penny loafers – quicksand

A cappella arrangements that are so good they make me want to listen to Coldplay, among others.

One of the things that continue to draw me to a cappella music is the intimacy it conveys. The voice is not hidden behind instrumentation or electronic trickery. It is left exposed in front for the world to hear.

The same is true with a cappella covers of songs that originally used modern instrumentation. Even when the choir of voices behind the lead singer is replicating the instruments and percussion of the original, the lead voice remains bare. Sometimes it takes that bare intimacy for me to realize just how good a song is.

I first had an inkling of this when I heard folk singer/songwriter Rose Polenzani do a cover of Whitesnake's "Here I Go Again" some years ago at a live show. I never liked the song as much as I did after I heard her version of it. The same thing happened when I heard the University of Pennsylvania Penny Loafers' a cappella cover of The Postal Service's "Such Great Heights" last year. Their cover made me give the song and the band a second listen, and now I'm hooked on The Postal Service.

Given all that, it was with eager anticipation that I hit the play button for the first track of the Penny Loafer's new album, Quicksand. Quicksand album coverOnce again, I was both surprised and pleased by how much I enjoy their versions of modern pop radio songs I never would listen to in their original incarnations.

"Swallowed in the Sea" (Coldplay) is a prime example of this. I cannot stand to listen to Coldplay. Maybe they are more interesting now, but their first hit single in the US was so dreary that I was immediately turned off and have not bothered to listen to them since then. However, Sam Cohn's a cappella arrangement and performance as lead vocal has made me think I should try them again. The song has a hint of folk to it, as if it had a history in an old English seaport.

Except for Sia's "Breathe Me" and Amiee Mann's "Humpty Dumpty," all of the songs on Quicksand are new to me. Those two are arranged close to the originals, as far as I can tell, and I can only expect the same is true of the rest of the album. The group has over a dozen arrangers represented on this album, and despite that they have kept the quality consistent. There is not a track on the album that stood out either positively or negatively.

A cappella purists might quibble over the obvious studio tweaking on the recording. There are a few places that stand out as examples of what the human voice cannot do without some digital augmentation. Even so, the quality of the recording is still impressive. The Penny Loafers have followed up Side A with another fine collection of a cappella tunes.

The Penny Loafers CDs (all eight of them) are available only on their website or a few online a cappella distributors. You can preview and download individual tracks or entire albums from acaTunes.


College a cappella is a genre of music that does not get the attention it deserves.

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.

picture of the Penny LoafersOne 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.cover of Side A

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.