Album Review: Furplay

Furplay is a studio recording of The Alleycats' 2013 Voice Festival UK set.

Furplay is a studio recording of The Alleycats’ 2013 Voice Festival UK set.

If We’re Not Kitten, the Alleycats’ eighth studio album released last year, was the culmination of two significant litters’ worth of Alleycat, then the brief yet accomplished Furplay is perhaps a teaser of positive things to come from the new bunch. Despite its release last month, Furplay was recorded back in May while MD Brendan Macdonald was still at the helm; in a way, this album may also be seen as his final offering as creative head of a group into which he has poured so much.

The benefit of having such a short sample of the Alleycats’ 12/13 repertoire (indeed, a sample they felt worthy of making up their Voice Festival UK set earlier this year) is that each track is musically tight, diverse and shows off the best of what the group have to offer. There is no room for filler on an EP, and this works to the Alleycats’ advantage here.

The album opens with their ‘L.O.V.E. Mashup’, which incorporates What Is Love from Haddaway, Let Me Love You from Ne-Yo and Justin Bieber’s As Long As You Love Me. This is perhaps one of the most seamless mash-ups of the year, and is pulled off with aplomb by the entire group. What Is Love and As Long As You Love Me are smoothly and effortlessly worked into each other from the very beginning, and the strong start shows no signs of fading throughout the entire number. Ollie Hayes unleashes his gorgeous, smooth vocals on the Bieber section, which is far more pleasant to listen to than the original – as the new co-MD of the group, it seems they are in safe hands for the time being. The group capitalises on the anthemic nature of Bieber’s chorus by unleashing Hayes’ strong higher chest range and boosting it with some effective, if a little predictable, soprano harmonies. We only get a brief snippet of Ne-Yo, but once again, this addition is blended superbly with the other two numbers that it almost feels like one song rather than three – a hat tip to Brendan Macdonald for a superb, flowing and ultra-smooth arrangement which allowed the group to pull it off with such apparent ease.

The middle song, Robyn’s Dancing On My Own, has recently just reached number 8 on our countdown of the top 10 tracks of 2013, and sounds marvellous both live and on the album itself. The highlight is undoubtedly the solo from Ayanna Coleman, and, credit must go to Macdonald again, who doesn’t taint the talents of the soloist with too complex an arrangement, and expertly slows down the original, more dance-infused number into a more mellow ballad. The backing is so restrained that it washes over you with a calming sensation, and, for perhaps the first time in any Alleycat recording that I’ve listened to, it was very difficult to pick out any individual voice, such was the blend created throughout the number. (Credit is perhaps due to Matt Chinery and Liquid 5th, the production team on the album, for this). Coleman’s vocal performance is flawless throughout and brings that element of soul to the number which is inherent in any performance she gives. An enjoyable, pleasant and soothing middle number.

The final number, Shake It Out, led competently by Jill Wyman, Steph Bown and Tommy Rowe, is also fantastic, but for some reason I’m always left slightly underwhelmed after each listen. Don’t get me wrong, the trio of lead vocalists complement each others’ voices perfectly, and Rowe in particular on occasion has some compelling, refreshing and challenging harmonies, but the song doesn’t quite build to enough of a climax to make the journey through the song worthwhile. There doesn’t appear to be much range in volume: the group start loud and get slightly louder, and while the arrangement drops out in the more tender parts of the song, but the leads keep attacking the solo with the same energy and volume as before. The group also tend to use very similar vowel sounds in all their numbers, which can lead to this song almost verging into ‘going-through-the-motions’ territory. In spite of that, this is the number on the album which I enjoy listening to the most – it’s poppy, upbeat and conforms to much of what I love in a song – but I just feel with even just a small step a little further out of the group’s comfort zone, this track in particular could have turned a really good, solid number into an outstanding one.

If you like your a cappella easy on the ear and demonstrative of the array of talent inherent in this generation of The Alleycats, especially on lead vocals, then this is the album for you. It ticks all the boxes of a three-track a cappella EP – a flawless mash-up, a soulful and gloriously sung ballad, and a climactic clincher – but never gets close to thinking outside the box. The Alleycats have got classic contemporary a cappella sorted down to a tee – now’s the time to focus on pushing the boundaries a bit more.

Furplay is available to purchase and stream on Bandcamp and on the group’s official website.

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Best of British 2013: 8. Dancing On My Own

The Best of British 2013 is our unofficial countdown of the top ten UK a cappella tracks of the past year. Over the next few weeks leading up to the Christmas period, we will be counting down, from ten to one, what we believe have been the best tracks on show this year, ranging from awesome arrangements, sensational solos, marvellous mash-ups, punny parodies and everything in between.

