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Stiletta

Stiletta (2018)

5.0

July 31, 2018

Tuning / Blend 4.7
Energy / Intensity 5.0
Innovation / Creativity 5.0
Soloists 4.7
Sound / Production 5.0
Repeat Listenability 4.7
Tracks
1 Bang Bang 5.0
2 Royals 5.0
3 Get Pumped 5.0
4 Chandelier 4.7
5 When Love Takes Over 4.3

Recorded 2017 – 2018
Total time: 16:00, 5 songs


Tuning / Blend 5
Energy / Intensity 5
Innovation / Creativity 5
Soloists 5
Sound / Production 5
Repeat Listenability 5
Tracks
1 Bang Bang 5
2 Royals 5
3 Get Pumped 5
4 Chandelier 5
5 When Love Takes Over 4

Wow. You think you've heard it all, then a group like this comes along and resets the bar. Stiletta is a professional female sextet from New York City that blends pop, dance, hip-hop, and sheer awesome into unique arrangements that flourish in the recording studio. Don't dilly-dally with reviews, just go indulge your ears with the best that contemporary a cappella has to offer. Enjoy!

Still reading? OK, here's what sets Stiletta apart with its self-titled debut EP.

First, Stiletta has a sound. A signature style that permeates every performance. Four of the five tracks are covers, but instead of letting the original instrumentation dictate her arrangements, Judy Minkoff (with help from Haley Clair on Bang Bang and Get Pumped) only uses the familiar melodies as jumping-off points for her own creative visions. Those visions are extremely efficient, explosive, and interspersed with clever feel changes that prevent songs from ever getting "stuck". On Bang Bang we get a rap, on Get Pumped a dubstep breakdown, and on When Love Takes Over we get both! Royals takes the cake for the best feel-change, but I won't ruin the surprise.

Secondly, dynamics. Sometimes it is as subtle as the crescendoing with each repetition of "we're taking" at the end of the bridge in Get Pumped; or swelling with each count to three in the choruses of Chandelier. Other times it is as precipitous as the drop from forte to piano into the second verse of Bang Bang or the outro of (again) Chandelier. This close attention to detail adds intensity to every second of every song and helps you hear the person, not just the voice part, behind the microphone.

Lastly, such talent. Meghan "MC Beats" Costa is a force on vocal percussion. Where percussion often resorts to looping the same old "boots and cats", Costa fills out arrangements with eclectic, yet appropriate, soundscapes of buzzing and growling that evolve along with the melody. Melodies are led by fierce solos that get passed around seamlessly amongst the rest of Stiletta. When each soloist handles the range and riffing so confidently, it's no wonder the blend and energy feel so consistently on point in the backgrounds. Ed Boyer judiciously sets the levels so percussion, solo, and background are all in balance with resonant bass and clear treble without squishing out dynamics. Brilliance at every stage of the process makes for a recording nothing short of brilliant.

Arrangements that keep you guessing, dynamics that tell a story, and individuals that own whatever role they play. If four rocking covers aren't impressive enough, the one original composition (Get Pumped) is the embodiment of all the creativity and irresistible rhythm Stiletta brings to the table. That's enough of my analysis, it's about time you go recalibrate your own a cappella-meter. There are perfect "5"s, and somewhere in the stratosphere above a "5" is the starpower of Stiletta.


Tuning / Blend 5
Energy / Intensity 5
Innovation / Creativity 5
Soloists 5
Sound / Production 5
Repeat Listenability 4
Tracks
1 Bang Bang 5
2 Royals 5
3 Get Pumped 5
4 Chandelier 4
5 When Love Takes Over 5

Stop what you're doing. Go buy Stiletta. This is one of the albums you don't want to miss this year. This sextet boasts some of the greatest a cappella talent, each with an impressive musical resume. Put all these women in the same room, and it becomes a squad that won the National Harmony Sweepstakes in 2016, and a second place semifinal finish at the inaugural Varsity Vocals Open in 2017. Taking that same fierceness and insane musical ability to the studio, Stiletta's self-titled EP is sure to be a standard of excellence for years to come.

