A Cappella. No Instruments. So what?! (or Why Sonos Didn’t Deserve to Leave)

I had actually planned to write my first substantive post on the original subject line, and I’ll stick to that for the most part. But I did find it interesting that what happened on the The Sing Off last night ties into my thoughts on this thread.

Ok, so I have already demonstrated that I am a huge a cappella nerd (see existence of blog). And much of my family and friends have often tolerated my extreme interest in this genre, attending my performances, listening to House Jacks songs over and over (“this will blow your mind! again!”). But I do have a few friends or family members, as well as acquaintances, whose general reaction is: so what? What this typically stems from is the idea, which is understandable, that if they wanted to hear Lady Gaga or Coldplay, they would simply listen to the original.

Over time, I have come up with a few reasons why I think a cappella music is so intriguing to so many of us in the “tribe,” and a few ideas about what can/does draw the skeptical folks in more.

First of all, there is no question that the human voice has a unique power to the human ear. It is entirely natural, compelling, and powerful. It is why chant (gregorian et al) came first, and it is why American Idol is so successful today. It is, unfortunately, to some extent, why some classical music and jazz are far receding into the background of American culture. Whether or not you agree with the latter thought, the point is this: a human voice alone is compelling. Add a few more in simple harmony, and if they are locked in tight enough and you get the joy of overtones, it is chilling.

Ok, these skeptics say, but why would I want to hear a pop or rock song done a cappella when I love the original?

My attitude about the response to this question has developed over the years.  When I was in college, the answer was: “It’s fun! We add a little kooky choreography, a few fun syllables, and we make the song our own!”  But I don’t believe that is enough anymore. In fact, I listen to an AWFUL lot of a cappella music which nowadays makes me think: meh. Ok, it’s fine, but I’m not sure if I would put this on over the original version.

The shift started, however, when I started listening to The House Jacks, the first true vocal band. I saw them perform in the late 90’s, and they did a cover of U2’s Mysterious Ways with then-bass Bert Bacco on the solo. Wow, do I wish I could find a copy of that online today. Now, I am a big U2 fan, and at first it seemed a bit like heresy. But as I started to get into the groove of a real bass singing the solo, the vibe of the song started to suck me in, and before I knew it, I couldn’t quite get it out of my head. Even more so than the original.

The same type of feelings hit me when I listened to the first album by Sonos, Sonosings. They took songs which I already liked, and made them better. They reinvented the songs in new ways which sometimes, in my mind, surpassed the original in terms of intrigue, passion, or just pure beauty.  This is their gift- the ability to do this with popular songs. And they do it really, really well. So it really bothered me on The Sing Off last night when the judges essentially booted them off because they did not like the reimagination of the Jackson 5 classic “I Want You Back.” Now I will be the first to admit that I absolutely love their version of that song on the album. The bass line is one of the most infectuous in modern a cappella, the sinewy and sultry approach arrangement is creepy, dark, almost stalker-ish, and yet with the lyrics, it works unbelievably well.

I think it was clear from Ben and Shawn in particular that they simply felt you cannot “touch” a song as masterful as the original, as if it is a sacred cow. The problem is twofold. First of all, all music should be reinvention, since all music has been done before. To say that in a show about a cappella music, which is essentially (and completely on The Sing Off) about reinventing instrumental or popular music, is disingenuous at best. But the second problem is that it was hypocritical even within the judges’ comments last night. At least two other acts were praised for “making a song their own,” or putting their own interpretation into the song. If Ben and Shawn had indicated that the Sonos song was simply poorly performed, I could accept that. There is no question that what the judges hear in the hall is significantly different from what we are hearing on television. But for them to tear it apart because they didn’t agree with the interpretation was really unfair.

I have to also note that the producers did not do Sonos any favors by cutting the video clips together to repeatedly harp on the group’s discomfort about the lack of their effects pedals. I think that set an unfair tone to each performance, making it seem like Sonos was not cut out to do this show, and were struggling to find themselves. And perhaps they were, though it more likely had to do with them losing a male voice, Paul, back in December. In any event, the judges really harped on this throughout, rather than focusing on the tight, dissonant chords which make up Sonos’ style.

I saw a critique online earlier today which said that Sonos made a mistake in competing at all without their pedals, and without adapting their style to something more accessible. I completely disagree. Their style of sultry, dissonant, dark covers is their identity…it may not be everyone’s taste, but it is hard to say that musically, they did not perform better than at least 2 other groups last night.

And that brings me full circle. The Deltones, a mixed group from University of Delaware. They were not bad…but to me, they were like virtually every other mixed college group. Fairly bland arrangements, both harmonically and stylistically, and nothing really interesting which would make me choose that song over the original. The Collective, on the other hand, tried to bring their own style. I just thought they were very mediocre at it. The blend was shaky, the rhythm section was shaky, and I wasn’t blown away by any aspect of their performance.

