Spirit Cold - Single (2017)
Review By Kimberly Raschka Sailor
August 4, 2017
Spirit Cold might be a single we’ll be listening to years from now, decades from now, as it’s got a special permanency and power that we’ll want to keep.
This true ensemble piece is a cover from a lesser-known but insanely talented duo called Tall Heights, who write and record in the “electrofolk” genre. The sparsity of the original band's setup (two voices, one acoustic guitar, one cello, mild percussion), is both a plus and a minus for an a cappella arranger penning this for a large mixed collegiate ensemble. The roomy space permits a lot of creative license, but having lots of voices makes it harder to capture the more delicate simplicity of the original that works so well, that stays so close to sensitive folk music with guitar plucking and razor-thin harmonies that can’t possibly be parted with.
Pennharmonics arranger Kyle Howard is particularly gifted at using lyrics to create new fuller dimensions within the music — traditional mouthful-of-syllables a cappella is simply not present in this Pennharmonics piece. Texture is really not a focus here at all, which is a wild condition to encounter in a contemporary a cappella song. Rather, words and whole sentences carry over bars and lines to fill in the seams and create movement. The result is poetry, atop biting hits of dissonance, explosive dynamics from a relentlessly full-throated choir, voice leading that’s continuously creeping higher for more impact, and words that you’ll almost wish you never heard because dang they hurt (“Most people die, but others just go.”). It's almost too effective. I'm guessing those who experience the Pennharmonics performing this live turn into a salty mess. If you'd like to feel a bit of this, watch the group's music video.
The characteristics of vocal folk music have been described as “sometimes strange, harsh, and tense”. Add “impossibly beautiful” to that list, and you’ve got a good summary of Spirit Cold.