be more respectful and less condescending and plain rude than you IF they elect to contact Kit.

    You may have made this particular musical act your pet project, but that doesn’t mean you have to be a jerk when pointing out errors.

  • Donna M Stefani, Chaser

    They have to be nice Jordan, I don’t, & if you don’t like it, don’t read it.
    If SHE is going to publish a review in writing that unless removed, will be out there forever, she damn well better have those facts straight.
    This shows she doesn’t, & I don’t have to please you or anyone else with what comments I make.
    There has never been, nor will there ever be instrumental accompaniment used on any SNC recording or performance. Saying there is, is reckless!

  • Jordan Richardson

    It’s not “reckless,” it’s a simple mistake. It happens. You can offer a correction without having to be rude about it, can’t you? Or are you so devoid of social skills that you can’t muster up even the slightest bit of decorum?

    The WORST thing Kit may have done is make an honest mistake about whether or not there are electronic drums in this music. You took to Twitter and went bananas over it, calling down hellfire and brimstone and acting like a child threatening to tell the principal. Grow up.

    And doesn’t the fact that Kit mistook vocals for electronic drums say something about the skill of the musicians? It does to me.

    And really, quit with this “don’t like it, don’t read it” bullshit. I’m really tired of people hiding behind this nonsense. You expect others to own up to their words and be accountable, so you better follow the same path.

  • Dottie Kovacs

    Kit, I appreciate your review of Six Pack – Vol.2. I love Straight No Chaser, and I think you hit it on the head when you said that they are bringing a cappella to younger generations. I am one that *loves* the “heavy” vocal percussion as you put it! :D There is something so appealing to me about a human voice duplicating the sounds of an instrument, whether it be a trumpet, guitar, or drum set. I am loving SNC’s new album!

  • Kit O’Toole

    I agree, Dottie–there’s something special about great acapella music.I’m glad it has made a comeback! Thanks for commenting.

  • LovedeAcapella

    Kit, your article certainly had me going back to re-listen to the EP. I see your point. I suspect I did not hear – or listen for – the same things as you because I have heard these songs live, and the studio mix is very different. Thanks for a new perspective.

  • Kit O’Toole

    Thanks for commenting! I agree–the live versions are very different than the studio recordings.

  • Whut whut

    Actually, Donna, you should be nice if you are going to cast yourself as an ambassador like you do on your Twitter page. Instead, you are only coming off like the middle portion of that word. If I was in SNC, I would be embarrassed to have you as a fan

  • Dave White

    wow (in regards to above).

    Sorry to disagree, but have to agree w/ Dottie on this one. I for one, also love the “heavy” vocal percussion that “Straight No Chaser” can produce (A Capella-ily)(lol), especially in the mentioned B.Jean/Poison, Get Ready and Buddy Holly numbers.

    Kudos to all the guys Don, Randy, Charlie, Seggie, Dave, Ryan, Tyler, Walt, Mike & Jerome…..great job fellas!

  • Whut whut

    just got an email back from group founder Dan Ponce after informing him about what has happened here and he wishes me to tell Ms. Stefani he no longer wants her as a fan of the group.

  • Dave White

    Whut whut –

    Come on…….seriously???? You said your mind and that’s cool – and then you go and say that? Dan would never say that.

  • Ryan

    Hi, Kit. Thank you for reviewing our new EP. I appreciate you taking the time to listen to it and share your thoughts on this site. I hope you continue to enjoy our music and YouTube videos. My hope is that we can meet and thank you personally at one of our concerts.

    Regarding the other discussion and debate on this forum: no instruments other than our 10 voices, snaps, stomps, or hand claps were used in the recording of this EP. The beauty of a studio and recording software is that our capabilities are extended (by means of adding voices on a part normally sung by one voice, applying specific effects such as reverb, compression, etc.). That being said, we in SNC strive to deliver a recorded product that is both representative of our vision in the studio and characteristic of what one may hear at our live show. In other words, whereas we know fully well what a studio computer can do for us, we typically want our voices to sound like voices rather than a distorted electric guitar, arbitrarily speaking. In other words, we often restrain and embrace the same technology in the studio.

    Often in the recording process, vocal percussion is recorded and layered with multiple parts (such as a “cymbal” crash) on their own tracks so they can be panned/EQ’d separately in the master track. We may have one of the 6 guys in the group who perform vocal percussion record a “kick drum” beat first, followed by the “snare drum,” and a “high hat” last. Other times, the beat may be laid down altogether at the same time (I believe Seggie’s VP on Billie Jean/Poison was executed this way; specifically, the latter, as he performs it live).

    All that being said, it dismays me to read argumentative comments about our music such as the ones above. There is nothing in this review that comes across to me, as a member of SNC, as unfounded, unnecessarily harsh, or slanderous.

    We always appreciate sincerely our fans looking out for our health and well-being. We have a dedicated team of professionals alongside us who diligently look out for our careers. For those wondering if they need to look after us professionally, we invite and encourage you rather to sit back, enjoy the show with your friends, and please say hi to us afterwards.

    Kit, thanks again for review. Hope to see you at a show soon!

