The human voice is a wonderfully flexible instrument, capable of conveying many layers of emotion and texture. Long before we had man-made instruments to create sound, the voice provided a wide range of music to accompany any occasion, from daily labor to celebratory gatherings. Therefore, it is no surprise that a cappella music — a term that has become synonymous with 'unaccompanied singing,' both religious and secular according to Grove Music Online — still exists in most cultures around the world.
In the United States, a cappella music has taken on many forms, from gospel spirituals to unaccompanied folk songs. In the last few decades, there has been a surge of a cappella music that attempts to imitate popular and rock music arrangements, including instrumentation and percussion. This movement has mainly existed in the form of collegiate ensembles, but occasionally a non-collegiate group is able to make a name for itself in mainstream venues. One such group that is attempting to do so is Los Angeles-based Sonos.
The sextet released their eponymous debut last week. I have been listening to it off and on for a while now, and each time I hear it, I remain impressed with the quality of the recording and production. Their vocals blend together perfectly, and except for the soloists, no one voice stands out as uniquely identifiable — a desirable trait in vocal ensemble music.
For their source music, the group has drawn from a wide range of artists and genres. The album's highlights include Radiohead's "Everything In Its Right Place," The Bird and the Bee's "Again and Again," and Rufus Wainwright's "Oh What A World." However, the group doesn't just do an excellent job of reproducing the originals, they also take some creative license in how the songs are spun. Notably, Jesca Hoop's folk-pop "Summertime" is given a tribal feel by changing the syllables sung to imitate the instrumental parts to those commonly associated with that type of vocal music.
In an unusual move, Sara Bareilles steps in as lead vocalist on the group's arrangement of her song, "Gravity." The heart-wrenching subdued intensity of the song survives the translation to a cappella, becoming more lush with the bed of vocals providing buoyancy to Bareilles' melody.
In total, Sonos' first album is a wonderful mix of perfectly blended a cappella vocals, excellent production, and compelling arrangements of pop and rock tunes. They don't need to rely on flashy vocal tricks or a repertoire of top 40 hits to make their mark. I recommend this album for vocal music enthusiasts looking for quality recordings outside of mainstream a cappella music.