Few recent trends exhibit pop music's ongoing campaign of self-cannibalization more distinctly than the cottage industry of ironic cover bands. The concept is sound: Take a well-worn tract like Dark Side of the Moon or OK Computer (pound it, Easy Star All-Stars) and run it through the pedalboard of multiculturalism, so that the end result maintains a level of familiarity while offering enough novelty to appeal to both classic rock fans and jaded hipster intelligentsia. The Vitamin Records label has met with considerable success in recent years by offering string quartet tributes to artists that bridge the gap between mainstream and underground, including Nirvana, Radiohead, Tool, and the Pixies; Rockabye Baby! Records has carved out a similar niche with artist-specific albums of lullaby covers. Elsewhere on the map lie novelty bands of the Hayseed Dixie and Dread Zeppelin variety, with Christopher O'Riley's solo piano explorations taking up residence somewhere in the vicinity of the Gary Jules cover of "Mad World". One of the more unique musicians to have joined the fray is Petra Haden, whose brilliantly arranged solo a cappella renditions of such chestnuts as "God Only Knows" and "Don't Stop Believin'" (along with an extraordinary reimagining of The Who Sell Out) have provided a timeless twist on songs that by all rights should have been clobbered to death by mainstream radio a long time ago.
Enter into this sub-subterranean enclave another a cappella act, this one a sextet of collegiate choral kids who go by the collective handle of Sonos. The gimmick herein is all kinds of clever: Marry the vocal charm of Petra Haden with the sonic innovation of the Vitamin String Quartet, then apply it to the current crop of Pitchfork darlings and package it as the middle ground between Starbucks and Amoeba. It is a concept almost too savvy to work, but it succeeds in every way, by virtue of the sheer talent of the assembled singers and the ingenuity of their arrangements. Throughout its relatively brief running time, Sonos's eponymous debut manages the daunting task of transforming already stellar material into something equally great, while remaining altogether original.
The album begins with a single voice. The first few bars of opener "White Winter Hymnal" actually bear a striking resemblance to those of "Mining For Gold", the ghostly first track of the Cowboy Junkies masterpiece The Trinity Session, but around the 23-second mark, Jessica Freedman's lilting soprano melts into a three-part harmony, and the Fleet Foxes' Celtic-tinged folk pop is transformed into a sunburst of delicately interwoven melodies. Radiohead's "Everything In Its Right Place" is given no less stunning a treatment, with each singer being fed through at least one effects filter in an attempt to match the sonic extravagance of the source material. The stylistic leap isn't at all jarring; in fact, the contrast between the two tracks helps to define the scope and ambition of Sonos's debut. From the R&B-tinged interpretation of Björk's boreal epic "Jóga" to the weightless shiver of Sara Bareilles's "Gravity", the album as a whole heralds a new frontier in vocal music, a revitalization of classical techniques by way of studio wizardry. Ben McLain's awe-inspiring beatboxing in particular steals the spotlight on several tracks, swapping spit with what sounds like an MPC sampler and cranking out whirr-click fast enough to make your head spin.
Sonos is already blazing up the indie rock charts in L.A., and their upcoming appearance at SXSW is sure to provide ample momentum for their first tour, which kicks off in April. The album itself drops on March 31st, and I suggest you rush out and buy it before everyone else at the coffee shop gets to it first. It won't be long, mark my words—time has come for revenge of the chorus nerds. B+
RIYL: Petra Haden, Pitchfork.com, barbershop