Well, it wasn’t the length or format we wanted, but last night The Sing Off returned to fill that hole in our collective a cappella-loving lives. Sure, we all would have loved even 3 or 4 episodes, and I would have enjoyed the return of the “battle” segment from last season, but since none of us (that I’m aware of) holds a leadership position at NBC Universal, we take what we can get.
If you missed my commentary on Seasons 3 and 4 of The Sing Off or the articles leading up to this season, you can find them all from this handy-dandy link:
If you want to learn more about the groups that competed last night (sorry, in “Season 5”), you should check out the terrific work from our friends at the AcaFanBase right here:
And now, if you are still with me (fingers crossed), let’s get on with the show.
The show began with the ensemble of all competitors performing “Kids in America” by Kim Wilde, and an immediate appearance by presumed front-runners The Exchange (who harbor alum from on and off-screen work with prior seasons of The Sing Off). There was a ton of energy both onstage and off, and the crowd seemed to be ready to have a really good time. Shawn Stockman was bopping his head, Ben Folds-wannabe/neverbe Patrick Stump was even bopping along. My wife and I were irrationally excited. I should note that the arrangement was pretty much spot on for a high energy, large group effort like this.
Before I continue, let me just make it clear that I”m not taking gratuitous shots at Patrick Stump. I have nothing against him or Fall Out Boy. I simply believe that Ben Folds has been the underrated MVP of this show from the beginning, primarily because he offered smart, honest, musically accurate criticism during the time in between songs when most of us just wanted the talking to stop and singing to continue. In other words, he gave us a reason to care what the judges thought. I think for most of us, the show was always more about getting to watch a cappella music on TV in the comfort of our own home and share this thing we love with the world than it was about “competition” or criticism. Regardless, Ben would often make me stop and think “he’s right- they did have a weird chord which followed that cool riff.”
In any event- I’ll try to keep my Folds-related comments to a minimum, but let it be known that I was truly affected by his absence given the limited time we had with the contestants and the music.
The first group was Timothy’s Gift, a group of ladies who do admirable work with prison inmates. Singing their “signature” song, “Ghost” by Ella Henderson, I was intrigued by the sparse start with a solid solo. Unfortunately, once the backing voices switched to some moving lines, the tempo began to pick up and the wheels came off a little. It wasn’t terrible, just not completely locked in. The ladies have a number of capable solo voices and the blend was alright- I agree with Jewel (*gulp*) that they had a generally warm sound and only allowed themselves to get flat and broad in spots. I don’t have a problem with them doing a song like this without percussion, though it would likely have helped them with the tempo issues and energy of the backing parts. Overall, I’d say it was a solid enough start. They aren’t in the range of prior winners, but I think they would have advanced beyond the first round in Seasons 1 and 2 of the show.
Next up was a.squared, a group featured on this blog by our own Heather Newkirk. This was the first (and only) group that took advantage of the show’s new policy shift regarding pedals, instruments, or backing tracks. If you missed our thoughts about that change, you can find them here.
For what it’s worth, I consider the group’s use of looping and other technology to be a very cool step towards the future of a cappella music and I had no objection whatsoever. I consider this approach to be different from using acoustic instruments or backing tracks, and I think it should be far more acceptable to the so-called “a cappella purists.” (I do not mean Shawn Stockman or people who base a cappella music on doo wop)
Now looking at the actual performance, I thought they nailed “Pompeii” by Bastille. Don’t get me wrong, not every harmony locked and not every entrance or cut-off was perfect, but man was it powerful. Obviously a big part of that was the killer rhythmic elements (low bass, perc) which were heavily affected- I won’t deny that. But the group also did a smart job with placement of rhythmic components to the arrangement. The performance reminded me (and many on Twitter) that ARORA (then Sonos) was denied the opportunity to use pedals, a critical tool for their unique sound, during Season 3 of the show, but all I can say is: That was then, this is now. No use crying over spilled milk. You get the idea. Season 3 turned out just fine with Pentatonix, and ARORA’s album “Bioluminescence” is transcendent and awe-inspiring.
In any event, I disagree with Shawn that the sound effects here were overwhelming but agree that it was entertaining.
