After a total of 4 performances from each group that competed Monday night, I think we have reached a point where we can begin to sort what we have left on this season into a few categories. Before I do so, however, I just want to make it clear that I have infinite respect for every group that has competed. As Christopher Diaz noted on the Mouth Off podcast a few weeks ago, singing a cappella is HARD. Getting a group of five or fifteen individual voices to blend despite differences in timbre, intonation, power/strength, and intelligence (yes, I think a singer’s voice, or at least his use of that voice, has intelligence) is HARD. Getting a group of five or fifteen individual people to learn an arrangement, learn choreography, and learn how to PERFORM (smile, exude confidence, project the voice, etc.) is HARD. Anyone who has performed a cappella music and worked at it knows as much, and for that reason I have total respect for all of the competitors.
So I want to be clear that any comments or criticisms I make (or anything perceived as such) come purely from the perspective of this show as a competition. I am sure that many if not all of the individuals in these groups are great people, hard workers, and talented singers. I am simply weighing in here on my views about the show as a competition.
That being said, I welcome opposing opinions and criticisms– put ’em in the comments below, or shout ’em out on Twitter @acatribe.
This post is also available at sin3g.com
So, let’s move on with the categories.
Pentatonix– these guys have been consistently great, if not excellent. One of their many strengths is their rhythm section, with equally solid performances on bass and VP. I believe that all of the best groups in this competition and really the best vocal bands or a cappella groups in the world owe a great deal to the strength of their respective rhythm sections, and these guys are no exception. Perhaps even more importantly, Pentatonix have been smart with song selection AND arrangement choices. I will have an upcoming post on song selection for a cappella groups, but I think Pentatonix has done a nice job of choosing songs which are identifiable, upbeat, but also showcase their particular skills and strengths. As far as their arrangements go, they recognize their limitations with a 5-person group that includes 2 on the drums/bass and 1 on solo, and they have made choices on the inner voices which were smart and satisfying. For the most part, you never find yourself thinking “I wish they had another baritone,” though it would undoubtedly help them out. Finally, they have their own niche sound. If you listened to all the groups blindly, you would easily know which group was Pentatonix. Add in some bold choices with the scratching and other vocal effects, and I think you’re looking at a favorite to win it all.
Afro Blue– another example of a group whose biggest strength might just be the rhythm section. From their very first performance, I found myself really enjoying their smooth basslines. While it is a very different type of bass/VP from Pentatonix, these guys do a terrific job of locating one of the real keys to a successful rhythm section. Specifically, they know that a bassline has to not just groove with the drums, it has to syncopate with it. In other words, the best rhythm sections in most popular genres are those where the bassline locks in with the drums, sometimes literally. A bassline which really pops is one where emphasized notes match up cleanly with the kick drum hits (or sounds), and Afro Blue does that really well. They know how to find and sit in “the pocket.” They also have have a different timbre or color to their voices which is not only unique in this competition, but very pleasing to the ear. They don’t sound like they are trying to blast their way through anything, they sound relaxed, and they sound and look confident. Like Pentatonix, they are smart about their arrangements, showing off more consistently interesting arrangements than any other group on the show. Most importantly, even when they are “off” their game a little, the sound is not bad or awkward– just a little less than perfect. Finally, the fact that they look like they are having so much fun provides a contagious energy which intrigues the viewer. I just don’t know if a college group can win it all.
IN THE HUNT
Urban Method– As one of the 4 groups with its own real niche sound, I would think Urban Method has a real shot at winning the whole competition. Their rapper Myke has a great flow, and the VP is generally powerful and driving. The bassline is also powerful, though I’m not always convinced it is in the pocket as much as some of the other groups. At first glance, these guys are superstars. They have personality, they have what seems like a raw energy in their performances, and yet… this is ultimately an a cappella competition, and there are some serious pitch problems and intonation problems with the backs occasionally. If you remove the rhythm section, solo, and rap, you are left with some voices that have seemed, at times, shaky and not at all locked in. I think this is a problem which could be solved by some different choices in voicing the parts or perhaps syllables, but they’d better fix it soon because otherwise I don’t know how they’ll compete with Afro Blue or Pentatonix.
Vocal Point– these guys do an awful lot of things really well. Energy? Crank it to 11. Personality? Undoubtedly. Arrangements? Interesting, with an impressive use of moving parts for a group of 9 or 10 guys. Solos? Very solid. Rhythm section? While not as great as the top two, I think they have a good grasp on letting rhythm drive the group. Tuning? Consistently tight. They do jazz (swing and big band) well, and last night they did a pretty solid job with Kenny Loggins. I think they have to be considered serious contenders, though I feel that there is some intangible quality which they might be a little short on which keeps them in this category and not the top grouping. And of course, they are a college group (so is Afro Blue, I know) which some would say precludes any possibility of their winning it all.
