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DeltaCappella

Out of Focus (2020)

4.0

June 18, 2021

Tuning / Blend 4.7
Energy / Intensity 4.0
Innovation / Creativity 3.3
Soloists 4.3
Sound / Production 4.0
Repeat Listenability 3.7
Tracks
1 Come Together 4.0
2 We Are Done 3.7
3 Story of My Life 3.7
4 Hold on Tight 3.7
5 Classic 4.7
6 My Songs Know 4.3
7 Renegade 3.7
8 Honey, I'm Good 4.3
9 Wake Me Up 3.7
10 Treasure 4.0
11 Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough 4.3

Recorded 2017 – 2019
Total time: 38:52, 11 songs


Tuning / Blend 4
Energy / Intensity 4
Innovation / Creativity 2
Soloists 3
Sound / Production 3
Repeat Listenability 3
Tracks
1 Come Together 4
2 We Are Done 3
3 Story of My Life 3
4 Hold on Tight 3
5 Classic 5
6 My Songs Know 4
7 Renegade 3
8 Honey, I'm Good 4
9 Wake Me Up 3
10 Treasure 4
11 Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough 4

DeltaCappella has been making solid a cappella music for well over a decade now, and on the few occasions I've had to see them live I've always enjoyed the group's work. [Editor's note: RARB staff member TeKay is also a member of DeltaCappella.] But astonishingly — perhaps inexcusably — save for a single song here or there, I believe Out of Focus may represent the first time I've taken in one of DeltaCappella's albums in its entirety.

The result is very "DeltaCappellish". That is, this group that has always prided itself on cultural, racial, and ethnic diversity — as much as, or maybe even more than, its ample music-making talents — has always resisted neat categorization. Such is the case with its latest release, Out of Focus, which itself is a melting pot (of sorts) of musical styles and repertoire, as well as arranging and performance choices and quality.

Where the group truly stands out on this offering is on what I will call the "solid, 3-minute bop" — most notably, Classic (my personal fave) and Honey, I'm Good. There's nothing especially astonishing or innovative going on here, but these are tight performances that deliver exactly what you want from these tunes, with fun solos, just enough variation and depth/layering to the arrangements, and production that complements everything appropriately. To be fair, I would be remiss to not also mention Come Together, which is another standout but also an anomaly. The crunchy re-harms employed here don't really show up elsewhere on this album, and I am a little disappointed that is the case. The performance does falter a bit in the stiffness of the background voices — there's pocket/groove and then there's robotic, and this shades a little too much toward the latter — as well as a lack of more judiciously employed dynamics, but the sheer musicality of this opener rises to a level that the remaining arrangements never really do. (I would tell you who arranged it, but arrangements are not credited in the liner notes.)

Less impressive, but still enjoyable, are the group's forays into energetic arrangements that establish a fun groove and basically "set it and forget it" feel — the final three songs being perhaps most guilty of this choice. I have personal annoyances with Wake Me Up (the extremely square snare that is bizarrely introduced on 2 and 4), Treasure (the nasality of the soloist), and the cut-and-paste/repeat feel of Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough; but overall, the guys are clearly having a good time, and you get pretty much you want even if it's lacking a "wow" factor.

One area where the group consistently stumbles, however, is in filling out the middle of arrangements that don't otherwise rely on homophony and/or word echoes between the solo and the backs. When the group sticks to what, a two decades or so ago, might have been called a typical Rockapella or Blenders-style arrangement (like Classic and Honey, I'm Good mentioned above), they're mostly in their wheelhouse (the slightly too-cheesy backs in Renegade are perhaps an exception). In those instances, the group sounds a lot smaller than its eleven members, but that's not a meaningful concern when you're enjoying the song so much. 

When the group ventures into the style of arranging typical of larger ensembles (see: contemporary scholastic a cappella) its material here is far less fulfilling. Repeatedly — at the chorus of We Are Done, a minute or so into Hold on Tight, the empty mid-range of My Songs Know — the gents don't fill the harmonic and rhythmic space to meet the listener's expectations. Sometimes it's too much rhythm at the expense of a chordal center that will anchor the song; sometimes it's a chordal center that is voiced at the extremes; sometimes the rhythmic component is abandoned precisely at the moment we want it most (My Songs Know cries out (!) for some stand-in for pulsing, distorted rhythm guitars and we get almost nothing). 

In truth, none of the above is especially uncommon. Truly uncommon is the group that can put out an entire album of must-owns. So make no mistake: DeltaCappella has done good work here, occasionally very good, and yes, sometimes just mediocre. Whether you indulge in the whole album or just selected tracks is up to you, but there's plenty to enjoy and you're encouraged to check it out. 


Tuning / Blend 5
Energy / Intensity 5
Innovation / Creativity 4
Soloists 5
Sound / Production 5
Repeat Listenability 5
Tracks
1 Come Together 4
2 We Are Done 4
3 Story of My Life 5
4 Hold on Tight 4
5 Classic 4
6 My Songs Know 4
7 Renegade 4
8 Honey, I'm Good 5
9 Wake Me Up 5
10 Treasure 4
11 Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough 4

CAL group DeltaCappella tackles contemporary and classic pop songs with its latest, Out of Focus. Don't be fooled by the group's name: this is pop music, not the Delta blues! These performances are, across the board, honey-sweet and velvety-smooth; there's not a note out of place, and the soloists are all on point.

