The Sing Off- And then there were 4 goooood groups…and 2 great groups (Ep. 7)

Despite the ratings slump (BOOOO!), the Sing Off was still on the air this week. We can all take an incredibly small amount of solace from the fact that, if this show is cancelled, this was a season with an extraordinary level of competition, particularly now as we get into home stretch.

While I haven’t been discussing the opening number much in this blog, I just thought this week’s medley was worth mentioning. That was a really fun opening number, both for us (the audience) and for the performers. They were clearly enjoying themselves with the little quirky solos and the choreography, and while the arrangement seemed fairly simple and ungarnished, I thought it came across as one of the better opening numbers on the show. It allowed the quirky sounds and soloists to shine, and there was nothing distracting in the background parts. Very fun.

On with the show. I think this was the first time I really spent a lot of time thinking about whether the groups arranged these songs themselves, the songs were arranged by one of the staff arrangers (Ben Bram, Christopher Diaz, and Rob Dietz, with  cameos by producer/a cappella wizard Deke Sharon, according to much of what I have heard and read in the acasphere), or some mixture thereof. I know it doesn’t really matter, but as an a cappella nerd who is fascinated by the details, I am curious whether a group with its own niche sound (like a Pentatonix or Afro Blue) does the arranging themselves, or whether they rely on the staff members to help achieve that sound. Anyway, my thoughts in performance order…

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Urban Method– I think choosing Rihanna was a smart choice for this group, particularly because they do have the ladies to pull of the solos and the rhythm section to pull off the groove.  Unfortunately, my reaction was very similar to my reaction with all of their songs. After 30 seconds, I’m tapping my feet, getting into the groove, and then I get distracted by the background parts. What I think this proved, since the girls were busy soloing as opposed to contributing all of the backs, was that this group has yet to find a style of arrangement which puts it all together for them. They’ve got some great components or ingredients, but when I consistently find myself distracted by the backs, there’s something night quite right. Sometimes, the problem is their efforts to use flange-y type syllables and sounds, or to sound like guitars with syllables that involve moving the shape of their mouths while they stay on the same pitch. I love the idea, I have seen/heard it executed beautifully by some groups, yet I find it distracting and inconsistent with these guys. I would love for them to put it all together the right way, because I do believe they are innovative and there is a market for what they do, but I think they need to get it to another level first.

Vocal Point– How can a group bounce back from a weak performance last week with a solid return to their wheelhouse, and still suffer a potential fall in the entirely theoretical favorite-rankings? Ask these guys. They returned to their strengths, they sounded great, the transitions were good, arrangements were good, energy was fantastic. And yet they will suffer by comparison to the Dartmouth Aires performance which followed later in the show (see below). One of the strongest assets these guys have is their absolute insistence on staying in tune and on pitch. And really that is necessary not only for any group which hopes to win, but particularly one which frequently emulates higher-pitched instruments such as horns or strings. I didn’t love the first section of the arrangement for “Falling in Love with You,” mostly because of voicing issues (there were too many voices packed into a midrange, and not enough higher parts, IMHO). The final song in the medley was incredibly strong, both musically and energy-wise.

Afro Blue– As usual, these guys and gals are a whole other class of musicality and professionalism. I’ve been ranting and raving about Reggie, the bass, for weeks, and the reason was blatantly obvious in this performance. His solid moving bassline matched with the VP to keep the song going and allowed the backs to stay sparse through much of the first 2/3 of the medley. The only thing I would take issue with might be his overabundance of notes… I think he could have dropped a few of the busy notes which weren’t necessary to give the song momentum and might have allowed him to sit on certain notes a little longer. But that’s really picking nits. Now, the judges were not overly thrilled with the performance, suggesting that the group was doing a little too much to make the song their own, and overly “ambitious” at times. I have listened a bunch of times, and the only thing I can think of is that they really didn’t enjoy the non-stop tight, dissonant chords in the last song of the medley. It was a great example of close harmonies in vocal jazz, but I think the harmonies could have been emphasized more if they moved away from them every now and again, to remind everyone of how talented the singers are. Instead, they hammered those chords non-stop through the song, and it might have come across as a bit jarring in the room. All in all, though, the group proved yet again that they are immensely talented, they have great soloists, and they have a knack for turning any song into a jazzy/poppy mixture that they can absolutely kill.