I think it is difficult to say that Sonos performed worse than them, and the judges appeared to really like the Sonos version of the Coldplay song. They simply disagreed with the interpretation of I Want You Back, and penalized Sonos badly for it. This did a disservice to the show, I believe, and to those groups who try to forge their own identity like Sonos.

I have more to say about the answer for why a cappella can surpass the original, but it will have to wait since I felt the need to talk about last night’s development.

For what it’s worth, if you listen to the 2 terrific albums by Sonos, I think you’ll agree that they do their own thing, they do it really well, and they are immensely talented. I hope, for the judges’ sake, that a single group which advances in The Sing Off is able to produce one such album.


  1. OwensJO (@OwensJO)   •  

    I totally agree on your take on Sonos and their undue removal from the show. I think you hit it on the head with the producers “leading the witness.” Now, I also love their arrangement of the J5 song, maybe better than the original. It brings out a different color to the song, maybe more in line with the message of the text than the original, even. Of course the original is fun and an all time classic, but the reimagining of this tune is intelligent and thoughtful.
    I did, however think that they did not sing it as well as they could have. We as listeners DO miss the inner voice, and maybe as a result that’s why their intonation struggled…. a little bit. Certainly not poor enough to remove them from the show this early in the game. It was clear the judges didn’t love them after last weeks performance. Even their compliments were muted.
    I think you hit upon a good point with the sound differential between live in the studio and over the air. From a purely physical viewpoint, we catch a LOT of direct voice into near field microphone, and not so much ambient wide field. The edges must be smoother as the audience gets a chance to hear all of the different sound sources in real life.

    Also, in regards to the judges comments in re: the different arrangements… There is quite a bit of commercialism involved. It IS a network show, and Sony wants to make money off of the group. The arrangements that have been received positively have been ones that the groups “make their own” but while the groups are still coloring within the lines. Remember Back to The Future after Marty’s guitar solo? “I guess you folks aren’t ready for that yet… But your kids are going to love it.”

    The need for mass marketability and Nick Lachey are the prices you pay for having a cappella on a major network and Prime Time.

    So, I like your blog, and not because I agree with the points you make. It’s written intelligently, with substance. I look forward to reading more!

    ~Joe Owens

    • Dave Bernstein   •  

      Joe- Thanks for the comments. I agree with you that Sonos did not sing the song as well as they could have, and I think the point was made to a certain extent by the Sinnng blog here:

      Basically, if you are familiar with Sonos from outside The Sing Off, then you know the song I Want You Back as you have heard/seen them perform it before. And the performance on The Sing Off was certainly NOT that version, as it was lacking not only pedals, but one (or more) vocal parts. So, I do agree with you that they did not sing it as well as they have (and could have), and I agree that as listeners we miss that inner voice. I think it is also true that the grooving bassline of the original was far less present on the TV performance.

      Please note- I disagree with many of the other contentions made in that Sinnng blog. While it is true that Sonos is a group which has relied upon pedals in formulating their sound, I do not think that should have been a reason to preclude them from appearing as contestants on The Sing Off. They are, first and foremost, an a cappella group. A very talented one at that. I cannot imagine why any group of talented singers who are able to perform a cappella would be considered “arrogant” for trying to compete on a show like this even without their standard accessories. In fact, I think it was brave for them to take a shot without the tools which they typically require, and I would bet that they spent quite a lot of time learning to sing together as a group before they ever added pedals to their repertoire. Plus, if you read the comments on that blog, apparently Chris from Sonos admitted that when they auditioned for the show, they were permitted to use their pedals and it was the network which created the restriction after the fact.

      ANYWAY, I totally agree with what you are saying about the differences between catching direct voice on tv and the room sound in studio. And, as I said before, if the judges had critiqued Sonos for their performance, that would be more understandable. But the main criticisms after I Want You Back seemed to be about interpretation of the song, not the performance.
      I like what you said about how the judges praised groups making songs their own while “coloring within the lines,” and the Back to the Future quote was dead on. But I would note that Ben seemed to compliment Ben McClain (Sonos VP) for having futuristic sounds, and complimented Pentatonix for a similar approach. So, I don’t know… there seemed to be some hypocrisy going on, and I think the judges just flat out didn’t enjoy Sonos’ style.

      I will admit, regarding mass marketability, that it could potentially be harder to sell out an album of moody, dark covers than one full of upbeat dance/club songs (like we could probably expect from Pentatonix). But from everything I’ve read, it is truly the judges who make the decision, not the label or the producers.

      Thanks for the comments!

  2. nza   •  

    Very informative and insightful. Keep writing. You bring a cappella to life!

What do you think?