Sunday, December 4, 2011

CD Review: Christmas Cheers by Straight No Chaser

- contributed by Len Morse

Music can be found just about everywhere, and it is often created by musicians with high-quality instruments, but sometimes voices alone can be plenty. Therefore, a CD from Straight No Chaser, the ten-man contemporary a capella sensation, should be at the top of your Christmas gift list this year. Their second album, Christmas Cheers, was released in 2009 and provides the catchy rhythms, smooth harmonies, memorable lyrics, and good-natured humor for which SNC is known.

Almost everyone can relate to the CD’s first tune, The Christmas Can-Can, which pokes fun at the annual Christmas marketing season, which seems to get longer each year. This piece contains interpolations of Offenbach’s opera “Orpheus in the Underworld” and many recognizable holiday tunes, but completely original lyrics, thanks to group member and arranger Walt.

Just when you think you’ve heard it all, take a listen to the guys’ rendition of We Three Kings in 5/4 meter (think Mission Impossible). It’s a new twist on an old classic.

SNC and arranger Deke Sharon (not a group member) infuse soul into a pop arrangement of wintertime standard Let it Snow, featuring both of SNC’s main lead singers, Jerome and Mike. You may just find yourself actually wishing for the white stuff to fall from the sky.

The group also covers Hey Santa!, a high-energy original from Rock-a-Billy guitarist Brian Setzer. Featuring a fast “Doo-wop” style, this tune may have you wondering what Kris Kringle encounters when he visits America’s Deep South. SNC’s Ryan keeps it fun and does the tune justice singing the solo lead.

If you’re the kind who listens to lyrics carefully, then SNC’s rendition of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer is for you. The first iteration of the tune is relatively traditional, but then they repeat it with lots of jazzy syncopation and lyrics that might have come from a thesaurus. The introduction and closing are clever as well.

Not to be left out, the group’s two solid bass singers, Charlie and Randy, both step up to the plate and knock You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch out of the park, along with Jerome. Close harmonies and a contemporary rock feel make this tune charming, even though the subject is—a bad banana.

Santa Claus is Back in Town is a fluffy bit of silliness (not to be confused with Santa Claus is Coming to Town). Ever wonder what would happen if Elvis Presley took over for Santa Claus? Wonder no more.

A favorite of many SNC fans, Who Spiked the Eggnog? is the group’s only original piece on this CD. Listen as Ryan tries to solve the mystery in this fast-paced, modern whodunit.

The Twelve Days of Christmas may be the last track on the CD, but it started new careers: Atlantic Records Chairman/CEO Craig Kallman noticed the guys after watching their version of this tune on YouTube, sung during a live concert in 1998. It was posted only as a bit of nostalgia for the original members, but sometimes miracles do happen.

Along with the tunes mentioned above, Straight No Chaser lends their special musical blend to Christmastime is Here, Donde Esta Santa Claus, I’ll be Home for Christmas, O Holy Night, God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen, and Jingle Bells, giving listeners 15 tracks of music and humor. They are pure voices with no “pitch correction” or other electronic assistance, except microphones.

Straight No Chaser was formed in the fall of 1996 by students at Indiana University. As their web site’s biography states, they were “10 guys who happened to be good friends who also liked to sing.” After the YouTube video and signing with Atlantic about ten years after the group’s origination, they reconvened to continue the magic that includes different styles of music from various eras. Their modern arrangements and sincere enjoyment of performance has garnered millions of loyal fans all over the world.