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The A Cappella Group

Cypress Lake High School

Part of Me (2016)

4.7

December 22, 2016

Tuning / Blend 5.0
Energy / Intensity 4.7
Innovation / Creativity 4.3
Soloists 5.0
Sound / Production 5.0
Repeat Listenability 4.3
Tracks
1 Outlaws 4.7
2 No Rights No Wrongs 4.7
3 Run With It 5.0
4 Make Something Beautiful 4.3
5 Brand New 5.0
6 The Words 4.3
7 You're A Part of Me 4.0
8 I Want It All / How Deep Is Your Love 4.3
9 Always 4.0
10 Stay 4.7
11 Folding Chair 4.3
12 What You Don't Do 4.7
13 Better 4.7

Recorded 2016
Total time: 42:40, 13 songs


Tuning / Blend 5
Energy / Intensity 5
Innovation / Creativity 4
Soloists 5
Sound / Production 5
Repeat Listenability 4
Tracks
1 Outlaws 4
2 No Rights No Wrongs 4
3 Run With It 5
4 Make Something Beautiful 5
5 Brand New 5
6 The Words 5
7 You're A Part of Me 4
8 I Want It All / How Deep Is Your Love 4
9 Always 4
10 Stay 4
11 Folding Chair 4
12 What You Don't Do 4
13 Better 5

I've yet to see them live, but I listen to The A Cappella Group so often that I suppose I'm a groupie all the same. If you're reading this review, you're interested in a cappella, and rest assured, you'll like Part of Me. Per tradition, TAG's soloists are in a league of their own; the song selection is diverse and interesting; the production is crisp but never too artificial; and the arrangements are richly complex and daring. It's a pretty major achievement when all of these areas are served to listeners so beautifully, and this was primarily achieved by having a director who can manage a high-caliber project through his seasoned experiences while harnessing the very best from his talented singers. 

We'll start with track three, because since we're talking about traditions, other groupies should recognize this as TAG alum Gabrielle Macafee's album spot. Oceans of delights, she has returned as a songwriter again! We get another original from this Floridian songbird with her lush, positive, and uplifting song Run With It. Solidifying what previous years have started, we hear that Macafee has definitely developed a signature sound, one that will serve her well in her now professional pursuits. You can hear influences of her former swan song Stay Gold sprinkled throughout, but once it's deliberately mixed in it's absolute fan-joy, like finding an Easter Egg in a game or movie. But what about the four soloists bringing Macafee's vision to life — is the lead line choppy and strangely passed around? Nope, it's gorgeously unfolding and harmonically stunning, like four singing soul sisters, all impressively laid out by arranger Tom Anderson. For the past few years, TAG's song in the third slot has genuinely changed the way I think about and relate to a cappella.

Moving back to the beginning of Part of Me, TAG treats us with opening sounds at the beach before unleashing an insane line-up of soloists. Outlaws is a clean and grooving diddy made all the more fun with the vocal acrobatics of Madison Slamka. This girl can flip, swing, and slide around all the notes. No Rights No Wrongs is just as fun, but Ben Bram's arrangement sounds a bit too busy to settle into comfortably with this many big voices jockeying for space. The middle of the album is an absolute delight! A short and artsy Ben Rector track (Make Something Beautiful) serves as a bleed-in intro to an immediately tempo-driven Brand New. I love the restraint and control soloist Allan Faria demonstrates here while the backgrounds dig into the rhythmically challenging score arranger Tom Anderson doles out to dance around in. Track number six is as powerful as track number three, thanks to gripping lyrics delivered by a highly effective soloist who delivers chills to all who hear her voice. Kennedy Floethe, you were born to sing The Words — this song is so captivating that you create an immediate connection to your listeners from the opening seconds. 

The back half of the album is weaker to me, but not weak, and maybe not to you at all because we are different people. Folding Chair is charmingly quirky. I love the challenging choral presentation of Stay that throws a spotlight on how well this ensemble sings together, precisely how well they all listen and respond to each other. I do wish different arranging choices were employed for I Want It All / How Deep Is Your Love — those overly chipper "da da dat" segments are too frequent and aren't a good use of texture. Still, nothing's even average musically as Part of Me marches toward its loud and proud grand finale Better.

Lastly, in what I presume is an oversight for this release — there aren't any production credits listed with the CD. Fans would of course like to know who complements these singers so well (the crew from Liquid 5th) when they purchase the CD. 

Another year, another impressive work from TAG. This is a tradition that can stay for the long haul.


Tuning / Blend 5
Energy / Intensity 4
Innovation / Creativity 4
Soloists 5
Sound / Production 5
Repeat Listenability 4
Tracks
1 Outlaws 5
2 No Rights No Wrongs 5
3 Run With It 5
4 Make Something Beautiful 4
5 Brand New 5
6 The Words 5
7 You're A Part of Me 4
8 I Want It All / How Deep Is Your Love 5
9 Always 4
10 Stay 5
11 Folding Chair 5
12 What You Don't Do 5
13 Better 5

The A Cappella Group (TAG) from Cypress Lake High School Center for the Arts is exceedingly consistent: any song from the group's newest album Part of Me would fit seamlessly on either of TAG's previous two albums, Bright or Stay Gold. There's a lot that the group has held constant over the years, even with naturally changing lineups — the group remains directed by Gary Stroh, continues to source many arrangements from Tom Anderson, and has recorded seven albums in a row with Liquid 5th.

