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Accent

Here We Are (2015)

4.3

June 8, 2015

Tuning / Blend 5.0
Energy / Intensity 3.7
Innovation / Creativity 4.3
Soloists 4.0
Sound / Production 4.3
Repeat Listenability 4.7
Tracks
1 Good News 4.7
2 Rude 5.0
3 Too Close for Comfort 4.7
4 All at Once 4.0
5 If You Really Love Me 5.0
6 With a Little Help from My Friends 4.0
7 Song for Gene 5.0

Recorded 2014
Total time: 23:22, 7 songs


Tuning / Blend 5
Energy / Intensity 3
Innovation / Creativity 4
Soloists 4
Sound / Production 4
Repeat Listenability 5
Tracks
1 Good News 5
2 Rude 5
3 Too Close for Comfort 5
4 All at Once 5
5 If You Really Love Me 5
6 With a Little Help from My Friends 5
7 Song for Gene 5

Purists delight! Dense chords and sweet, jazzy crooning meet elegantly bare production on Accent's debut album Here We Are. For the more recent contemporary a cappella listener, this album is a continuation of the vocal jazz legacy that had its heyday in the '50s-'70s. Fans of Singers Unlimited, the Hi-Lows, and the Four Freshmen will feel right at home with this more contemporary fare. Where Take 6 undoubtedly "speaks" this extended chordal language, they also feature impossibly acrobatic, virtuoso solos and a strict adherance to religious material. Accent's approach is far less soloistic and embraces a more diverse repertoire.

Here We Are comprises seven wildly disparate sources: a spiritual, a 2014 pop hit, a '50s-era Sammy Davis, Jr. Broadway track turned jazz standard (with actual, non-vocal Rhodes Piano accompaniment), a shmaltzy Whitney Houston '80s ballad, a Stevie Wonder '70s mid-tempo song, a Beatles classic, and a sweetly nostalgic tribute to vocal jazz arranger Gene Puerling (Hi-Lows, Singers Unlimited). But the group's crystal clear artistic vision handily unifies the material, ensuring that fans of track one will be equally delighted with the entire album.

Accent's members hail from and live separately in France, Sweden, Canada, the UK, and the US. They assembled via mutual admiration on YouTube, recording parts separately for the initial phase of the group's "life". This all makes musicality, and especially their blend — something that historically requires spending a lot of time together — especially impressive. Good Lord, what if they actually rehearsed in the same room, every week?!

Originality is a tough area to judge here. At a granular level, the group introduces new arrangements and creative harmonizations; and, importantly, they translate non-jazz songs into the jazz idiom. That's undeniable creativity. But from a more general perspective, this is an album of material that, while excellent and challenging, does more to reaffirm musical boundaries than push them. Educated listeners can geek out to endless killer chords, and any listener can be impressed by the sheer talent of these singers. But you aren't likely to be shocked, stunned, or blown away by such sweet voices singing such safe material. By way of example, there literally is nothing rude at all about Rude. It's lovely, but, like a lot of traditional vocal jazz, edgeless and mellow.

Inherent in art is often a hint to the reason it was made. Yes, Here We Are favors intellectual over emotional, cute over cutting, and homage over invention. But so what? In the end, purists and jazzers will swim in the pure vocal joy that is Accent. And from a marketing perspective, this group's family-friendly charm will have profound appeal to one of the last demographics that still purchases music. Here's hoping Accent gets to laugh all the way to the bank!


4
Tuning / Blend 5
Energy / Intensity 3
Innovation / Creativity 4
Soloists 4
Sound / Production 4
Repeat Listenability 4
Tracks
1 Good News 4
2 Rude 5
3 Too Close for Comfort 4
4 All at Once 3
5 If You Really Love Me 5
6 With a Little Help from My Friends 3
7 Song for Gene 5

There is something about the combining of jazz sensibilities with pop music that really intrigues and energizes me. Tight harmonies and intricate rhythm are matched with catchy lyrics and engrossing melodies. I love listening to how switching genres reveals new elements of a song that weren't as prevalent in the original. That's probably why my favorite track off of the debut EP Here We Are is Rude. But more on that later.

If you've heard of this group or read our reviews of the group's singles, you know the gist: over the course of ten years, six guys from various North American and European countries reached across the pond via the information highway and started making music together. And in 2014, Accent was officially born with its first public performance (and first time meeting each other) at the Umeå International Choir Festival. After a few years of making videos, Accent started releasing tracks. So here we are...

The album is really solid, though somewhat derivative. That's not to be seen as an automatic pejorative, especially when that derivative sound is Take 6. Accent is highly influenced by that seminal group, and listening to Good News, you'd be hard pressed not to think that it was the original. So "derivative" in this sense, means pretty dang good. But I wouldn't want a whole album of singers sounding only like Take 6, and luckily they don't; Accent establishes a pretty signature sound in a relatively short amount of time.