(I should take a moment to mention that RARB's current Marketing Director, TeKay, is a member of DeltaCappella, so there is obviously a very clear and likely conflict of interest in RARB reviewing this album. TeKay is not prominently featured on this release; he doesn't carry any of the songs' leads, and I couldn't pick his voice out of the ensemble, so I don't feel that my opinion of this album was swayed by our professional relationship.)

One of my favorite things about Out of Focus is that elements that I don't usually enjoy are some of the highlights. The rotating soloists on Story of My Life really keep the song moving. I love Honey, I'm Good so much that I barely notice the handclaps (and recorded handclaps are anathema to me!). I absolutely love the arrangement for Wake Me Up: the "naw-ni-ni-ni" intro captures the vibe of the original, and it is a lovely rumble that pops up throughout the song.

Surprisingly (based on my own musical tastes), I find the older songs to be Out of Focus's weaker moments. Come Together feels really slow to me, which makes it a tough track to open the album. Renegade never really explodes into the booming energy that we know from the original; and I am all-in on the glitchy, electronica Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough until its sudden end — which is an abrupt way to end the album.

Out of Focus is a highly enjoyable collection of modern and classic pop songs, performed and recorded beautifully. I feel like it's a bit trite at RARB to say, "if you like these songs, you will like this album", but it's true here: if your radio is regularly tuned to the pop hits of the last ten years, you'll dig this album, and if you also like older pop songs, then all the better! The only thing that Out of Focus is missing is an element of surprise: there's so much vocal talent in this group, and I'd love to hear this group's take on an unexpected arrangement or an unusual take on one of these tunes. But certainly, keeping this listener on her toes is not part of DeltaCappella's mission, and what the musicians captured here is lovely and will certainly have wide appeal.


Tuning / Blend 5
Energy / Intensity 3
Innovation / Creativity 4
Soloists 5
Sound / Production 4
Repeat Listenability 3
Tracks
1 Come Together 4
2 We Are Done 4
3 Story of My Life 3
4 Hold on Tight 4
5 Classic 5
6 My Songs Know 5
7 Renegade 4
8 Honey, I'm Good 4
9 Wake Me Up 3
10 Treasure 4
11 Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough 5

I really respect DeltaCappella's vision for an a cappella group: bringing together an eclectic group of people oblivious to generation and background for song. It's a prospect for musicality that is both idealistic and feasible, and it's even more gratifying when groups execute on it as well as on Out of Focus.

From as early on as Come Together, it's not hard to tell how varied and unique the individual voices are in DeltaCappella. There is no singular vocal model tying the members together, but there doesn't need to be one, either. What makes the group's core sound so impressive is that it's still blending and in sync without compromising on the individuality of each singer's voice. This is very challenging to pull off but pays off with the resulting richness in sound. This is evident whether the background is singing non-lyric vocables or harmonizing with/echoing a soloist directly.

Speaking of soloists, the energy and bravado they bring to each and every song is nothing short of phenomenal. The leads carry their songs so brilliantly that they create a nearly impossible act to follow by the background voices — a qualm which I'll delve into after I give some shoutouts. I especially love Kip Long on Classic, Toney Walsh III on My Songs Know, Charles Ponder on Treasure, and Jason Wade on Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough, but there isn't a single soloist on Out of Focus that I don't thoroughly enjoy.

What holds this album back is that the non-soloists only meet the soloists halfway in bringing forth the energy and momentum necessary to carry a track to completion. The core sound of DeltaCappella is rich, but it lacks momentum. Individual voice parts often don't swell or grow or evolve over the course of a song — they sing at a fixed dynamic and then cut out. And when the voices cut out, they simply fall off rather than make the empty space left over feel, well, full. There are some peculiar moments where the background voices are lacking the personality a soloist is bringing. An example is Renegade: Hayden Nichols's energy is infectious, but the background voice parts echoing his lyrics in a choral-like stiffness feel like an afterthought.

Dynamics also are a mixed bag. On tracks such as We Are Done and Hold on Tight, they stay at fixed levels for too long rather than flow eloquently. Other times, such as on Wake Me Up, a track anticipates more intensity and then never gets there. This can result in tracks that feel "done" before being even halfway finished.

The issues here are probably most apparent on Story of My Life, a cover of an iconic Home Free arrangement of the One Direction song. There's no problem with covering others' arrangements, but it does leave the door open for more obvious comparisons. In this case, the issues with dynamics and vocal momentum make DeltaCappella sound uninspired even as the soloists are actively nailing it. Also, as an aside, I was surprised to find no arranging credits on this album. Soloists and original songwriters and publishers are credited, which is great, but especially when covering another group's arrangement, it would've been nice to see more mention given here.

Out of Focus is at its best when the group sidesteps these issues. Classic and Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough are by-design constant energetic bangers, on which DeltaCappella delivers while making the more static dynamics a non-issue. My Songs Know has amazing control of its intensity levels, repeatedly culminating in some explosive "FIRE" harmonies in every chorus.

Even with the issues laid out, Out of Focus is still a great a cappella album showcasing some great voices at their best when they solo, with tracks at their best when background members live up to said soloist. For DeltaCappella's next project to be even more captivating, however, the group cannot merely sidestep the album's flaws. It must tackle them head-on and deliver more subtlety, momentum, and appropriately placed energy consistently. And when that happens, I'll be right there, excited for my first listen.

 

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