The consistency here is truly outstanding: TAG churns out pop hits like a Glee factory. They've got a bright, theatrical sound, and song after song has the same impeccable tonality and pitch. But that consistency of tone isn't always a good thing. Since TAG's predominantly female lineup means that soloists are skewed almost entirely towards the women in the group and the blend is generally soprano/alto-heavy, these songs start to sound so similar they're almost interchangeable. I don't know why the group is so top-heavy — sometimes that does just happen — but the song choices are just one female singer-songwriter after another, and the lines between Alessia Cara, Lianne La Havas, Jess Glynne, and Regina Spektor start to get a bit blurry.

There are a few standouts — TAG alum Gabrielle Macafee contributes another original song with Run With It, and the four (!) soloists do a lovely job with it. This is one instance where sounding like the other songs on the album is actually a good thing — Macafee doesn't sound like an amateur songwriter, and her lyrics and melody stand beautifully next to the pop radio hits. Album-closer Better is a memorable way to end the album; soloist Brittany Russell sounds fantastic. And the combination of two Ben Rector songs, Make Something Beautiful and Brand New, works well; the group sounds great — especially on the building choruses on Brand New — as does soloist Allan Faria.

Where I struggle with Part of Me is determing what makes this group of TAG singers different from those who performed on any of the last albums. I feel like I've heard this album already, and while that's no fault of the current lineup, nothing holds my attention for long or sticks in my memory. These are shimmery but disposable pop songs: they're enjoyable in the moment, but there's not much that I hold on to once they're done. I'd love to hear TAG do something vastly different — either selecting music beyond radio pop, or enlisting one of their all-star arrangers (both Anderson and Ben Bram penned several of the scores here) to write an arrangement that moves far past literal transcriptions.

TAG does what it does exceedingly well (and at this point, we all know we don't have to qualify that with "and they're just high schoolers!"). If this is the first/only TAG album you hear, you'll be delighted at how beautiful and shiny these songs are. But if you've been following along with their last few releases, then you might be a little disappointed by this (exceptionally talented) one-trick pony.


Tuning / Blend 5
Energy / Intensity 5
Innovation / Creativity 5
Soloists 5
Sound / Production 5
Repeat Listenability 5
Tracks
1 Outlaws 5
2 No Rights No Wrongs 5
3 Run With It 5
4 Make Something Beautiful 4
5 Brand New 5
6 The Words 3
7 You're A Part of Me 4
8 I Want It All / How Deep Is Your Love 4
9 Always 4
10 Stay 5
11 Folding Chair 4
12 What You Don't Do 5
13 Better 4

 

Let me explain a little bit about how I listen to TAG (The A Cappella Group) albums these days.

First, I start the album. So far, so good. Somewhere partway through the first song, I'll bump up the volume on my headphones slightly; gotta really dig into those backs a bit more. Soon my head will be boppin' away — the group has great song choices and knows how to accentuate rhythms so they really pop! I'll end up bumping up the volume a few more times; there's some really masterful arranging going on. Sometimes I'll finish a song and jump right back to the beginning just to really work through the whole thing again. By the end, the music is blasting and I'm dancing away, once again incredulous at how this group is made up of high schoolers.

Once I finish my first listen-through, I might go back and see how many Tom Anderson arrangements I can identify before I check the liner notes. This time I also immediately picked out group alum Gabrielle Macafee's original song (Run With It). I'm including that note as a testament to how she's so quickly developed a distinctive and recognizable "voice" to her songs. I also kind of love that she already sampled her own previous TAG song, Stay Gold, in this arrangement. I anticipate we're gonna hear a lot more from her down the road.

I've held out on TAG's last two albums, but with Part of Me, I can safely say, "Take your '5' and Run With It, TAG." Sure, some tracks really grabbed me more than others, but this is just such a strong showing across the board. The arrangements are top-notch; in addition to the always engaging Anderson and Ben Bram numbers, I especially enjoy some of the moments in Nick Johnson's mashup of I Want It All / How Deep Is Your Love. Some of the syllabic choices work better than others, but the overall groove is great, and the track is mixed expertly.

TAG again showcases a superb lineup of soloists. Two standouts are Madison Slamka, who absolutely slays Outlaws and Stay, and Callie Atkinson, who leads No Rights No Wrongs and shares the solo on I Want It All / How Deep Is Your Love. I also really enjoy Kennedy Floethe on The Words. Although the track itself doesn't strike me as much, she really carries the whole song with her performance.

While I do feel that the album is slightly front-loaded, I'd be hard pressed to find anything I could say was "weak" on Part of Me. This is a group that never disappoints, and although the group has certainly set the bar high with this release, I can't wait to hear what TAG brings us next.

 


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