Jeeves Murphy

CD Review: Mind the Gap’s “Strugglebus”

The a cappella scene has changed a lot over the years – I believe the scientific term for it is “blown up.” New groups are popping up everywhere and it’s much easier to for them to market and produce themselves than ever before. I’ll always have a soft spot in my aca-heart for the “original canon” of collegiate a cappella groups, but the unique style and personality that these new groups bring helps keep the scene so fresh and so clean, clean.

Mind the Gap, a co-ed group from University of Oregon, is one such breakout group that seems to be taking the scene by storm. Only four years old, the group is already releasing “Strugglebus,” their second full length album – an amazing feat to be sure. The quality of the album, though, makes me think they’re cheating. I don’t know how they’re cheating, but it’s obvious – this sort of musical command doesn’t come from four year old groups! But in case they aren’t cheating, the group is doing a lot of things right and will be making a name for themselves very soon (if they haven’t already by the time of this publication).

The album fires off its first shot with “Geek in the Pink” by Mr. A to Z. Minus the “it’s laundry day” dialogue at the start of the track, this arrangement stays very true to the original. The soloist choice was perfect for this – Victor Rojo keeps his pattern of flattery going throughout the song with a laidback style and precision lyrics, the unique combination that we expect from Jason Mraz himself. The background vocals are noticeably produced, but walk that line between ornamentation and overly mechanical. The buzzing bass, though accurate to the original, seems to be too much at times, but the hint of V3 organ adds a nice personality to the female harmonies.

“Little Lion Man” by Mumford and Sons is the second track and the single released by MtG. This is unfortunately one of those songs that seems to use production value to mask the fact that it’s kind of a boring song. The arrangement from Tom Anderson attempts to transcribe fast-passed guitar strum and banjo to voices, and it simply misses the mark. The Eddie McDonald’s solo vocals bring a musical-theater-type feel to the song with hard consonants and an overtly heavy vocal timbre, and save for the dropping of the F-bomb in the choruses, the anger of the song just isn’t felt.

MtG’s third track is “Animal” by Neon Trees. This track is so much fun it should probably be illegal. The church-choir chords at the beginning of the track really add a nice dynamic misdirection when the upbeat tempo of the first verse hits. The melody fits Jarad Homsley’s solo voice like an aca-glove and the bass drives the song really well.  This allows those sweet background vocals to not be overworked.

Easily my favorite track of the album is “Teenage Dream” by Katy Perry. The song is a reimagining of the original as a power choral ballad. The arrangement by Tom Anderson is absolutely incredible, taking you on a journey from a mysterious origin to a hard hitting climactic ending and everything in between. And as soon as you think you’ve hit the height of the song, MtG pulls back and begins the voyage anew. It is creative arrangements and passionate performances like this that excite me about a cappella.

Sara Bareilles makes an appearance on this album (well, not the real one, but a reasonable facsimile) on track five with “King of Anything.” This is a really good transcription of the original song by Ben Gardner, but nothing too exciting. It’s a great track, don’t get me wrong – excellent background vocals, nice perc, and the track retains the light, bouncy feel of the original. For me, I find the solo to be too sweet. Mikaela Zottola has a great voice and sings the notes well, but is missing that bit of sass that Bareilles brings to this story. In the end, it’s that lack of personality that makes this track fairly generic.

The next track is “Another Heart Calls,” a song originally by All-American Rejects featuring The Pierces. This is a great duet between the soloists Ella Greene and Alex Lindquist. It was an interesting choice to have the male lead sing down the octave from the original track starting towards the end of the second verse. It’s a safe choice when you have a solid singer without an upper range for a song like this. However, because of this, Ella comes across as pulling more of the weight in the duet – Alex’s vocals feel a bit lazy and apathetic at times compared to his female counterpart.  To fix this come performance time, the male lead really needs to overdo his vocal inflection, especially in the lower part of his range.

“Angels,” a song by Within Temptation, has a much different feel than any other song on this album. The high-flying, classical solo by Kelsey Olsen is juxtaposed with a grunge feel in the background vocals. This track was a really cool choice to put on the album. The Kelsey has a beautiful voice that fits the song very well. My only wish would be for the background vocals to hit a bit harder, maybe with deeper sounding syllables in the bass (Jzuhn instead of Jzen). But that’s just me being picky!

I really like it when groups remove the soloist and turn a song into more of a choral piece. Much like the Katy Perry track, the eighth song takes Red Jumpsuit Apparatus’ “Your Guardian Angel” and intertwines the lead vocals into a beautifully intricate choral piece. The duet during the second chorus is an excellent interpretation that brings a new dynamic to the song. With precise execution and dynamic versatility, this song could bring the house down at both a cappella events and classical concert halls.

Florence and the Machine is one of those new favorite groups of collegiate a cappella. MtG performs a fantastic version of “Dog Days” on this album. The song is fairly simple but features some great power vocals from Alex Kihn-Stang and driving percussion. It’s a solid execution of the song and is a great placement for the track – right between the Red Jumpsuit Apparatus ballad, and the killer last song.

The final track is a very cool arrangement from Victor Rojo – somewhere between a mashup and a medley, the track entitled “aMUSEing” features (by my count) 5 different songs by MUSE. It is a great arrangement that incorporates seamless and inventive transitions between songs. The track itself features some killer vocals and is a perfect way to put a bow on this album – it simply rocks!

Overall this was a great album. There were only a couple of tracks whose selection I didn’t necessarily agree with. One of the most pervasive faults that I see in collegiate a cappella is the selection of songs. If Mind The Gap can focus more on selecting songs that show off the killer lead vocals that MtG obviously has in their group, they will be a huge step ahead of the rest. I’d also suggest that the vocalists really understand the meaning of the songs they choose to sing – impassioned vocals are the primary key for emotionally compelling songs. Whatever it means to them, it is the job of the performers (both the soloist AND background vocals) to deliver the message of the song. However, for a four year old group, MtG should be very proud of their second album. It is a solid mix of incredible tracks that I will certainly keep coming back to.

Mind The Gap’s sophomore album is a great blend of the borderline-excessively-produced sounds that blur the line between voice and instrument, uniquely exciting arrangements that are creatively executed, and inspired in-your-face vocals that reach through your headphones and massage your eardrums in that special way that makes the rest of your body tingle all over. Mind the Gap aurally violates your personal space – but you enjoy it and plead like Oliver Twist – Please, Mind the Gap, I want some more!

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