ben folds presentsuniversity a cappella
  • TUESDAY, MAY 05, 2009

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Most music lovers who exist in the collegiate world are familiar with their respective campus a cappella groups, existing as all male, female, co-ed, and even religious centric. In places like universities with a strong arts program or a bunch of dramatic theater majors, they can act as a surrogate football team; attracting students of all ages to rally and support every show, treating members like star quarterbacks or slam dunkers (without ever having to score a goal). The joy of seeing favorite tunes recreated by voices is hard to explain, and the culture is tough to grasp, even after reading several non-fiction books or watching PBS documentaries. Although, as someone who has experienced it, ran a group, and recorded multiple albums, I think I know a thing or two. And knowing a few a cappella secrets is necessary when looking at this album in a critical light.

So, a few notes for beginners: everyone knows that Ben Folds and Guster and that Imogen Heap song were all built for a cappella (meaning they are simple enough to easily arrange for voices to recreate). That being said, it's up to the various collegiate groups around the country to make them more interesting. Some succeed, but some fall into typical a cappella boringness. Lots of folks can sing pretty, but that doesn't make watching or listening to them exciting. Arrangements should do more than recreate; they should transcend the original track, becoming their own entity. The trick is to use the voice in an attention-grabbing and compelling way, but this can be difficult for, say, boring groups.

Luckily for keen ears, the tracks were all recorded by the same person (Folds and his crew), so production values are for the most part, consistent. The two schools of a cappella recordings are either the 'natural' approach, or the super produced approach (usually applied to vocal percussion and bass notes). Most people agree that the latter is more interesting, but also requires more creativity. Again, some of the groups here fail to have significant leaps, falling short with lackluster vocal percussion or disinterested part writing.

But some succeed. Typically choir arrangements of upbeat songs fail miserably, but choir arrangements of songs like The Luckiest actually sound strangely beautiful when mimed by voices. Then again, maybe it's just the beauty of the original songwriting.

Keep in mind: this is more a Ben Folds hits record, then an a cappella showcase. So this record is most likely only for Folds fans, and even further, for a cappella nerds. That being said, for a fan, it was enjoyable to hear so many different takes on the music. Some of my favorites were The Spartones doing Not The Same and The Amateurs doing The Luckiest, with The Sacremento Jazz Singers ranking up there with their stellar arrangement of Selfless, Cold And Composed, but the real gem here is Ben's own a cappella side-notes, slipped in among the college kids. These tracks are must haves for fans. Boxing is a shrill, operatic recreation, but Effington succeeds where most collegiate a cappella fails. Fold's hit the nail on the head with the grand secret of a cappella; Effington refuses to take itself seriously, and for that, it's easily the most successful cut on the record. - joe puglisi

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