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The A Cappella Group

Cypress Lake High School

11:11 (2018)

4.7

December 27, 2018

Tuning / Blend 5.0
Energy / Intensity 4.7
Innovation / Creativity 4.3
Soloists 4.3
Sound / Production 4.3
Repeat Listenability 4.7
Tracks
1 Greedy 4.0
2 My Girl (Gone, Gone, Gone) 4.0
3 On My Way 4.3
4 Come Together 3.7
5 Would You Be So Kind 4.7
6 For You 4.3
7 Intentions 4.7
8 Midnight River 4.3
9 So Emotional 4.0
10 You Don't Love Me Anymore 4.7
11 Humble & Kind 4.7

Recorded 2018
Total time: 37:00, 11 songs


Tuning / Blend 5
Energy / Intensity 5
Innovation / Creativity 4
Soloists 5
Sound / Production 4
Repeat Listenability 5
Tracks
1 Greedy 4
2 My Girl (Gone, Gone, Gone) 4
3 On My Way 5
4 Come Together 4
5 Would You Be So Kind 4
6 For You 4
7 Intentions 5
8 Midnight River 5
9 So Emotional 5
10 You Don't Love Me Anymore 5
11 Humble & Kind 5

TAG's lasting gift is its enduring collections of music: I still sing along to every previous TAG album and still wholeheartedly enjoy each of those releases. I'm struggling to name another group that manages to be so accessible in the a cappella canon. 11:11 simply adds on to the group's continuum, as the music here stays true to what TAG does best: tracks of gorgeous, affecting, positive-message music sung by skillful leads who make it their personal mission to create their own story from the notes. And mixed into the huge voices and big soundscapes, a clear sweetness permeates these songs and these singers. TAG can't lose with this approach.

11:11 opens with its most radio-friendly and unmistakably modern song, Greedy. Soloist Ryleigh Plank absolutely owns her role, smacking the notes upside the head with a dizzying array of prowess and technical skill. The full ensemble's tone here is modern and sultry and effective, and also a sound we never really return to on 11:11. But that's okay, because TAG's real power comes from its folksier tunes.

The next two tracks feature two more soloists who are so good you'll shake your head in disbelief. Mark Sheme has great presence on My Girl (Gone, Gone, Gone), strongly elevating a word-heavy arrangement that sometimes works against itself. And how about Alexa Lowman on On My Way, an impossibly skilled and beautifully-toned singer? This stunning original is penned by TAG alumna Gabrielle Macafee, who returns to her old "track three" spot to showcase her ever-maturing composition skills, and she adds guest vocals, too. Lowman makes all of Macafee's tricky intervals sound effortless, with controlled growth and intensity as the song progresses, especially on the big run that starts at 3:39. It wouldn't surprise me in the least if both Lowman and Macafee are Broadway-bound. 

The hits roll on. 

Beatles fans will rejoice over this spin of Come Together with its spunky ensemble singing, gritty lead, and nicely popped vp/bass work. Would You Be So Kind is a snap-along delight about young love — right in TAG's wheelhouse. Then we're treated to a pair of more traditional jazz offerings — muted horns bopping along with classic syncopation are the feature of For You, and the refined jazz presentation on Intentions just purrs along with personality-infused Isabella Sbarra-Michelland as both the songwriter and at the lead microphone. Hello, scholastic overachievement! 

For me, here's where the album really catches on fire.

The strength and power of Midnight River starts this sprint-to-the-finish with command and poise. But wait! We're in the a cappella era of a Whitney Houston resurgence, and Ben Bram's So Emotional delivered under Plank's powerful pipes is absolutely perfect. I feel good when I hear this song, and you will, too.

This is where I pause the album to regroup for Macafee's second original tune on this release, You Don't Love Me Anymore. The lyrics hurt. ("When I catch on fire, you just step out of the room.") The lead, Talia Tumminello, taps right into the heart of the emotions — she sounds so strong, yet beautifully fragile at the same time. This is an enchanting piece with exquisite female harmonies, and an absolute punch in the gut.

We end on Humble & Kind from the country-pop spectrum (sung by Tim McGraw). It sounds very personal to the group, and it's another example of TAG's wonderful message-driven music.

11:11 is beautiful, compelling, refreshing, and easy to love. The powerful soloists sharing their talents here is the story of the day, and eleven tracks handled by one vocal percussionist (Wedler Lordeus) is incredible, too. 11:11 is another mainstay in TAG's growing collection of fine a cappella music.


Tuning / Blend 5
Energy / Intensity 5
Innovation / Creativity 5
Soloists 4
Sound / Production 4
Repeat Listenability 5
Tracks
1 Greedy 4
2 My Girl (Gone, Gone, Gone) 4
3 On My Way 5
4 Come Together 4
5 Would You Be So Kind 5
6 For You 5
7 Intentions 5
8 Midnight River 4
9 So Emotional 4
10 You Don't Love Me Anymore 5
11 Humble & Kind 5

Without reading the liner notes for The A Cappella Group's newest album 11:11, I would not have guessed that nine members of the group had graduated since its last album, Kiss the Ceiling. This does not sound like an album made by predominantly freshmen and sophomores; 11:11 stands seamlessly next to TAG's previous albums.

