Last week I was busy posting reviews of the Voca People show and the Sonos concert in NYC, so I did not get an opportunity to post about the Sing Off. I don’t have much to say about last week’s episode other than that I believed that either Vocal Point or the Aires would go home, and I didn’t have a major problem with Vocal Point going home. I do think that Vocal Point were generally more consistent musically, but the Aires somehow managed to out-perform a group (Vocal Point) who is KNOWN for being tremendous performers a couple of times. In addition, as the judges have suggested on more than one occasion, the Aires have an identifiable and killer “lead singer” or soloist in Michael which Vocal Point simply couldn’t match.
In any event, let’s move on to this penultimate episode, the result of which nearly led the aca-razzi on Twitter to stage a full-blown revolution.
The two themes of this show were “Mastermixes” (aka mashups), and “Judge’s Choice” (where the judges choose a song for the group to perform). The four remaining groups, Pentatonix, Afro Blue, Urban Method, and the Dartmouth Aires, put together the most consistently entertaining show of this season (and perhaps of any season). Nearly every performance was at a very high level, making it difficult to predict who would go home.
Don’t forget you can find lots of information, including clips, analysis, and the ability to purchase tracks from the show at Sin3g.
Pentatonix: I liked the idea of a mashup of Cee-Lo’s “Forget You” and Kelly Clarkson’s “Since U Been Gone,” and in some ways it worked really well. The first part, which was the latter song, was nice and simple and smooth, and then they immediately shifted into “Forget You” and it started a little strange before settling in. Next, they had a short battle between Avi (bass) and Kevin (VP), which was entertaining, and then they started a real mashup with parts of both songs going and it was here that things were a little awkward. It just felt like the momentum and tempo were a little stilted. All that being said, it was an overall good performance there is no question that these guys are the most innovative and consistent group in the competition.
Far more interesting to me, however, was the group’s cover of “Dog Days Are Over” by Florence and the Machine. As soon as the judges announced that this was the song they chose, I was intrigued. Florence and the Machine are becoming overcovered in college a cappella now, but I could really see this group doing some interesting things with the song, and I was pleased to be correct. The song started sparse, building through the verse and chorus, a very smart arrangement (as usual), and then boom: four dropped out, leaving Mitch with a beautiful solo. I think this was smart for 2 reasons: 1) the judges always praise the rhythm section (Avi and Kevin) and Scott (solos) and Kirstie (solos), leaving it to seem like Mitch was the weakest link– this section proved the group has no weak links; 2) the group just knows how to add dramatic flair. After Mitch floated through that solo, the group came back in on soft “ooh’s” which were just right, and then the VP picked back up and the group finished very strong. I’m not a huge Florence and the Machine fan, but I wanted to buy this song as soon as they finished singing it. And that’s what Pentatonix does so well.
Urban Method: The mashup of “Hot in Herre” and “Fever” was definitely a solid and smart performance from Urban Method. They were smart in choosing the female lead; she really nailed the sultry, breathy solo. The song started strong, and once they went into “Fever” they were sparse but full enough to not sound empty or awkward (as they have occasionally struggled to avoid in the past). The transition into the Nelly tune was seamless, and of course Myke was great with the lead. The backs here were a little pitchy, but not so much as to be distracting. I really liked the ladies singing a unison “I am getting so hot, I wanna take my clothes off” and then the saxophone sax was also very cool. Then they broke down the beat and mashed the two songs together, which worked well. All in all, they may have tried to do a little too much as the song went along, but ambition is only a problem on a show like this when the sound or performance goes down the tubes, and it really didn’t here.
“All of the Lights” was a little underwhelming. Granted, the fact that I have heard a few other covers of this song which I really like may have raised my expectations a little. As usual, the rhythm section and Myke were good, though Myke struggled a little singing the lower notes and was actually off a little on his timing in a few spots. And, repeating some of the problems from their earlier performances, the backs were inconsistent in terms of pitch and intonation. I thought the whole group rushed the female rap, and I got a little nervous that things were derailing but then I liked when they used the mics to segue into the breakdown section, which they did a nice job with. I think this performance proved that Urban Method can do some things really well, but struggles at times to make sure that their whole is greater than the sum of their parts.
Afro Blue: I absolutely loved the way the group started off this mashup of “Fly” and “I Believe I Can Fly.” It was soft, smooth, and totally sincere. The first solo (Christie), from “Fly,” was just so genuine and the arrangement in the background was really smart and well-executed through the beginning. The transition to “I Believe I Can Fly” was perfect, and the arrangement continued to impress. In general, the arrangement really allowed Afro Blue to do the things they do well, singing complicated or unexpected chords without any trouble. The transition to the rap was a little awkward, and I thought she rushed the rap a little, but of course Reggie kept things in check on the bass, and they then went back into a nice detailed and textured return to the mashup of both songs. Very well sung, well designed performance.
The second tune, chosen by the judges, was Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come.” This group is so incredibly talented at making everything sound effortless while they are singing chords and progressions that most groups would find incredibly difficult. As usual, Reggie laid down a very smooth and grooving bassline to anchor the whole song.The solo (Christie again) was emotional and stirring. Once again, the arrangement was smart and effective, not wandering too far from the original but tying it nicely into what they do so well.
I got both comforted and concerned with the judges’ reactions to this performance. Ben Folds was actually a little tongue-tied, Sara Bareilles said she was emotional…I could tell the judges loved the performance, yet they seemed sad about it. This led me to believe that, despite the caliber of the performance, Afro Blue might well be going home. I was hoping, however, that the judges were just impressed enough to keep them.
