Male Collegiate Arrangement: New Twists Abound
Last week, when I talked about the Mixed Collegiate Arrangement category, I mentioned that it’s all about emotional resonance with me. Evoking a feeling is paramount – regardless of whether it’s something simple or complex. Well, in this category I was treated to an arrangement that accomplished this so well that it actually made me rethink a song that I was thoroughly sick of. That arrangement was Hallelujah (Chris Waybill).
Hallelujah falls into the “Fix You” category for me – a song that I think is truly beautiful, but which has been so overexposed in the a cappella world that it’s a struggle just to take a new version seriously, let alone have it move me. Well, Waybill’s version does just that.
I think it’s because the focus in this version is more on the rhythmic aspect of the song, and less on the harmony. Most versions of Hallelujah try to mix things up harmonically to the point that they often border on cheesy. There are some nifty reharms in Waybill’s take, but they’re used sparingly, and seem to be in service of the lyrics. When the soloist sings “there was a time when you let me know what was going on below,” the chords shift down to a bVII tonality – literally sound-painting the idea of an unknown depth of emotion. That’s how you reharm!
The vibe of this interpretation is a significant departure, rhythmically, from the original. It’s almost chant-like, with a broad, sweeping production sound to match. It’s still in (mostly) triple meter, but the emphasis is on the 4 of the 6/8, such that it takes on this neat, grounded feel. Honestly, it’s not such a massive departure from the feel of the original…and yet it does have a character all its own.
So yeah, with this subtle yet powerful new sound, I found myself listening to the lyrics again with fresh ears. And it was moving. The story of the song came alive for me in a way it hadn’t for quite some time. To facilitate that kind of re-examination of previously overexposed music; it’s a beautiful thing.
Though it lacks the same kind of emotional heft, Carry Out (Rohit Crasta) is another great example of rhythm done well. In my opinion, the easy trap to fall into when arranging Hip Hop/Dance music is to do exactly what many radio productions do: build a loop and let it ride. That doesn’t often work as well a cappella.
On the other end of the spectrum, it’s easy to do too much. Having too many layers that throw off the groove can be a danger as well. Carry Out avoids both of these extremes, landing nicely in the middle. The arrangement evolves, but never in a way that feels forced or disingenuous to the style. The focus is always on the groove, and it’s danceable while never becoming static.
Not every nominee hits this sweet spot as well, sadly. Grenade (Andy Degan) is very functional, but also pretty static in the way it grows through the song (or doesn’t, really). It’s not until the very end that we get anything that breaks out of the mold of the original. Even then, the big development comes in the form of some jazzy reharmonizations that kind of come out of nowhere. They’re cool, but it’s harmony unlike anything we’ve heard up to that point, so it comes off as a little odd.
I don’t mean to be unduly harsh on this arrangement – there’s nothing fatally wrong with it. It’s just that it simply gets the job done, whereas other nominees go above and beyond. Functionality can be great, especially live, but when you’re up against the best of the best, it’s noticeable when your arrangement simply executes the original song without injecting much new flavor to the music!
It’s not exclusively about re-interpreting other’s ideas though. Take Singing In The Rain (Micah Hendler). This arrangement ably re-imagines the classic tune into something jazzy and a bit soulful. Nice rhythmic touches abound, and what’s more it never feels overly busy. That’s actually a hard balance to strike, and Hendler does so admirably.
I just feel like this arrangement could have used a little pruning. The material that’s there is good, but we get a lot of repeats and vamps that stretch the track to a whopping 4:25. Tightening up the form might have made for an even more engaging presentation of the material.
I’ve dinged a lot of arrangements for being static, or for not evolving much. For an example of a track that does both of those things well, look no further than Titanium (Anicka Pathammavong). The pacing of this one is really good, building to a first high in the second chorus, backing off a bit, and then topping the previous high with the final chorus. I find that to be a really interesting and engaging progression – and one that allows the soloist maximum freedom of expression.
On the subject of the soloists, I think this arrangement is also a great example of building a feel around the strength of your lead. I have no idea how premeditated that was on Pathammavong’s part, but the fact that there was a soloist ready in the group to really nail this more laid back, R&B take on Titanium is an example of exactly what I always hope to see groups doing. You have to play to the strengths of your singers to really excel.
Sometimes you can play to strengths by changing the style of a song, and sometimes you can do so by simply laying the proper foundation for them to do their thing. Such is the case with I (Who Have Nothing) (Danny Mulligan). The lower voices feature dense, rock solid voicing, which allows the soloist the support he needs to really get up into the stratosphere at the end.
I think the star of this track is the solo though, not the arrangement (and like I said in my Twitter post for Male Collegiate Song, I think this track will get recognition there). The arrangement is functional – totally functional in that it allows to the solo to shine. But it’s not the arrangement that makes the track for me; it’s the lead.
Winner: Hallelujah (Chris Waybill)
Runner Up: Singing In The Rain (Micah Hendler)
I think Hallelujah is the one to beat.
For runner up – it’s a tricky call. Carry Out deserves recognition, but I think it will get nods in other categories, which will influence what happens here. Titanium hits a lot of right notes in my book, but I think the judges will be into the new vibe of Singing In The Rain, and the technical adeptness with which Hendler executes his vision of the song.