Eligible Tracks

In order to determine which tracks were to be considered for this accolade, we decided to restrict our selections to songs that fell under ONE or BOTH of the following categories:
a) A song that made its live OR competitive debut since our last countdown commenced (Dec 2012 – Nov 2013)
b) A song that was featured on an album released since our last countdown commenced (Dec 2012 – Nov 2013)
Furthermore:
c) No tracks considered for last year’s countdown are eligible this year.
For example, although The Other Guys‘ Christmas was released in 2012, last year’s countdown started before the release of the album, so all the tracks on the album were eligible. On the flip side, although The Oxford Alternotives wowed with their rendition of Regina Spektor’s Samson at this year’s VF-UK, because it was released in album form in 2012, it was considered last year and therefore was ineligible this year.

The Process

We made a list of all the eligible songs from all the eligible groups, and then picked the top three tracks from each group, where possible. We then narrowed this shortlist down to 25, before picking our 10 favourite tracks. Opinions were divided, scores were combined, and in the end there was only one winner. But who will it be?

The countdown continues:

10. Semi-Toned – Knights of Cydonia
9. The Oxford Belles – This Is Titanium

8. The Alleycats – Dancing On My Own

Strolling in at number eight is the gorgeous ballad from The Alleycats, Robyn’s Dancing On My Own, which was the group’s middle song in this year Voice Festival UK competition and part of their recently released EP, Furplay. The song shows off what The Alleycats arguably do best these days – taking an originally more upbeat number and slowing it down, allowing the voice of the incredible soloist, in this case, Ayanna Coleman, to shine through. Last year, the group hit number 2 on our countdown with Titanium, and while this number hasn’t reached those dizzy heights this time around, it certainly had a similar impact on its début public performance – at the St Andrews Regional of the Voice Festival UK.

“As always with VF-UK numbers, it was accompanied by some pretty intense nervous energy, but in a way I think that helped,” said former MD of the group, Brendan Macdonald. “Because it has never been heard by anyone apart from ourselves within a rehearsal setting, those first performances can be a bit of an experiment, but it was received well and, of course, Ayanna was spectacular.” The origins of the arrangement are an indication of the group’s never-ending desire to look to the future. “During 2012’s Edinburgh Fringe Festival,” explains Annie Faichney, another graduated member of the group, “Robyn’s version of the song was playing in C Main all the time. Despite the fact we were focused on the Fringe run and the current setlist, everyone was still speculating as to how it would make a really good a cappella number, especially if it was slowed down further.” Macdonald was initially doubtful at the suggestion of the latter, feeling the impact of the power-ballad would be lost with the removal of some of the tempo in the song. “However, when the new aca-year rolled around, Annie showed me Robyn’s acoustic version of the song, and it was just perfect – so I went right ahead with the arrangement.”

Macdonald credits another ex-Cat as a source of inspiration for this and many of his arrangements – Lizzy Weintz. “Lizzy was seemingly an expert at taking faster numbers and slowing them down, and as such this has become almost an Alleycat tradition. I also took inspiration from some of Out of the Blue’s older stuff, specifically Cold Water [which featured on BOCA 2008], a number which focused specifically on the solo while being simplistic yet effective in its execution.” On the subject of the solo, Macdonald confirms that Ayanna was always at the top of his list: “Ayanna was definitely in mind when arranging this number, and the arrangement is built to highlight her strength as a soloist and a performer. We knew that she would absolutely nail the song, and bring the power into the song that it might have lost from slowing it down.” However, he adds that she is not the only one to have blown audiences away on lead vocals over the year. “Melissa [Wilkie] deputised for Ayanna for a few nights during this year’s Edinburgh Fringe and absolutely nailed it as well!”

Faichney believes the song’s success works on two levels: “While our slowed-down version initially sounds like a heart-wrenching ballad, when you listen to the lyrics it becomes clear that really it’s all about empowerment, and how great it feels to rise above that awful feeling. Ultimately the song’s effectiveness is in its universal familiarity – it definitely portrays a feeling we can all relate to at some ungodly hour in a nightclub!”

In terms of legacy, Faichney is unsure if the song will be handed down from litter to litter: “The arrangement was specifically written for the 2012/13 litter, and as such I think it really reverberated as the sound of that year. It was definitely one of our favourites from the year, as it’s a relatively simple number to perform but so enjoyable and always garners a brilliant reaction from any crowd. But because it was so special and unique to last year’s group, I don’t know how it will develop in the new group – I guess that’s up to them to decide!”

So, the hard-hitting Dancing On My Own ballad, complete with stunning solo, makes number 8 on this year’s list. It’s going to take some beating to top that! Who will be at number 7? Stay tuned…

You can buy The Alleycats brand new EP, which includes this track, on Bandcamp.