The Sing Off- The Strong Get Stronger (Ep. 6)

Ok, so last week I stated that I believed the Yellowjackets, the Collective, and the Aires were the bottom 3 groups in this competition, and I don’t believe anything changed my mind this week. I do believe, however, that the middle 3 groups from my post last week– Delilah, Vocal Point, and Urban Method– offered very impressive performances which might suggest they are closer to winning this than I previously thought. I say “might,” however, because both of the groups I tabbed as favorites– Pentatonix and Afro Blue– just killed their performances this week.

I’m not sure I’ll get a post based on the Sing Off up every week (I actually intended for this blog to be relatively light on the Sing Off, but since I’ve been getting feedback and request for analysis, I’ll keep it going for now), but I will do it when possible. I would also like to note that there are some really troubling signs for Sing Off fans in the ratings from this past episode. I still don’t understand why NBC chose to put this up against Monday Night Football, How I Met Your Mother/Two and a Half Men, the baseball postseason, and Dancing with the Stars. I believe the smarter move would have been to put it up against a night where the other channels are heavier with drama, as the Sing Off offers a lighter alternative to those who don’t wish to watch cops, dead bodies, and/or lawyers. But by going up against Dancing with the Stars, you are asking the people who might otherwise watch the Sing Off to choose between watching Chaz Bono dance or watching a bunch of people they don’t know sing a cappella. Obviously, most of those people are choosing the Dancing C-lebrities.

You can also read this post at Sin3g by clicking here!

Anyway, here are my thoughts on the performances this week, with one general comment.  I tend to agree with Tom Anderson, who tweeted on Monday night that there is not a whole lot of value in forcing groups to perform a song from a genre which they would otherwise never draw upon.  On ’60’s night, the groups can try to find a song which fits them, but many of these groups really can’t do that with a “hip hop” song.  I understand the curiosity in seeing how flexible these groups are, and I understand that hip hop is a massive presence in pop culture which must be accounted for on a national broadcast, but I generally disagree with the need to see it from every group.  To their credit, I think the judges allowed sufficient flexibility in the performance of “hip hop” tunes (I put those in quotations because at least one group performed a song which really was not hip hop as I view it) and definitely did not eliminate a group because of their failure to adequately adapt.  In other words, I think the judges eliminated based on a deeper, more systemic problem with the group that left than just their weakness at performing hip hop.  That being said, here are my thoughts on the groups in their performing order:

The Aires– This has to be one of the more puzzling performances to me, and I don’t mean that in a bad way. Early on, the song seemed to be building momentum and I thought it was really promising.  Then the tenors struggled with pitch through the first verse, and I was turned off. Suddenly, the group showed some great dynamic range and i was drawn in again.  There was some more weirdness in the backs, and then all of a sudden– a killer breakdown! And then, before they could get to the end, some of the voices dropped out for breaths or something and the pitch went weird again, followed by some cool cascading chords to finish it. I don’t know…this performance showed some great talent, but also some real problems with pitch and inconsistency. They did a nice job with dynamics, and that is difficult with that many members. In fact, one of my biggest problems with them and the Yellowjackets to this point has been how *shouty* they seemed. But I thought this performance had some really good moments, and some really shaky ones.

Afro Blue– Wow. I think this performance demonstrates why all the music nerds who watch this show probably would label Afro Blue the most talented and impressive group in a heartbeat (and I say music nerds affectionately, since it includes myself and many people I respect and love). To fully unpack the performance these guys offered, I would have to talk about jazzy concepts like ii-V-I turnaround (thanks, Warren Bloom!) and cluster tones and who knows what else. And I’m not really gonna do that. Here’s what I will say– these guys understand shape and structure of a song really well, and they understand their own strengths even better. I absolutely loved the first verse with just solo and VP, followed by some nice trios and then the bassline dropping in. As the judges noted (and I’ve said before), their bass is so crucial to what they do, and they know it and exploit it in just the right ways. As usual, the group had energy and joy, and they introduced some unbelievably tasty chord progressions towards the end. I think people on the interwebs who say they should have been eliminated are either (1) insane (2) tone deaf or (3) unable to appreciate the very complex things which Afro Blue make sound easy. Perhaps I should have led with that last one, because it sounds the nicest, but I’ll leave it where it is for now. :-)

The Collective– I know I may have seemed a bit harsh on these guys before, and the truth is that I respect them tremendously for making it this far with a bunch of non-a cappella singers. And while this was not one of their worst performances, I think they demonstrated some of the same problems which I have talked about before. Mostly, the tempo moved a lot and the backs suffered from pitch problems at times. I realize these guys were outside their comfort zone, but so were almost every other group. And whereas Afro Blue turned a song which was “hip hop” into a jazzy fusion with R&B, it seemed to me that the Collective just tried to cover a hip hop tune without using their strengths to make it something different. The “big choral blast” which Ben Folds mentioned is obviously easier for a group with no a cappella experience than the nuances of background oohs, ahs, and more challenging moving lines underneath it all. I think the performance was ok, but on a night where so many groups brought their best stuff, that just didn’t cut it.

