In Perfect Harmony

Ben Folds Takes The Lead On An Album Of College A Cappella Groups Performing His Songs

April 28, 2009|By Rashod D. Ollison | Rashod D. Ollison,

Not long after Ben Folds heard that his songs were popular among college a cappella groups, he got an idea for a new album.

"We just put the word out," he says. "I put it on my Web page: If you're an a cappella group and you're doing my songs, send your submission to YouTube and I'll check 'em out. We'll make a record."

In a matter of weeks, 250 videos were sent to YouTube. Folds combed through the submissions and ultimately chose 15 ensembles to perform on Ben Folds Presents: University A Cappella!

The CD, in stores Tuesday, rides a growing music trend among college students. According to Varsity Vocals, which runs the International Championship of Collegiate A Cappella, more than 1,200 ensembles have been formed on college campuses in the past two decades. That's especially interesting, given that the sound of mainstream pop has become more and more synthesized in that time. Studio wizardry such as Pro Tools and Auto Tunes has done a lot of heavy lifting for some pop singers.

Released by Epic/Sony BMG, Folds' album is perhaps the most high-profile recording of collegiate a cappella groups. The 16 cuts on the album, mostly well-known songs written by Folds, are reimagined with voices alone. The artist traveled around the country with an engineer and six microphones to record the groups, capturing the music like a "field recording," Folds says.

"This is not a novelty. I consider this my new record," says the North Carolina native, 42. "If this were Ben World, this would be my greatest hits album. I'd rather this be my greatest hits record than someone collecting my masters and slapping on a photo of me leaning against a piano. This is a better way."

On the contrary, the album is something of a novelty, arriving at a time when a cappella jokes have appeared in such pop culture hits as the NBC show The Office and movies such as The Break-Up. Last May, GQ editor Mickey Rapkin published Pitch Perfect: The Quest for Collegiate A Cappella Glory, a sometimes hilarious book that explores the behind-the-scenes world of competitive collegiate ensembles.

But for some, a cappella singing isn't just a joke or a trend but a way of rediscovering "real music" or unprocessed vocals.

"Young people of today, especially college students, are constantly fed touched-up and Auto-tuned music that sounds exactly the same," says Drake Booth, president of Purrrfect Pitch, an a cappella group at Towson University. "Tired of hearing the same doctored tunes, they seek music that is aesthetically pleasing yet unique. This is exactly what college a cappella groups supply. We arrange popular songs from the '80s to today's Top 40, giving it our own flair."

Folds says the different vocal ensemble approaches added new dimensions to his acerbic songs.

"It's affirming, because I've always been a little more academic about music than a lot of quasi-rock stars like myself," Folds says. "I've always built my songs, imagining that they could be orchestrated or that you could sing them in a choir. The groups tell me the songs arranged themselves because there was so much to work with."

University A Cappella can be an overbearing listen, as most of the performances are either a bit listless or overcooked. Sometimes, though, the renditions soar. The Spartones from the University of North Carolina, Greensboro, are a standout on "Not the Same," the album's opening cut.

Recording the song was a "really relaxed process," says Gordon Sutker, president of UNCG Spartones. "A lot of it had to do with Ben putting us at ease. ... We recorded our track in three full takes. Ben's way of recording was to have everyone, including the soloist and vocal percussionist, sing together instead of recording each part and putting them together."

Folds says the recording process was easy because the groups were tightly focused.

"There was no room for anything to be massaged," he says. "I knew [the songs] would be recorded in a matter of hours. It was imperative that the lead singer be excellent, first and foremost. Their groove had to be there. Like the Spartones; they're groove Nazis."

In a way, the album, which was recorded sans studio effects or filters, is a celebration of the human voice, a sound that's often overly processed or obscured in today's pop.

"You can't really say there's no merit in completely contrived, synthesized music," Folds says. "It does make people happy, and there is skill involved in it. But there will always be a place for live music, just people singing. That's what people do; they're gonna sing. That's the human spirit."

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