Soul/R&B Song: Spotlight on the Solo

Posted on March 25, 2013 at 5:49 pm by Robert Comments Off on Soul/R&B Song: Spotlight on the Solo

In this category, more so than any other, I just want a stellar lead.  That’s saying something, because I always want a great lead.  It’s doubly important here.

Soul music (and to a different extent R&B) is at its very core about communicating something from the depths of one’s self.  I like to think of it as the things we can only really share through music.  The topics are varied, but the burden is on the lead to convince me that what is being sung about is important.  Like, potentially the most important thing ever.

Who pulls it off best?

Gone and Never Coming Back (Musae) definitely tugs at my heartstrings.  Hannah Juliano’s lead is nuanced, versatile, and powerful – basically everything one might wish for in this genre.  The backs are excellent as well and the production approach feels just right – smooth and soulful.

My favorite moments are the quieter ones.  The choruses are actually a little busy to my ear – it’s hard to follow the chord changes, and as a result the lead sometimes feels like it doesn’t have a solid foundation to tune to.  I prefer the more intimate moments, when the tune strips down (ie, 2:34).  That’s when Juliano’s tone shines the brightest, perfectly conveying a world of hurt and betrayal.

Confessions (Eight Beat Measure) explores a similar kind of hurt, albeit from a completely different perspective.  Can I be honest?  I’m shocked that the spoken intro works as well as it does.  Most groups would have made the infamous call sound cheesy, but the men of Eight Beat actually pull it off.  Color me impressed.

This track has a nice atmosphere, and a solid lead.  If anything I just wish it wasn’t quite as long as it is.  5 minutes is a long time for any a cappella track.  The lead keeps me on the ride, more or less, but it’s just a big task to hold the focus for that long with only voices.

Full disclosure – I did some arrangement editing on this track, so I don’t feel like I can really speak to the arranging side of things.  I think the strength of this track is its production and the commitment of its lead.  Is that enough to score a win?

Originality has to be a factor as well, and no track stands out in this regard as much as Scott Hoying’s tour de force on The Baddest Girl (Pentatonix).  Fantastic lead (always a leg up when it’s your song), good writing, and a neat arrangement that rewards repeat listens.  It took me months before I heard the breaths in the first verse that augment the rhythm of the percussion.  It’s touches like that that make this track excellent.

Really, I have to wonder how much the fact that this is original will factor into the ultimate decision.  It’s a very good song, with a catchy chorus, and some nice lyric interplay.  It’s probably not my favorite overall production of any of the nominees (one issue: keeping the arrangement to 5-ish voices puts a limit on how big the choruses can be), but the singing is so good, and the originality such a factor, that it’s hard to think that the CARA judges won’t give this one ample consideration.

Not as original, but still plenty powerful is the Lorelies interpretation of Hate On Me.  The backs have swagger for sure.  Good lead – a little quirky at times, but plenty soulful.

The percussion hits hard, and grooves really well.  It’s the bedrock for the whole track, providing an awesome context for all the upper voices to be energetic and sultry.  I’m into it!

I wish the energy of the track evolved a little more between the first and second chorus.  The stakes stay about the same between the two, and it keeps the tune from really going over the top for me.  We ultimately get there with the ending vamp – really the vocals are sick – but I want more of this build in intensity through the whole song.

Finally we have Payphone (The Exchange).  Very slick arrangement, and the backs hit the tone spot on.  Am I listening to Committed?  Some moments could fool me.

The fact that this track features multiple great soloists actually helps it a lot.  It allows for a kind of natural evolution in the song – what I’m missing a bit from the Lorelies.  Every guy nails his section, and it’s great.  Add to that the fact that the arrangement thwarts a copy/paste approach, and you have something pretty special.  The riffing at the end is icing on the cake.

The Verdict

I feel like I’m going to be predictable here, but:

Winner: The Baddest Girl (Pentatonix)

Runner Up: Payphone (The Exchange)

Yes, I know I’m calling a good handful of things for PTX, which probably seems like the obvious choice.  But you know what?  All the love is for a reason.  Of all the nominees, nothing has the soul, musicality, and originality of Baddest Girl.  I have to think that’s going to be recognized.

The runner up is another close call.  It could really go to any of the other nominees.  I just think the Exchange has an edge because of the creativity present in their arrangement, and the fact that their bench of solo talent is miles deep and used to full effect.

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