Tonic Sol-Fa has released, pardon my French, a crapload of Christmas albums through the years. From "Sugarue" on up through 2011's "March Of The Kings" and beyond. And Christmas music suits them so well, they don't always wait for a Christmas album, which is to say that you can find holiday tunes scattered throughout their non-holiday releases. The group's latest is a modest 5 song EP, "30K" (released September 1).
It can be difficult and unfair to compare all these a cappella groups. But I think what sets Tonic Sol-Fa apart are their arrangements. Don't get me wrong, any a cappella arrangement is, almost by definition, pretty amazing. But Tonic Sol-Fa can be very adventurous with their arrangements, re-imagining songs so that they are something completely new and different and yet still comfortably familiar. "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas" from "30K" is a perfect example of this. It's almost the inverse of the original melody. The song goes low and they go high (thank you, Michelle); the song goes high, they go low. What that does is expose a different and amazing melody that was always there, but which only your sub conscious ever got to enjoy. No wonder its a standard. All that aside, its just a beautiful sound from Tonic Sol-Fa--definitely cuddle worthy.
In the hands of Tonic Sol-Fa, "Santa Claus Is Coming To Town" is Uptown Funk, complete with a Rap. Its a little bit Ohio Players and a little bit Kool & The Gang (with just the slightest hint of Rufus). While "Sleigh Ride" has its share of R&B elements, too, as well as some fairly sophisticated Jazz touches, its much more modern Pop. Once again, the arrangement gives the song an entirely new sound that's as exhilarating as the smell of fresh cut pine. Both "Santa Claus Is Coming To Town" and "Sleigh Ride" appeared on last year's "Original", but the band was utilizing a light percussive track on that record. On "30K", the songs are performed in pure a cappella.
"I Wonder As I Wander" is nothing short of epic. One of my favorite songs in recent years, "I Wonder As I Wander" is usually delivered in a contemplative, if somewhat dour, tempo. Tonic Sol-Fa start out in a mid-to-up tempo and just keep building from there. It keeps punching it and punching it, hitting harder and harder. They give the song a kind of Gospel desperation, which totally fits. (Again, I know my analogies can be a bit off the wall, but it reminded me a bit of one of the last scenes in the film "Hair" when Treat Williams is marching off to war in John Savage's place and he's singing "Manchester England"; there's just so much emotion in that moment--a lot of it in conflict with itself). And, as they were driving that sucker home, I'm thinking to myself, "Who works this hard on a cover of an old Christmas song?"
That leaves "All Your Favorite Bands", which lies snugly in the middle of the disc. This, you might have guessed, is a cover of the Dawes song. Tonic Sol-Fa do a faithful and straight forward cover (just, you know, without instruments). And to say the song's connection to the holidays is tenuous would be pushing it. Yet in the context of a Christmas EP, it does serve a bit as a modern day "Auld Lang Syne". Yeah, I could see that. I mean, heck, "Wonderful World" is blatantly a spring song and that's becoming a frequent Christmas album cover.
OK, so what's with the title of this holiday EP--"30K"? I did ask. Here's what I was told. 1) There's no great story behind it and they give a different answer pretty much any time anyone asks, and 2) since I asked, the answer they gave me was that, if people do an alphabetical search, numbers come up first. Which, you know, is almost believable. The Beau Brummels were so named so that their albums would come immediately behind the Beatles (beat...beau) and one of the reasons the Animals were the Animals was to get their albums in front of the Beatles. True story. But I'm not buying it and, anyway, now that they've used that answer, they'll probably tell the next guy something else.
All in all, "30K" is an excellent listen. At 5 songs, it mostly sounds like "more". But fear not, because there is, in fact, plenty more Tonic Sol-Fa Christmas music to enjoy. They do a mean "Grinch", their song "Sno" is an award winner, and if you happen to have a Christmas song you're not especially fond of, odds are Tonic Sol-Fa did a version of it that you might actually love. "30K" is easy on the budget, too (always a plus). You might want to sign on to the mailing list; as an independent group there isn't anyone else gonna tell you about the next album or TV appearance. And don't forget to check the Holiday Tour dates.
P.S. Want something fun for your Halloween mixtape? How bout a Tonic Sol-Fa cover of "Scooby Doo, Where Are You?" Yeah, they would've gotten away with it, too, if it hadn't been for those meddling kids. You'll find it on the album "Style" and remixes on a few others.