I disagree with Jewel that the use of technology was a “gimmick,” because that suggests something done for the purpose of gaining attention. I think a.squared uses the technology to effectively perform the song in the way they believe best suits their style, and I think it did precisely that. If the effect of the performance on the audience were a prevalent criterion in a real competition, I think these guys would be moving on to a second round. (Note 1- Entertainment Weekly called their “witchcraft” “mesmerizing” in a recap)
(*More random note- thank god the Tufts Amalgamates haven’t been selected for the show yet, because it appears Nick would struggle with that name*)
The last time I saw the next group, Traces, perform was at the Boston Sings 2012 festival. Back then, they had the place rocking so I was excited for their performance. I don’t really care what you call their style, two things immediately stood out in their performance of “River Deep, Mountain High” by Tina Turner. First, that #ladybass. Dang. Second, the percussion. I also enjoyed the notably old-school feel to the entire performance. The solo settled in after a shaky start, but the backs felt a little empty to me up until the chorus. The breakdown was fun but also a little harmonically shaky. I wonder if we have moved into familiar territory from prior seasons (see Element; see also Delilah) regarding the balance of the harmonies in the arrangement. I agree with Shawn that stage presence was big.
(*random note- poor editing of the comments insofar as Stump said he agreed with Shawn’s comments about the percussion, but we have not been privy to those comments)
(*Twitter has definitely established that Tamika was not the lowest female bass on the show- that would be Jo Vinson of Delilah- but Ms. Vinson herself insisted that Tamika had a richer sound-
I can sing lower than Tamika, but she SOUNDS so beastly and rich that it makes no difference. It’s all about HOW you sing, not the range!
— Jo (@JohannaVinson) December 18, 2014
All in all, I know Traces can really sang, I don’t think this was a fair representation of that, but I do think they brought energy and style to the stage.
Nick called the next group a “vocal supergroup of past Sing Off powerhouses,” and that’s a fair assessment of The Exchange. I enjoyed their a cappella album “Get Ready” and loved their not-a cappella EP “The Good Fight.” When I heard they were going to be on the show, I immediately expected them to be the odds-on favorite to win it all. They began “Love Runs Out” by One Republic with a sultry groove led by Jamal, exploded into the next section led by Aaron Sperber, and then hit some crazy chords without the bass and drums and I was all in. But then the rhythm section burst back in before dropping out and giving Christopher Diaz a chance to show off his solo voice (after a solid bass performance up to that point), and there was another breakdown…man, it’s exhausting to write about. Frankly, what made this so exciting was not just the level of skill which the group oozed from every single singer (somehow, I haven’t mentioned the legendary Alfredo Austin yet!) but the level of skill in the arrangement. This is a chart that tells a story, with chapters, perfectly constructed for the 90 or so seconds the group has to show what they can do. This shouldn’t be a surprise, since Diaz arranged for groups on prior seasons of the show, but again… man, oh man. Just expertly arranged for their voices and for the setting. This performance just showed why The Exchange has been successful in touring several continents over the past 2 years, and I pretty much assumed they had locked it all up after this performance. More on that assumption later. (SPOILER ALERT- I WAS WRONG. BUT WAS I?) Finally, after 3 straight groups with whom I was familiar, another newcomer: San Fran6. I loved the beatboxer working over the intro bumper, mainly because there haven’t been any overt beatboxers (as opposed to vocal percussionists) to this point. The alarm bells were going off for me when I heard that they had only been singing together for a month. Ok, I knew that from the AcaFanBase post, but the point stands- vocal groups take more than one month to learn how to sing together. That is a bedrock, fundamental rule of mujsical physics. But hey, maybe they practiced 20 hours a day for that month. The group’s version of “Break Free” by Ariana Grande was relatively in tune, but as with Timothy’s Gift, plagued by tempo issues. Like I said, it takes time to learn how to sing in lockstep, both harmonically and timing-wise. The beatboxing was alright, the soloist was fine- props to our Matt Warren for
They were fine, I just think they need some more work together.
The last competitors were the obligatory male collegiate group, the Melodores. I’ve heard a song or two of theirs in recent years, but I’m not overly-familiar with their history. I was very curious to hear their take on “Trumpets” by Jason Derulo.
