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The A Cappella Group

Cypress Lake High School

Sunny Days (2013)

3.7

January 21, 2014

Tuning / Blend 3.7
Energy / Intensity 4.3
Innovation / Creativity 3.0
Soloists 4.3
Sound / Production 3.7
Repeat Listenability 3.7
Tracks
1 Brave 3.7
2 I Was Made for Sunny Days 3.3
3 The Battle 3.7
4 American Boy 4.3
5 Say What I Feel 3.0
6 Baby, I'm For Real 4.3
7 Fast Car/Breakeven 3.3
8 Hall of Fame 4.0
9 This Side 3.3
10 Wonder 4.0

Recorded 2013
Total time: 36:51, 10 songs


Tuning / Blend 4
Energy / Intensity 5
Innovation / Creativity 3
Soloists 5
Sound / Production 4
Repeat Listenability 4
Tracks
1 Brave 3
2 I Was Made for Sunny Days 3
3 The Battle 4
4 American Boy 5
5 Say What I Feel 3
6 Baby, I'm For Real 5
7 Fast Car/Breakeven 3
8 Hall of Fame 4
9 This Side 3
10 Wonder 3

Average, good, and excellent ratings have never been closer than on Sunny Days. TAG (The A Cappella Group) delivers all the fundamentals, but sometimes the group also reveals a stunning lead, agile rap, or effective arrangement (or all three on American Boy). When the elements align, the scores rise, and the group seems impossibly better than any high schoolers should be. But of course, sometimes the elements don't line up. The song may sound awkwardly artificial; the lead may fall short on inspiration; the arrangement may stumble forward on autopilot. But truth be told, this parsing requires a deliberately critical approach. Sunny Days is just smooth enough that casual fans might just lay back and enjoy!

No matter the listener's approach, Quinton Thomas delivers an undeniably incredible solo on Baby, I'm For Real. This student gets straight As for his mastery of the three Rs:  riffs, range, and realness. With maturity and skill well beyond his years, Thomas could literally croon over a broken blender and a bag of cats, and the track would still be well worth the purchase.

Ready for radio, rapper/lyricist Christian Fernandez takes American Boy and Hall of Fame to unexpected new levels. Though rap is hardly new to a cappella, there've been plenty of amateurish, ill-fitting offerings in that department. Rap requires an attitude that consists of infinitely more than aggressive posturing. Fernandez brushes away such plebian concerns, bringing an elegance and artistry that immediately pulls listeners in, effortlessly commanding our attention.

Gabrielle Macafee's sonorous lament breaks our hearts, pouring tangible anguish into her richly-toned delivery of The Battle. You will love the performance, but by the end, you will also want to hug her and tell her it will all be okay.

On the whole, TAG knows how to nail its leads. But if the group wants to knock things out of the park, it needs to address the backs. Between the pitch correction and volume compression, things can sound uncomfortably artificial. On a song like American Boy where the production feels right with some degree of artificiality, there's no problem. It clicks. But other tracks and other arrangements call for something closer to pure singing. Careful blend, balance, and phrasing all make their appearances, but listeners would welcome an album where that level of musicality was ubiquitous.

Syllable choices and delivery are another area the group can address. Say What I Feel is littered with over-enunciated garbage to the point that it's genuinely distracting. I Was Made for Sunny Days has a bass line with similar issues. A cappella doesn't get a magic pass; if it sounds silly, it is.

Finally, though the liner notes are handled very well, with full credit to all composers, the group should read this article and decide if it still wants to credit vocal percussionists on a per-track basis. The percussion is sampled, heavily effected, and frequently bears little resemblance to any possible vocal percussion performance. Perhaps, a sectional credit might be more accurate.

Sunny Days is another impressive offering from director Gary Stroh and TAG. Fans of this decade-old group will not be disappointed, and the aca-community at large, especially those who follow HS a cappella, will have a few new promising gems to fawn over.


Tuning / Blend 3
Energy / Intensity 4
Innovation / Creativity 3
Soloists 4
Sound / Production 3
Repeat Listenability 3
Tracks
1 Brave 4
2 I Was Made for Sunny Days 3
3 The Battle 4
4 American Boy 4
5 Say What I Feel 3
6 Baby, I'm For Real 4
7 Fast Car/Breakeven 3
8 Hall of Fame 4
9 This Side 3
10 Wonder 5

A little less engaging than TAG This but not without strong merit, Sunny Days certainly gives us the beachy Florida fun it promises. I'll live vicariously through these high schoolers, riding their wave runners and producing thoughtful a cappella discs. 