Dartmouth Aires– Well, as the public has shown over the past few days (moving this song way up on the itunes charts), this was a VERY strong and appealing performance. The arrangement was fantastic, with maybe the best transitions of the night and some fun slides. I personally found the “Bohemian Rhapsody” arrangement both great and not-so-great. It really hit just right in some spots, and in others it felt a bit too homophonic, meaning essentially that everyone was singing the same rhythms but different notes. I know it is tricky to mess with an original as well-known and well-loved as this song, but I feel like a group with 14-15 guys could have laid a nice pad underneath it, or had some kind of counter-melody or something underneath. This is definitely nitpicking, because it sounded very good, and the vast majority of people would not object to it as it was. Obviously the soloists on the first and third songs (the same soloists the group has used to great effect previously) were fantastic. Michael, on “Somebody to Love,” in particular is a real star and powerhouse soloist.  I also think given the size of the group that they could have beefed up the drums a bit. Overall, a GREAT performance and definitely their best performance on the show.

Pentatonix– Don’t be distracted by the video intro showing the group having disagreements about the arrangement… these guys (and gal) are stone-cold assassins when it comes to consistently producing smart, creative, and really high quality arrangements. They know how to make their songs sound different from the original, but exactly like a “Pentatonix” song. Look, I sound like a broken record, but they have a ridiculous rhythm section, and they smartly fill in the other backing vocals such that there are no gaps. They drop in little things like the “Motownphilly” Boyz II Men riff, and they generally have very solid senses of pitch. Scott is a great soloist, and Kirstie and Mitch did very solid jobs on the other tunes (which could be better than many other soloists in the competition). And the breakdown towards the end was very cool and powerful.  Finishing with the mix of all 3 songs was creative and captivating. Yet another tremendous performance.

Delilah– As always, the ladies of Delilah show some unbelievable solo performances. Finally, Hannah Juliano gets to really shine, and boy does she ever. I really liked the arrangement of “Fallin,'” a song which, as Sara Bareilles suggested, can be overdone at times. The breathy backgrounds were a really nice touch, and song had some great momentum and shape, and the VP was really solid. The chorus had some very cool chords, and it transitioned nicely into “A Woman’s Worth,” a song which left me with mixed emotions. Kendall also killed her part of the solo, but the backs seemed to struggle a bit. I don’t know if the arrangement had some holes, or if the ladies were just having a difficult time hearing themselves or with pitch, but it was probably the weakest of the songs in the medley. Finally, the arrangement got much better (and so did the ladies) with “If I Ain’t got You.” There were some terrific jazzy chords, some nice dynamic/syllabic choices. I thought this was another emotional, strong performance from these ladies. I still think they have a chance to win this, though I don’t think they’ve achieved the consistency of Pentatonix or Afro Blue, and I think they still have some bigger obstacles (instrumentation) than the 2 frontrunners.

Yellowjackets– as a longtime Billy Joel fan, I was actually cringing a little when I learned what these guys would be doing. I think there are many, many great Billy Joel songs which have great a cappella potential (my oldest friend did a terrific arrangement of the “Downeaster Alexa” years ago), but few of these songs are ever done. Instead, there are countless versions of “For the Longest Time,” “Uptown Girl,” “River of Dreams,” and “She’s Always a Woman.” I personally have at least 3 versions of each of these songs among my  a cappella collection, and so I came into this medley predisposed to be disappointed or uninterested. I recognize that this bias may well have colored my opinion, but I just wasn’t impressed with the arrangement. I felt that “River of Dreams” needed to be thicker (a thicker pad underneath?) with more percussion. It wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t particularly impressive either. “She’s Always a Woman” was a little more tender and lush, but it fell into the trap of potentially lulling the listener to nod off. Whenever I hear this song a cappella I want it to grow so much more in the “B” section, and the guys didn’t really do that here either. The second “oh” started to build, but I still felt that it never really reached what I wanted from it. I didn’t love the transition from that song to “Uptown Girl,” and the third song was a little too generic for me. I don’t think it was a bad arrangement, and the end of it actually did a little more of what I would have enjoyed throughout with the moving parts and thickness. Overall, I felt that the performance was inconsistent, with moments of energy but an overall lackluster (vocally) feel.

I think the correct decision was made…these guys had a good run on the show, but when you compare the remaining 6 groups, the YJ’s just couldn’t keep up. When I was in college, in either of my groups, I would have been thrilled if we sounded like the YJ’s and blown away if we could have been on 7 episodes of national television, so these guys have nothing to be ashamed of and hopefully they take a lot out of their performances and the comments they received on the competition.

As Shawn Stockman said at one point, it was a REALLY good night of performances. I felt that each of the other 6 groups did some great things, and I believe we have probably reached a stage where every elimination will be that much more difficult for the judges to decide and the audience to accept. I still believe the next group to go will also have to be a male collegiate group, either the Aires or Vocal Point, but I wouldn’t be shocked if it was Urban Method or Delilah. Either way, I think we are in for some really great final shows leading up to the finale. Sing on, Sing Off!

What do you think?