University A Cappella is an album curated by Ben Folds, featuring his songs performed by various top-notch vocal groups from colleges around the country plus a couple of his own a cappella arrangements. There’s undeniable talent found in the performance, arrangement, and recording of each song, but ultimately, University A Cappella just made me want to listen to the real Ben Folds. While that’s a tribute to its subject matter, it’s also a hearty strike against the album.
A cappella is a divisive form that enthralls some while making others skin crawl. If you’re of the latter persuasion, you should know better than to subject yourself to this album. If you’re a bit more tolerant, there’s enjoyable discovery involved with hearing this collection. The various forms of a cappella found here make for an interesting music appreciation class, and even novices will notice the difference between male and female-centric styles, classic and modern styles, and the varying sizes of the groups.
Recorded in locales such as living rooms, common rooms, auditoriums, and studios – including Folds’ own – the tracks are mostly culled from the latter-day Folds catalog. This probably wasn’t a matter of choice as much as it was dictated by the timbre of the songs. An a cappella version of some Ben Folds Five song like “Battle of Who Could Care Less” would probably have to be slowed down anyway, so it’s for the best that the groups tackle simpler, more straightforward tunes like “Landed” and “Magic.”
I’ve always thought that novel diversions such as those found here should somehow be truncated, and this album speaks to that desire. As fun and impressive as some of the renditions are, they all could be a few seconds shorter. The Sacramento State Jazz Singers’ version of the morose “Selfless, Cold and Composed” is actually entertaining but goes on far too long. Worse, some of the other ballads, like “The Luckiest” (performed with solemn grace by WUSTL’s Amateurs),”Evaporated” (by The Newtones from Newton, MA) and “Brick” (by The Leading Tones of Ohio State) inspire intolerable boredom.
Tight songs that already have a playful spirit, like The University of Rochester Midnight Ramblers’ take on “Army,” “You Don’t Know Me” by UGA’s With Someone Else’s Money, and Folds’ own re-imagining of “Effington” capture the right amount of fun and concentrate it for maximum enjoyment. Unfortunately, the record is ballad-heavy, but there are other keepers. These include Fifth Element’s (of Eau Claire, WI) delightfully unique “Fair” (which features brief nods to “Zak and Sara” and “There’s Always Someone Cooler Than You”), and The Spartones’ (from Greensboro, NC) soul-tinged “Not the Same.”
If you’re really into a capella music and Ben Folds, University Acapella is what you’ve been waiting for. Otherwise, the album is the definition of a novelty that will inspire few repeat visits, save a couple of standout tracks.
Rating: 4.9 out of 10