Do you remember what you were doing in high school? I’m sure a lot of you, like me, spent much of your time in the choir room singing Sondheim medleys in tight unison. Maybe you were rehearsing the national anthem – yes, THAT arrangement – for the football team’s pep rally. Or maybe you started singing to be close to all the cute Sopranos and Altos (you can be honest with me, I won’t blame you).
I’ll tell you a couple things I wasn’t doing – starting a contemporary a cappella group, recording an extremely well produced, full-length album, being nominated for CARA awards, competing in ICHSAs, making music videos, working with big name aca-people like Jessica Freedman from Sonos or the inimitable Chris Diaz of Mouth Off fame. I mean, unless your name is Robert Dietz, this just wasn’t a normal day-to-day thing for most high schoolers.
This is where Centerville High School in Ohio attempts to break the mold. Clearly unsatisfied with being “just another high school group,” Forte has recently released their sophomore album (their second album in two years). The album stands alone among their peers, and competes with the musical quality of some college groups.
The first track kicks you in the face – Dynamite by Taio Cruz. Admittedly, I had to keep reminding myself (throughout the entire album really) that this is a high school group. This track is just deliciously lush with incredible moments. Tristin Boykin kills the verses with a real street feel, and when Sonia Mehta busts in with the chorus, the sound just melts like an M&M – in your ears, but not in your hand… okay, I admit that metaphor falls apart a bit, but you know what I mean. My only qualm with the track is that the solo is lost in the mix on the second half of each verse and on the second “on and on and on” in the pre-choruses, which creates a lackluster transition into the choruses.
“Jar of Hearts” by Christina Perry follows up the first track. This is a great arrangement by Bryan Sharpe – simple, but elegant. Jensen Pennock has a beautiful voice that fits the solo well. The second verse and the bridge are especially heartfelt, however, it feels like it takes her until then to get into song. The choruses feel like they are lacking in the passion that is so clear in the words – “Who do you think you are?” and one of my favorite lines “You’re gonna catch a cold from the ice inside your soul.” I mean, that is some heavy shit! Anyone can sing a song, but real music stirs the listener in their seats, makes them uncomfortable, and I miss that on the choruses.
“Rolling In The Deep” is just one of those songs I’ve heard too many times – almost every college group has done it by now, and generally speaking, all the arrangements are straight transcriptions (it’s this generation’s “Africa”). That being said, Forte makes some really cool choices in this arrangement that keep this overplayed song interesting and unique. And I’m so happy that the soloists, Micaela McCall and Anne Rose Flood, went balls to the wall on this one. With this song you either go big or go home, and you girls killed it. Well done.
I love this arrangement of “Gravity” by Sara Bareilles. Forte does an amazing job with its tight beautiful harmonies. The strength in Caroline Glynn’s voice fits where it counts. The choruses and bridge are killer – the soloist cries out, exasperated “one thing that I still know is that you’re keeping me down,” and this is a wonderful moment. But there is a sensitivity and a fragility that is missing from the verses that could really put this track over the top. Try not over-articulating each word – sing it like you are saying it.
A female solo on One Republic’s “Secrets” is a really interesting choice, and I think works out really well with Kendra Huhta. Kendra does a great job with the vocals, and the arrangement by Lizbee Barth supports the song perfectly. The background vocals are perfect affectations to the solo – never distracting but keeping the track interesting throughout.
“Just The Way You Are” by Bruno Mars is another example of where the mix can get in the way of the musical production. During most of this track, I lose the lead in the background vocals. This is very apparent on the first verse – the lead is fine when backed by closed vowels like “oo’s”, but when the background switches to “Ah’s,” I struggle to focus on the lead. Besides the balance, this is a solid track. I like the lead switching between a male and female vocal – Bruno Mars is a freak and 99% of men shouldn’t sing that high (I include myself in that)!
So, it’s apparent to me that Sonia Mehta is probably going to be an aca-superstar. This girl kill’s the solo for Katy Perry’s “Firework.” The beginning 8 measures, I feel like there’s something missing in the background chord – something about it sounds off. But, once the basses enter, everything resolves and just feels right. This is a fantastic track and makes me forget that, “Oh right, this is a high school group… wtfomgbbq?”
The “To The Wire Dance Medley” is easily the most fun track on the whole album. The members of Forte also took this song and created a pretty awesome music video. There’s not much to say about this one – it’s just a lot of fun. It’s a fantastic arrangement and well executed.
For the next track, it’s worth mentioning that I highly dislike Train (hate is such a strong word), especially their song “Soul Sister.” But from the first chord, I fell in love (not a strong enough word) with Forte’s rendition. This is easily my favorite moment of the CD – simple, passionate, touching. A choral ballad devoid of percussion brings the lyrics to the forefront and skipping the second verse removes the sleaze from the song (you know what I’m talking about), leaving the listener wanting more. In a live show, I’d be tempted to take this song a bit slower and really soak in the story behind the words and the beautiful chords. This track is music!
And to close, Forte finishes with one of my favorite groups, The Script, and “Breakeven.” The track feels like it’s tripping over and struggling with itself during the first verse, and doesn’t really click until the chorus. After that, everything settles and it’s a big, emphatic ride to the end of the album. Oh, and there’s a bonus track of Forte singing “Gravity” with Jessica Freedman. I refuse to review that track because of how totes jelly I am of them (it’s really freaking good though).
Forte makes me wish I had done more with a cappella my formative years. Shoot… Forte makes me wish I had done more while I was in college! This album competes with a lot of the collegiate a cappella albums I’ve heard. Other than some of the mixes being a bit too heavy on the background voices, I think Forte struggles with one thing that could really push them years ahead of high school and even some college groups.
There is a tendency for high school groups to focus too much on being articulate when they sing a solo (or background for that matter). This just comes from being trained to do so in Concert Choir or Madrigals. In pop music, it’s okay to not pronounce your “t’s” or “d’s” sometimes. Sing the song as if you were speaking the words in natural speech. This is one of the reasons I usually insist that singer read the lyrics without singing them – 1) to understand better what they are saying and 2) to find the natural flow of the song within the words.
The Forte album, 2 The Wire, is worth a buy! Many of these tracks will make it on to my iPhone and will remain there (Note that only my “top rated” playlist goes on my iPhone). It’s really exciting to see high school groups like this pushing the status quo, and it’s so important for us to support kids at a young age if we want to see our craft thrive. Forte is already hard at work on their third album, and you can be a part of it.
Forte is making another strive to raise the bar of high school a cappella groups by releasing an all original a cappella CD, something that even most professional groups haven’t done. This is a huge undertaking, and can use everyone’s support! Forte has opened a Kickstarter and has set their goal at $4,000 to complete this project. If you are like me and fell in love with music in high school, or want to support our future generations of music, check out the link below and pledge a donation before March 5, 2012.