    Ryan Ahlwardt
    SNC

  • Shaina

    Hi Kit!

    I enjoyed reading your review. I personally love Straight No Chaser’s newest EP. Their “Rhythm of Love/Can’t Help Falling In Love” is one of my favorites, and I agree that the Elvis section has a lot of charm — which is probably why I love it so much! ^___^ Their harmonies are what drew me to the group in the first place, and though I may disagree that some of the vocal percussion may be overpowering (I feel that it adds to the song, but that might just be me since I’m a vocal percussionist for an a cappella group myself), I will always look to SNC in awe at their locking harmonies and fantastic arrangements.

    Thanks again for providing a great review! :)

    ~Shaina

  • Donna M Stefani, Chaser

    Thanks Ryan.
    The article above is not as it was yesterday evening & was already changed by the time I went back at 4:30 am.
    I’m just glad it’s gone!

  • Costello

    What are you thanking Ryan for, Donna? He clearly states he is dismayed by your obnoxious comments

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ roger nowosielski

    She may as well thank Jordan for chewing her out, as though Jordan himself was so high on social graces and above all reproach.

    What a fucking joke!

    Though I do appreciate Jordan’s stand vs,. the editorial board, Costello, and Glenn’s too. You did miss the best part.

    Too bad too many cowards here — not a boo from either Clavos or El Bicho, the real mice men of the BC commissariat, just pluggin’ along in their merry old ways. There was a chance to make impact, real impact, on the future of the editorial policy, but the jackasses have elected to play it safe by playing mute. Even Eden, the old nemesis of editorial abuses, now takes the establishment’s side.

    Interestingly, Dreadful received two unsolicited hands-up, from Beatty “the impersonator” and the Raving American — both greenhorns – for which he thanked them profusely,

    What a farce!

  • Jennifer

    I know I’m a little “late to the party” on this one but for those who don’t understand the passion in Donna’s criticism of the review let’s put it this way:

    The critic made a judgmental error on what she believed instruments were being used on the album (stated in the original version of her review). Making such false accusations toward a musical talent which originally and ultimately depend on the fact that they do not use instruments,is slanderous and ultimately could be sued for libel. Now, it is understood, as Ryan has graciously commented, that while technology in the music business is a great advantage; ultimately it still is ten guys and ten voices. This is not an episode of ‘fans gone wild’ because of one bad review. Ms. Stefani merely holds one reviewer’s feet to the fire. The review which is posted here is the ‘new and improved’ version, rather than a retraction. So, if you were not privy to see the original review it is difficult to see why Ms. Stefani was upset, as what you are reading here is the revised version.

    What we can all agree on is that Straight No Chaser has an amazing talent and has revived a genre of mainstream music that has been so desperately yearned for by those who appreciate their talents. I for one, hope to hear much, much more from them for a good many years to come. When such audacious review regarding their musical integrity comes to question, it ultimately threatens their livelihood in which their success has been built on. I have been a fan since the “viral youtube video”, and the constant factors of this group are quality entertainment in a much needed genre and the class and style of which they bring it, on and off stage.

  • http://cinemasentries.com/ El Bicho

    “This is not an episode of ‘fans gone wild'”

    Actually it is and is why Ryan says he doesn’t want you fans going off half cocked in the band’s defense because you do more harm than good.

  • troll

    Even Eden, the old nemesis of editorial abuses, now takes the establishment’s side.

    roger nowosielski is a liar

  • http://www.RosesSpanishBoots.com Christopher Rose

    Or, given his excellence at misunderstanding, possibly just mistaken, young troll…

    ;-)

  • troll

    nah…that might have been possible had I written anything for him to inaccurately interpret – as he made this latest defamation up from nothing ‘liar’ applies

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ roger nowosielski

    No liar, Eden, and he certainly ain’t young chronologically speaking, but I do get your meaning, Chris — “young” in the sense of having altered, a changed man. I agree.

    Yes, troll, you did jump into the fray if only to point everyone’s attention to Glenn’s “lack of reading comprehension” — a favorite charge these days and a well-proven strategy to dismiss those who disagree with you.

    So it’s not only the case that you’ve managed to cut out legs from under Glenn — even if he were guilty in that instance of misreading; you’ve adopted the “enemy’s” language and used it against your own.

    So yes, in my book it represents betrayal in spirit.

    Not a lie, then, troll, but my take on things. But then again, you’ve always been kind of petty when challenged. (Yes, calling someone a liar is a petty type of response.)

  • troll

    I see your reference roger nowosielski and stand corrected

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ roger nowosielski

    I regarded as nothing but family quarrel, and I sure hope it will pass.

  • Joann

    I’ve been curious about Straight No Chaser’s other albums ever since their Christmas show aired on PBS, but I wasn’t able to find anything (even the holiday album!) in the stores that Christmas. It’s nice to have an inventory of their work and an idea of what’s on the other two non-holiday albums, especially as I have a Straight No Chaser fan on my list who has only heard the holiday album. Thanks for the helpful review!

  • Kit O’Toole

    Thanks, Joann, for commenting. I’m glad you found the review helpful!