College a cappella is a genre of music that does not get the attention it deserves. It began with the Yale Whiffenpoofs in 1909, and it is set apart from barbershop and traditional choruses. The repertoire of most college a cappella groups consists of popular music, usually arranged by the members of the group or borrowed from other groups.
Unlike traditional a cappella songs that were written without instrumentation, the arrangements of popular songs interpret everything from guitar licks to keyboards using only the voice. There are several professional vocal bands (such as The Bobs), but most of the groups performing this style of music are centered in the college or university setting.
One such group is University of Pennsylvania’s Penny Loafers. The co-ed group was founded in 1986 and have released several recordings on their own as well as being featured on compilation albums. In 1999, they were featured on the Best of College A Cappella. After listening to their 2005 album Side A, it is apparent that they have continued to produce solid arrangements of pop and rock songs.
The Penny Loafers’ Side A is impressive in that the arrangement and execution of most of the songs are spot on a cappella replicas of the originals. However, there are a few production issues that throw it off. Occasionally the levels for the vocals doing the instrumental bits are not balanced so that they blend into a uniform sound, and there is a tendency for them to overwhelm the lead vocal.
An example of this is the beginning of “Don’t Leave Home.” Unlike the original performed by Dido, the sparseness of the intro is lost in the Penny Loafers’ arrangement due to the instrumental vocals being at the same level as the solo. They jump out at the listener in a way that they shouldn’t.
In contrast, “Take Me Out” blends everything just about right. Occasionally individual voices can be picked out, but otherwise it is a melodious blend of sounds that pay homage to Franz Ferdinand.
The best track on the CD is “Such Great Heights.” Given how well the group pulled off the Franz Ferdinand tune, it was no surprise that they would give the Postal Service’s song the same treatment. The original tune combines driving electronica with emo vocals that result in something almost zen-like. None of this power is lost in the Penny Loafers’ a cappella version. If anything, the impact of this song is enhanced in the new format.
You can view the full track listing as well as pick up a copy for yourself on the Penny Loafers website. The group is currently wrapping up work on a new album called Quicksand that will include songs originally performed by Kelly Clarkson, Snow Patrol, and Beck, just to name a few. For a taste of that, check out the video of the group performing Sia’s “Breath Me” live in concert.