The group sound across the entire album is simply unreal. Get Pumped is by far my favorite track of the album. The descending chords during the lyrics "Rockin' with Stiletta and we're taking the floor / yeah we do it a cappella, leaving them begging for more" are absolutely unreal. They're so crisp and clean, keeping all the integrity of each note without sacrificing any of the diction. On the other hand, the choral polyphonic in Royals highlights another facet of the group's abilities. Add in the raw power that exudes from Bang Bang, and I'm convinced that this group might not be entirely human.

Of course, when it comes to what makes Stiletta so amazing, it's not the voices. In fact, it's the one person that doesn't sing. Within most a cappella groups of six members or fewer, the focus is very much on the bass and percussion driving the charge. However, due to cleverly arranged tighter chords creating the soundscape, more emphasis is placed on the percussion and percussion alone to keep the groove alive. Enter Meghan "MC Beats" Costa. Her sound isn't an overpowering explosion of as many sounds per second as possible. It's calculated, driving, and absolutely flawless. There are even some very well-crafted percussion solos utilizing some serious lip buzzing skill that add significantly more value than something reminiscent of a novice student banging on every drum in a trap set as fast as possible.

If this is just a taste of what Stiletta has to offer, I can't wait for the group's first full-length album. This music is absolutely overflowing with power, control, and elegance. Stiletta will suffice until the next studio release. Check it out and enjoy.


Tuning / Blend 4
Energy / Intensity 5
Innovation / Creativity 5
Soloists 4
Sound / Production 5
Repeat Listenability 5
Tracks
1 Bang Bang 5
2 Royals 5
3 Get Pumped 5
4 Chandelier 5
5 When Love Takes Over 4

Stiletta's premier EP of the same name is a delight to listen to from start to finish. The arrangements are creative, the sound is clean while retaining an air of authenticity, and each song radiates a joyful energy that's difficult to capture in words.

Bang Bang, the group's first single, gets this EP off to an energetic start. Arrangers Haley Clair and Judy Minkoff have adapted it beautifully to the a cappella medium, and have even imbued it with a sense of arc — no small task for an extended jam-style song whose original comprises two chords.

After such an excellent opener, this reviewer was positively jazzed to hear the telltale beat of Royals. My excitement was well-founded. Even the journey from the beginning of the track to the arrival on the first verse is beautifully-executed. Delaying the well-known beginning to the song proper is a strong move by arranger Judy Minkoff. It creates anticipation and prepares the listener for what's to come.

Towards the end of the track, there is a stylistic break that I just can't get enough of: a Classical-style round that builds to an incredibly satisfying beat drop by vocal percussionist Meghan "MC Beats" Costa, completely different from the rest of the number, yet somehow a perfectly fitting conclusion. Contrasting the Classical style with the rest of the song and the album shines a spotlight on blend and technique. Not only does it highlight Stiletta's strength as an ensemble, but it speaks very highly of arranger Minkoff to have engineered such an innovative and satisfying end to a well-known piece.

The ladies of Stiletta are a true ensemble. All but one track lists multiple soloists, and each track makes great use of text set in the background vocals. It never feels like your typical solo and background setup. Get Pumped and Chandelier are both great examples of the group's unique blend. Stiletta manages some tricky rhythmic passages and crunchy cluster chords without turning into a monolith. Each of the singers has a distinctive sound that still complements the others, and though this quality does occasionally draw the listener's ear, it certainly also contributes to the consistency of the group's energy.

I would be remiss not to mention an incredible solo performance by Stevi Incremona. Chandelier is an emotional and vocal powerhouse, and Incremona handles it beautifully from start to finish.

The grand finale, When Love Takes Over, mashed up with elements of Get Lucky and a rap by Meg Lanzarone, is a wonderful summation of all of Stiletta's strengths: beautiful, energetic ensemble singing, a fun and innovative arrangement, and that intangible sense of joy that permeates every track on the album. The dubstep break towards the end of the track lasts a little too long for this listener's tastes, but just when it becomes tiresome, Stiletta makes up for it with a fun and well-executed build to the end.

I cannot say enough good things about this EP. It's such a feel-good listen, and every time I thought I had adjusted to the style, I was overwhelmed anew with musical bliss. My sincerest compliments to everyone involved in the making of this album.

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