Delilah– I have to say, I was blown away by their first performance. It was powerful, engaging, and just REALLY well-done. And unfortunately, it reached a level which they have failed to duplicate in their subsequent performances. With “What Do You Want From Me,” they came close, but in their last 2 performances, they’ve had some weak moments with intonation, they’ve had some unintentional breakdowns (or awkward moments musically), and they’ve looked a little less confident. I expected them to really thrive on Flashdance (I don’t know why), and I was really underwhelmed. There is no question these women are TREMENDOUS vocalists- they are a powerhouse group of soloists with a solid rhythm section. And yet…they only achieved that excellent balance of blend and emotion once. I want these women to do well, I expect it each time out, and I think the judges really like the potential that they bring with such talented members. But Monday night, as Ben referenced, there were some weaknesses in the arrangement which emphasized some of their flaws. There’s no question that they were bold in their decision to go with an all female group and with their subsequent choices, and I think the judges will reward them for those choices up to a point. But they will need to get stronger each week to hang around, and Monday night might have been their weakest performance thus far.
DEAD GROUPS WALKING (OR DANCING)
First let me just note that I think the Top 8, which includes these 3 groups, is generally at a pretty high level. I don’t think any of these groups were bad, and each has had a few great moments. I just don’t see any of these 3 making it beyond the next few weeks. And perhaps the biggest part of the problem with The Aires and The Yellowjackets is that they cancel each other out a little. I feel that Vocal Point’s musicality and consistency distinguish them from the other 2 remaining male collegiate groups, and that’s why they are bumped up a little bit in my eyes.
The Aires– Energy, energy, and energy… they have it visually, they have it in their sound. But if you listen through their songs without watching, that energy only gets you so far. Even in Pinball Wizard, arguably their strongest performance, you notice problems with transitions and pitch problems from oversinging. They have some great voices, and the arrangements are exciting and fresh in some moments, and pedestrian in others. Coming from a background of male a cappella groups, I love what these guys do and I know how hard it is to get that many guys that energetic. But, I’ve also seen quite a few college groups perform at least in the same vicinity musically, and I just don’t think they distinguish themselves enough to win it all.
The Collective-Hmm… I think this group proves that a collection of singers, no matter how great, does not necessarily translate into success as an a cappella group. Since their first performance, I felt this group struggled with pitch, blend, intonation, and rhythm. On the plus side, their performance Monday night was better in most of these areas. I don’t doubt that these folks could develop into a very good a cappella group, but I still don’t feel that they *get* what singing a cappella is all about (see my previous posts). In other words, I think singing a cappella is something that hinges entirely on group dynamic and chemistry, selflessness, and listening. So far, I have felt nervous each time this group performed, as if they were about to head right over the edge of a cliff. If it wasn’t one flaw, it was another. I Will Survive generally did not feel that way. Perhaps one problem they face may in fact be their membership or instrumentation. In other words, as Warren Bloom noted on his CASA blog (http://www.casa.org/content/5th-judge-sing-episode-3-5-oct-17-top-10-1st-hour), it seems like they have an abundance of baritones with few or no real tenors. As a result, the backs on many of their songs are muddy. They have a rhythm section, solo, a woman not singing solo, and a whole lot of mid-range male voice. I just don’t see them developing enough as an a cappella group, musically, for them to win it all.
The Yellowjackets– Another all-male college group with high energy, tons of members, and a lot of potential. As with The Aires, these guys represent a very high level of showmanship, draped over a very typical level of male collegiate group musicality. This is not to say that they are bad- far from it- but rather that if the Beelzebubs didn’t win in Season 1, and On the Rocks couldn’t go the distance in Season 2, I’m not sure what would make these guys any better. I thought they did a great job with their vocal horns in “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You,” maybe the best vocal horns in the competition. On the flip side, I felt that their performance of the Spice Girls tune last night was, while fun and energetic, a bit grating and shticky. The sound was clean, but I found some of their performance choices irritating and awkward. Energy can only take you so far in a competition like this, and where there are some groups with very unique attributes, I just don’t see the Yellowjackets going much further.
So, that’s my summary of the remaining groups. If I had to guess, I’d say the final 3 will be Pentatonix, Afro Blue, and Urban Method, but I wouldn’t be shocked if Delilah or Vocal Point beat out the pioneers of rapapella (I really think hiphopapella is more fun to say).
I could be completely wrong, but these are my opinions.
You can check out some other blogs about The Sing Off at:
5th Judge at CASA