That sound is most evident on three other tracks — Too Close for Comfort, If You Really Love Me, and Song for Gene are so in Accent's wheelhouse. There's excellent blend and masterful phrasing that keep these tracks from ever getting stale or boring. My only reason for not giving Too Close for Comfort a "5" is the inclusion keyboard during an interlude section. The song is near perfect without it, as James Rose's arrangement shifts through smooth ballad to snappy bop with virtual ease. I get that he's an excellent keyboardist and wanted to showcase that on this song, but it brings absolutely nothing to the table. I'd rather have heard tenor J.B. Craipeau sing a scat over a basic background. And Andrew Kesler's smooth and laid back solo is a masterclass in effortless cool. The tribute to Gene Puerling is most captivating, capturing that solid block singing that is so intrinsic to vocal jazz.

Now back to Rude. It's a completely fun listen, possibly even elevating the song beyond its unfortunate banality. You root for all of the guys to get the girl instead of this awkward ownership issue. I could talk about each of the guys individually because they pass the solo through five of the members, but Danny Fong stands out for me. This guy is absolutely amazing. His buttery tonality melts into the various crevices created by Simon Åkesson's superb arrangement.

I'd heard so much about Accent and really looked forward to hearing this recording. There's nothing wrong with it at all. I'm just not a particular fan of All at Once as a Whitney cover or The Beatles' With a Little Help from My Friends because they come across as too easy for a group of this caliber to sing, both tracks being pretty straightforward.

And I think that's what's holding me back overall: I want more excitement as a total package from the group and this album. Take some more risks, challenge your audience with what you can truly deliver, and the next album could be groundbreaking.


Tuning / Blend 5
Energy / Intensity 5
Innovation / Creativity 5
Soloists 4
Sound / Production 5
Repeat Listenability 5
Tracks
1 Good News 5
2 Rude 5
3 Too Close for Comfort 5
4 All at Once 4
5 If You Really Love Me 5
6 With a Little Help from My Friends 4
7 Song for Gene 5

Less than ten years ago, videos began to appear on the Internet featuring singers who desperately wanted to share not only their love of vocal harmonies, but their ability to sing multiple parts in an a cappella arrangement. For many, the effort also drew from an inability to find musical compatriots or a vocal group with whom they could sing in a live, corporeal setting. Less than three years ago, six guys who made and loved these multitracking videos decided to try taking their shared love of vocal jazz and using their respective talents to create a joint musical effort. They released a Take 6 cover video under the name Accent, a "virtual" group featuring six male singers from five different countries.

This story of vocal music in a modern digital age, the age of social media, would be fascinating and remarkable even if they put out mediocre efforts. That the songs and now their debut album, Here We Are, show a highly sophisticated level of arranging and performing skills is just mindboggling. Don't just take it from me — the physical CD comes with an introduction from former Take 6 baritone Cedric Dent praising the group's skilled transcriptions and high level of musicality.

Enough with the background, let's get into the good stuff. I'm no vocal jazz aficionado, but the tight harmonies which weave throughout the seven songs on Here We Are are lush and inviting enough to warm even the strongest skeptic's cold heart. The EP opens with a gloom-busting spiritual (Good News) and a silky smooth transformation of reggae pop tune Rude. This is followed by that Top 40 hit (from 1956!) Too Close for Comfort, which features the only actual instrument on the album in the form of a keyboard solo. At this point, the members of Accent have already proven that they can and will take material from a wide array of genres and make it their own. Unfortunately, the tactic falls a little short on the next tune, Whitney Houston's All at Once. For the first time, you can hear a few of the cracks in the facade — the range isn't quite as comfortable for the upper voices, including the solo. The song isn't bad, far from it. It just doesn't achieve the heights of the first three tracks.

Luckily, Accent comes back strong with Stevie Wonder's If You Really Love Me, where JB Craipeau's arrangement delightfully plays with harmonic and tempo substitutions. One or two of the transitions are a little creaky, but the song oozes charm and, as with much of the EP, shows just how much these guys love the sound of voices in tight harmony. With a Little Help from My Friends is fine, but it is the final track, an original tribute to vocal legend Gene Puerling, which should really put the world on notice that this is a group with talent, heart, and soul.

You might be tempted to support a group that has broken the mold of multitracking videos not with style but with substance, a group that has literally come together across continents on the Internet and eventually (in 2014) on the stage, for these and only these reasons. You should absolutely support Accent because they have done all that and put together a terrific debut album, too.

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