Vocal Point– Ok, so this is it. A group that acknowledged from the beginning that it simply couldn’t pull off hip hop, at least as we understand that term. Instead of trying to force the issue, Vocal Point took a hip hop remake of a song which was originally a melodic rock tune (The Police) and added their own new melody. I think by most conventional standards, the song they performed was not a “hip hop” song, though of course it was based upon one. But the group was smart in putting an emotional spin on a song which was an emotional remake of an emotional original. Is that too convoluted? Perhaps. The point is this- they were clearly invested in the performance emotionally, and it paid dividends.  I won’t note the hypocrisy of Shawn praising them for “taking a song and making it your own” (again, see my Sonos rant) but I think in this context it is true that they really did something different and it paid off for the most part. Had they tried to do an imitation of the original, or picked another hip hop song which was based on factors which they really are unable to utilize, I think it would not have done them justice. Now, a few thoughts on the musicality rather than just the song choice. I didn’t really love the arrangement. I mean, there were some really nice colors that they explored at times, but I also felt there were some intonation issues. In some ways, this was the most conservative or traditional they have been, and that may be a more effective way to express emotion and to emphasize the new melody. But… this was the weakest they have been dynamically, and it just didn’t feel like there was a lot of shape, in my opinion. I felt, despite the touching tribute, that it was one of their weaker performances musically.

Judges decision: Yes, the Collective was the weakest of these 4 groups for the reasons mentioned previously.

Urban Method– crickets– how can you not enjoy a song that starts with a solid cricket sound? Obviously this week’s theme is right in Urban Method’s wheelhouse and it should be their night to shine. And they did– sort of. I think, with the exception of the Sly and the Family Stone tune, this might have been their strongest performance. But as with their prior performances, I think the real strength of the group was the VP and bass (very very solid) and the rap (his best performance– he was completely energized). And, as with their past performances, the backs were troubling. I listened to this with headphones on a few times, trying desperately to hear what was going on underneath the rhythm and rap. I don’t think the biggest problems with the backs was pitch this time so much as energy. It may be that the energy of the rap and the rhythm section was SO solid that it really emphasized the drop off with the female backs in particular, or it may be that they were really just not invested in the performance. Either way, the lack of energy in the backs was pretty stark, except for the final few seconds.

Pentatonix– in the video package beforehand, the group expressed doubts about their ability to pull off a genre which is so far outside their comfort zone. And, as they have done before, they took the song and not only made it their own, they killed it. The bass and VP groove was, as always with them, very tight. In fact, I think they are up there with Urban Method for doing the best job of the night at really producing a hip hop groove that made you want to move your body. It may have been even better than Urban Method’s performance in that regard. As usual, they did a great job of putting together an arrangement that emphasized their strengths and minimized their only real weakness, which is just the absence of more voices. I can hardly imagine how full they could sound with one or two more voices in the background, but their choices of arrangement never allow you to think that way.  Again, Shawn praised a group for being “risk takers” (SONOS!), and I would argue that because the group has SUCH a solid rhythm section, hip hop might not be AS far outside of their comfort zone as they suggested. I mean, their rhythm section always has groove, and after seeing that performance, I could see them doing a variety of hip hop or R&B songs if they really wanted to. I don’t think they necessarily should, nor do i think they want to, but they really could pull it off, and that is important for this competition.  Anyway, the biggest difference between them and a group like Urban Method is that in addition to the solid rhythm and solo, their backs sound energetic, in tune, and never detract from the rest of the performance.  This was yet another performance that I could see myself listening to in the car, at the gym, or whenever, and that is something which they have accomplished with nearly every song in the competition.

Delilah– Well, I said it last week, this group has the potential to win it all but they need to elevate their game to a higher level just to hang around, and boy did they do it this show. I thought this was their best performance since Grenade (Wk 1), and yet for entirely different reasons. The arrangement was super-smart, allowing them to show off not only their powerhouse soloists but some really sweet, lush blend. It started simple, with a few flourishes, and built gradually. First the bass came in and the main pattern in the backs changed, and then the VP came in and gave the song real momentum. Nobody can doubt that these ladies have ridiculous solo voices, but this arrangement allowed them to show off their chops as an a cappella group. The song had shape and dynamics, it was haunting, stunning. If they can do that a few more times, they’ll find themselves in the Finals (or they should).

The Yellowjackets– Here we are with another all-male group that is uncomfortable performing hip hop. It shouldn’t really be surprising, as hip hop is generally one genre which is very poorly represented not only in college a cappella, but in all of a cappella. So I don’t blame these guys for struggling, but I do think they failed in their task to at least put their own stamp on a hip hop song. The bigger problem, though, is that while these guys can sing, they shouldn’t always SING!. What I mean is that when you have a group of all men, and you’re performing on television, I’m sure the adrenaline is really pumping. Nevertheless, you have to think about things like dynamic and shape, and the first word which jumped out to me was “SHOUTY!!!!!!” They had energy, and that’s good, but their numbers advantage means they can put a whole lot of sound out there to overwhelm the audience. Unfortunately, the audience doesn’t always want just a whole lot of sound– you have to have provide contour,  and context or else the song gets very boring very quickly.

Judges decision: Again, they got it right in naming the Yellowjackets the bottom group from this group.

As for the little “sing off” at the end, I think both groups did a passable job with the song. I enjoyed the Yellowjackets harmonic choices a little bit more, I thought they made a decision to play it straight-forward except for a few surprising and pleasing chords near the end, and I think that decision paid off. Ultimately, it probably only saved them for a week or two, because I still believe that the Yellowjackets and the Aires are the next two groups to go home in some order.

I think the most important thing to take out of this week’s show is that these groups are clearly growing as the competition goes on. In my opinion, the performances by Afro Blue, Pentatonix, Delilah, and Urban Method were among their best in the competition, and even the Aires and Vocal Point had really strong moments. I think the competition is only going to get tighter and better in the next couple of weeks, and I am excited to see what happens next!

What do you think?