It's the leads you'll remember here, many of whom just drip with expression and style. Baby, I'm For Real soloist Quinton Thomas reprises the track number six slot (previously owning track number six with A Change Is Gonna Come on TAG This), and still sings like he's been headlining nightclubs for decades — the kind where patrons watch him in awe and say, "Mmmmhm, more of THAT." We're treated to another powerful and I'm-in-charge-here rap from Christian Fernandez on Hall of Fame, this time with a lyrical female soloist (Diana Landa) on top to slice the darkness underneath. What a pairing. An inspired Gabrielle Macafee chills her listeners with her work on The Battle, and wonderkid vocalist Landa takes down the house with the fireworks-in-the-sky closer Wonder. The lead microphones were surely emitting sparks after Sunny Days wrapped.

So that's why the frequent robotic backgrounds are puzzling: the leads get to decide their course, but the backs are apparently in some sort of Controlled Concert Choir mode? Precision and blend is obviously preferred to sloppiness, but the gap between the freeing front and the overly-crafted support underneath is quite noticeable. You needn't go further than the first track, Brave, to hear the curious stylings and production treatment of the backs. Repeatedly on Sunny Days, the backgrounds create an oil-and-water effect with the leads. 

Some of the arrangements don't help the effort to free the backs from their stables — that's an awful lot of "dumma" action in This Side, even if the musical score is very interesting with all those spritely running notes. But how varied can you make that prominent syllable pattern sound over a whole song?

And still, the talent from the ensemble is undeniable. Lots of college a cappella groups struggle to produce an album this consistent, and still more come up short when searching for such memorable soloists. Obviously director Gary Stroh has a great handle on things down in Fort Myers. 


Tuning / Blend 4
Energy / Intensity 4
Innovation / Creativity 3
Soloists 4
Sound / Production 4
Repeat Listenability 4
Tracks
1 Brave 4
2 I Was Made for Sunny Days 4
3 The Battle 3
4 American Boy 4
5 Say What I Feel 3
6 Baby, I'm For Real 4
7 Fast Car/Breakeven 4
8 Hall of Fame 4
9 This Side 4
10 Wonder 4

Before I get to reviewing Sunny Days, I'd like to identify some commonly seen problems in the world of contemporary collegiate a cappella:

1) Poor album planning: track lists populated by overdone covers, a selection of crowd pleasers that don't make any sense together sonically.

2) Lackluster arrangements: flurries of mismatched syllables, arrangements stuffed to the brim with poorly-executed gimmicks, and bizarre reinventions that fall flat.

3) Dull, uninspired soloists: lead tracks that do no leading whatsoever, with even technically gifted singers approaching their solos as if they were singing karaoke to an empty bar.

TAG (The A Cappella Group, though the branding as "TAG" is rather clever) avoids all these pitfalls deftly. Unlike some premiere collegiate groups, TAG has a clear-cut sound that has been cultivated over several albums. TAG This, the group's last release, established TAG's sound: bright and highly precise, with an emphasis on soulful solos on top of driving, tight rhythmic backgrounds. This sound continues through onto Sunny Days, which is the sonic equivalent of a summer drive on the highway. The song selection really emphasizes this: party anthems, groovy dance numbers and soft-rock selections.

The arrangements are perfectly serviceable, and that's all they need to be. Any reinventions on the album are minor, but the arrangements are well-crafted and are always in service of the desired sound.

Most of all, though, the soloists here are very strong in quality. There's no timidness or signs of over-rehearsal here; the soloists are completely dedicated to the material while still maintaining the spontaneity that is mandated in good vocal performance.

There are some downsides to the album, though: the backgrounds, while certainly well-tuned and precise, have a tendency to sound robotic. Bass lines slip into the thuddingly vocal, sounding closer to something from an album in 2004 than 2014. And while the song selection is solid for the most part, there is a creeping sameness in some of the selections, not to mention the lack of any standout tracks or "wow factor".

Sunny Days is a solid collegiate release, through and through. But wait — there's a twist! This is a high school group. Certainly one of the best high school groups working today (I've never given them anything under a "3"), but still a high school group. If TAG can maintain this level of professionalism and competency in the planning and execution of a high school album, what's the collegiate groups' excuse?


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Ordering Information

Sunny Days is available through CD Baby, iTunes and Amazon.

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