Even with new singers, the group keeps consistency in other ways — with director Gary Stroh, with recording/production by Liquid 5th, with a bulk of the arrangements from Tom Anderson, and with the group's repertoire mix of contemporary pop songs and old classics (Come Together, So Emotional). Pop songs such as Greedy are less intensely bright than on previous releases, which makes them easier to listen to on repeat; the group gives its own flair to Come Together, giving it a fresh tone instead of just sounding like a faithful version of a song their parents (or, um, grandparents?) dig.

The group's covers are fantastic, and the ones that stand out the most are the ones that don't sound as much like the group's previous repertoire: the sultry For You is a standout, as is the pretty, folksy Humble & Kind with its slow crescendo and lovely layered backing lines. The contemporary songs here are a little more temperate and a little less shiny, disposable, uptempo pop songs, which gives TAG a bit more of a mature sound.

But where the group shines the brightest (and what I missed the most on Kiss the Ceiling) are with its original songs, and there are three (THREE!) on this album. Two songs here — On My Way and You Don't Love Me Anymore — are written by TAG alum Gabrielle Macafee, who also provides harmony vocals on the former. (Small technicality: yes, Macafee is currently a singer/songwriter, so perhaps these cannot be considered "originals" since she is now a performing musician under her own name, but since her versions are not available on her current online streaming platforms, they don't quite feel like "covers" either.) Soloist Alexa Lowman is clear as a bell on On My Way, while You Don't Love Me Anymore is beautifully-paced. The nice surprise here is Intentions, which is written and soloed by Isabella Sbarra-Michelland (who is class of 2020, so we get to hear her for a few more years in TAG!). These three easily stand up next to the covers on 11:11.

The easy narrative for TAG is: OMG, high school kids doing incredible things! That's obviously true, as the group's long history of stellar RARB reviews shows (not to mention ICHSA accolades and CARA nominations/wins). But without that narrative or a mention of the age of these singers, the album is still fantastic and immensely listenable, with its diversity of pop songs and three original numbers. Without drastically changing its tone or approach to a cappella, TAG has taken a solid step forward with 11:11.


Tuning / Blend 5
Energy / Intensity 4
Innovation / Creativity 4
Soloists 4
Sound / Production 5
Repeat Listenability 4
Tracks
1 Greedy 4
2 My Girl (Gone, Gone, Gone) 4
3 On My Way 3
4 Come Together 3
5 Would You Be So Kind 5
6 For You 4
7 Intentions 4
8 Midnight River 4
9 So Emotional 3
10 You Don't Love Me Anymore 4
11 Humble & Kind 4

11:11 is the eleventh studio from The A Cappella Group (or "TAG"). I reviewed the group's last release, Kiss the Ceiling, and am happy to report that TAG has once again released an album that is well done and even exceeds the quality of many collegiate albums. This is a talented group of students, supported by a talented director and production team.

The album gives listeners a mix of well-known pop music, some lesser-known contemporary tracks, and three — yes, three — original tracks by a TAG member and alumna. This grab bag of songs offers something for everyone. Want Whitney Houston? They have it. Arianna Grande? Done. Something less mainstream? Sure, they have Dodie. Something totally unique? Check out the original songs. It is really impressive that TAG has put together an album with such different song profiles, yet is able to present a cohesive sound and quality.

The soloists show off the immense talent of this group. When I listened to Would You Be So Kind, I wasn't sure if I was listening to Regina Spektor or TAG covering the song. Soloist Annie Vardanyan takes the perfect approach to this upbeat song. Her tone is bright and her execution is spot-on. Soloist A'layahna Checo on Humble & Kind is quite talented as well. Her emotion in the song is contagious and she sings with purpose. I would love to hear her cover a Carrie Underwood track one day.

The original songs add a unique perspective to this album, a perspective that makes it a one-of-a-kind production, but On My Way feels a touch repetitive and the arrangement weighs on me as a listener. Intentions and You Don't Love Me Anymore feel more engaging, and I especially love the rhythmic decisions in Intentions, which keep the song moving forward and add to the texture of the album.

So Emotional is a tough track to include on the album, not because it's a bad song, but because it's a hard song to cover well. The stars need to align for a song like So Emotional to move listeners, since writing an innovative arrangement of an iconic song can be difficult and producing a stand-out rendition of Whitney Houston evades even the strongest of singers. The track is by no means bad, but I think it is closer to an average a cappella track. In Come Together, the arranging and soloist decisions get in the way of themselves. The arrangement feels disjointed at times and soloist Cody Vagle, who has an outstanding voice, takes many liberties with the solo to the point where it might be exhausting for some listeners. With a bit of refinement, I think Come Together would have — come together — more tightly, but TAG comes up short here.

The liner notes point out that over half of the group members were freshmen or sophomores in 2017-2018, which means this group is in a great position to excel in coming years. 11:11 may not end up being the top high school a cappella album of 2018, but it is certainly worth a listen.


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