The Dartmouth Aires: These guys started their mashup with “Sympathy for the Devil” by the Rolling Stones, and I really enjoyed the beginning. The rhythm section was grooving nicely, the group used its size to hit some nice arpeggios and some very full-sounding chords. Though the theatrical transition (the handshake) was cool, it was an awkward musical transition to Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way.” Of course, as always, Michael was killer on his part of the solo. I thought the bass started to struggle a little more in this portion, going sharp a couple of times. They really have the weakest bass section (1 guy? really? With this many members?) of the remaining groups. I also wasn’t blown away by the creativity or completeness of the VP. Of course, as always, these guys do the visual part of the performance very well. I thought it was a very high energy performance, great solos, great theatrics, good but not great arrangement and performance of the backing parts.
Well, the judges chose a curious song for the Aires to perform second, the Isley Brothers’ “Shout.” Of course this kind of song is perfect for the Aires in terms of energy and stage presence, but it is fairly boring musically except for the solo. This is one of my biggest problems with the Aires continuing presence on the show. They are undoubtedly the most interesting group visually on this Season. But if you remove the soloist (Michael), they are very middle-of-the-pack musically. I guess this presents the classic dichotomy in college a cappella, which is whether a group should/can try to be superlative at both the music and the visual component and whether it is even possible to be excellent at both. When I was music director of 2 groups in college, I always focused on getting the sound as tight as possible, though I now realize the total lack of focus on visual was very detrimental to our performances. On the flip side, when a group goes all out visually like the Aires did here, the music starts to sound like a big, hot mess of voices.
Don’t get me wrong, the Aires did some interesting things musically with a very simple song, but if you listened to the performance without watching, I think you would almost certainly place them 4th out of 4 groups. The judges obviously love Michael, and I do think he has huge star potential because he is a top-notch performer BOTH visually and musically. Unfortunately, the rest of the group really struggled musically. However, they do know how to blow the roof off the place with their energy.
I found the whole “Sing Off” between Afro Blue and the Aires to be a little contrived this time around. Unfortunately, I thought Afro Blue chose their 3rd or 4th best song of the show (“American Boy”), whereas the Aires chose the song which proved (later) to be their most successful and popular, the portion of the Queen medley “Somebody to Love.” I have to hand it to the Aires, it was a very smart choice, and based on that alone they probably deserved to stay. But based on the full catalog of work, I strongly believed Afro Blue was a better group and a better candidate to make the Final 3.
And, for the second time this season, I felt that the judges’ comments and decision-making was also contrived. I tweeted shortly after the show ended that I absolutely refuse to believe that Ben Folds was more impressed musically with the Aires, unless he based his decision entirely on the strength of Michael as a soloist. Later that night, Ben tweeted about the beating he was taking on Twitter about the decision, and he decided to respond in a blog post which you can read here. He began by explaining that Afro Blue are his “personal favorites” and then danced around the actual decision, saying that it was very difficult for a jazz group, which would necessarily be an underdog in a competition like this, to win it all. He seemed to praise the idea that Afro Blue could even be cast, which was strange because the judges have made it clear at the beginning of each season that any type of vocal group (e.g. Maxx Factor [barber shop] and North Shore [Doo Wop]) belonged on the stage in this type of competition. So what bothered me about the explanation (if you can call it that) was that he seemed to be saying that Afro Blue achieved a moral victory by being cast and hanging around for most of the season. I guess this was his way of avoiding talking about the fact that they were clearly one of the 2 most purely talented groups in the competition, and one of the 2 groups most likely to trigger an emotional response or goosebumps from the audience.
I have to admit, the decision to remove them at this point really bothered me for these reasons, and I found Ben’s answer totally unsatisfying. More importantly, even though I have frequently defended the producers of the show as ultimately doing the right thing, I feel that their presumed intrusion here to eliminate a jazz group which they might perceive as having insufficient prospects as a commercial act was deeply harmful to the integrity of the show.
Now, as I alluded to before, many of the members of the a cappella community, not the general public, went to Twitter to air their grievances. There, someone also commented that we should recognize that Afro Blue’s elimination only prevented them from finishing 2nd, as the a cappella community seems to assume (perhaps correctly) that Pentatonix will win it all. And while this may be true and it is a good point, I think Afro Blue really deserved the opportunity to make it to the Final 3 and show that jazz/gospel of this kind has a place in a final round of a show like that. Their visual performances may not have been as stunning as the Aires, but musically they were the most complete and maybe most overall talented group in the competition. I just think they deserved the respect of making the final round of competition.
In any event, I was disappointed, but went on to iTunes the next morning and bought any of their songs I had not already purchased as my protest from their dismissal. I urge you to do the same.
So, now we have 3 groups remaining: Pentatonix, Urban Method, and the Aires. If you haven’t already, you can vote in the following ways:
Text “1” for Pentatonix, “2” for Urban Method, or “3” for the Aires to 97979.
Vote on the Sing Off website here.
Or call Call 1-877-674-6401 for Pentatonix,
1-877-674-6402 for Urban Method, or
You should vote NOW, before you forget. There are only a few days left to vote.
For what it’s worth, I still believe Pentatonix are (and should be) the favorites to win it all, as they have been consistent, creative, talented, and they certainly are young and cute, 2 attributes which will help them sell records and tickets. I really enjoy their distinctive style and take on songs, and I love their rhythm section more than any group I have seen in a long time.
Feel free to email me any thoughts or comments, and don’t forget to encourage everyone to tune in to the finale this coming Monday, November 28!