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Offbeat Genres: College A Cappella Groups posted on July 7th, 2009

I can’t knock the choir nerds; I was one of them myself back in college. There’s something pretty unreal about fifty people weaving ten part harmonies together in perfect unison, grinding into some raw dissonant note against the melodic line of the tenors. But unbeknownst to me at the time, while we were rocking Americana and Mozart, our campus a cappella group was putting a new spin on the stuff that was on my iPod. Without any instrument accompaniment, these groups recreate indie rock with complex layers of harmony and a throwback to doo wap style (with a little beat boxing to cover the all-important drum track). It’s no wonder that a joke among these dedicated musicians is “All my friends think they’re instruments.”

From what I’ve discovered, most universities seem to have an a cappela group (more specifically, around 1200 exist in the U.S.). These bands have toured the country and even performed on Letterman, Saturday Night Live, and The West Wing. Remember Anoop Desai from this season of American Idol? Yeah, he sang in one too (The UNC Clef Hangers – see video below).

However, even with the help of the Internet, few groups are heard by anyone outside of the campus community. While many record albums, only a handful are available on the iTunes store. I myself might have never heard of the genre had it not been for musician Ben Folds. Along with covering their favorite music from bands like Death Cab for Cutie, Panic at the Disco, Regina Spektor, Muse and Rihanna to name a few, the a-cappellans have dipped heavily into the catalogue of Ben Folds. It’s no surprise; Ben Folds is a musician whose music is also a staple of the college curriculum. If you haven’t heard his work, you should. He can belt out a bitter rant about suburban hypocrisy one minute, then pull back into a stunningly poetic piece about a couple heading to an abortion clinic, or an old retiree being escorted out of his office. For a quick listen, I’d recommend “Brick” (I think this one even made radio play a decade ago), “Rockin’ The Suburbs” or “The Luckiest.” You might also ask your local college student/teenager to point you in the right direction.

In April of 2009, Ben Folds released an album that was a result of scouting some of the best college a cappella groups in the country that were covering his songs. The album features groups from Princeton to the University of Wisconsin -Eau Claire and delivers sixteen incredible tracks. Ben himself lends his vocals to two of the tracks, while the remainder are led by some astonishingly talented young soloists. In the background, Ben’s piano and modest backing have been transformed by a rich mix of harmonies and the mind-boggling fugue of non-vocal utterances (doh-dohs, ooh-wahhs, dongs, jims, joe-dahs, and Heaven knows what else). Some of the pieces are rendered tenderly in the lyrical choral style, while others resemble what you’d hear if the local Barber Shop Quartet was on an LSD trip. Whatever your tastes in music may be, this is one musical adventure worth checking out.

Here’s a YouTube link to the documentary Ben Folds created highlighting the project, which may give you a good idea as to what it’s all about. Or, for more immediate gratification, here’s one of my favorite selections from the album. It’s The University of Chicago Voices in your Head recording “Magic”

And of course, how could I let you go without a video of Anoop Desai back in his college a cappella days? This is the UNC Clef Hangers cover of Ne-Yo’s “Sexy Love” with soloing vocals by the “Noop-Dog” himself.

If you like what you’re hearing, I’d recommend searching for the University of Chicago’s “Voices In Your Head” album, the University of Wisconsin MadHatters, or the Freshen Fifteen on iTunes. You may also want to check out the annual collections of the “Best of College Acappella” or BOCA (2008 and 2009’s albums are also available on iTunes, but prepare for more beatboxing and studio rendering than you’ll hear in the others). There’s nothing quite like hearing one of your favorite hits reinvented this way!