Loved the little trumpet intro, and then the solo came out with a sweet voice and the guys start moving around in the background, with a solid rhythm section grooving along. The remaining harmonies were a little simple and a tad shaky at moments, but let’s be honest- these guys win people over with energy, goofy kicklines, falsetto shrieks, and the like. Basically, being a fairly traditional male collegiate a cappella group, albeit with marginally better pitch than last season’s Acoustikats. They even had a passable muted trumpet at the end, though one might expect even better since his likely mentor was the unparalleled Deke Sharon. Jewel and Shawn call them “very entertaining,” and I can’t disagree, even if some of the choreo was a little sloppy at times. All in all, they followed the tradition of groups like the Beelzebubs, On the Rocks, the YellowJackets, and the Aires.
Talking to my wife during the commercial break, we felt that the obvious groups to move on were The Exchange and….who? We really only felt comfortable about The Exchange, but our top three was probably filled out with the Melodores and then a.squared. We were not shocked to find out that we only hit 2 out of 3, with Traces replacing a.squared. I mean, you really couldn’t exclude the women entirely even though in the prior 4 seasons of The Sing Off, only one lady was part of a champion group (oh hey, Kirsti!).
Speaking of Kirsti, what up to Pentatonix. What is there to say other than…they really stand out as the best group to have performed on the show, and it’s not even close. Setting aside their New Edition/Bel Biv Devoe/Boyz II Men-ish outfits, the group showed off their crazy array of skills, and I think hundreds of millions of YouTube views and a gold record prove that point.
Moving right into round 2 (so I can finish this post before February), I did not see any way for The Exchange to lose.
Traces began “I’m Every Woman” with a tender, controlled opening and yet they had a moment of confusion in the tempo when they went upbeat before locking in again. The first breakdown was solid, then they lost the harmonic center for a moment, then another good breakdown, then a little more uncertainty. I don’t know what to think. I still likde the rhythm section, though the bass was a little out of tune at times, and there were moments where things really worked well. And then there were moments where it just felt like they were tightrope-walking along the pitch center, and the transitions between sections were kind of rough. I’m also not a big fan of those moments where all the backs sing a lot of words quickly because, *unless it’s done perfectly*, it just sounds messy. Of course, the energy was still high in the performance here, and the audience certainly seemed to enjoy it.
Next up, the only group to really nail it so far- The Exchange- and they were doing “Sing” by Ed Sheeran (not, as Shawn suggests, Ed Sharon), which seemed like it should be a good fit for them.
I was so happy that Fredo got a chance to shine on national TV- I’ve loved this dude’s voice since he was in Overboard and Hyannis Sound (with cameos on The Daily Show). The arrangement was a moving target, just like their first, and once again I admired it immensely. Christopher’s bassline was slippery and funky; Steiner’s percussion was right on, and of course the rap with the 3-part harmonies on the lyrics was exactly what I was just talking about with Traces, but done much better. That kind of thing only works when it is locking perfectly both with syllables and harmonies, which this was pretty close to doing. A really satisfying performance, top to bottom.
Finally, the Melodores were back, this time with “Take Me to Church” by Hozier.
I agreed with Stump’s comment during the intro bumper, namely that they already did the collegiate a cappella thing and they would need to take it to the next level.
They started off with a dark, heavy sound and the solo slipped a bit, but then the drums dropped and things started to pick up steam. The group suggested soloist Dan was their “secret weapon” in the bumper, and boy they weren’t kidding- he can wail. The backs weren’t complicated, with a lot of long tones on open vowels (“Oh,” “Aah”, etc.) but it was dynamically effective. There were a few color tones here and there, but for the most part they stuck with big, broad, and powerful. I think the key moment was when Dan slid up on the solo and the backs looked up in unison like a marching band horn pop. All hell broke loose, we saw a “stankface” from Stump, and Dan started popping veins in his face, Jewel checked her arm for goosebumps, and you could hear echoes of the volume and sound in the room and you just knew that this was probably the defining performance in the room that night.
My initial reaction was this:
— Acatribe (@acatribe) December 18, 2014
After watching it a few more times, I think I’ll take that back and just say it may have been one of the most powerful collegiate performance in the history of the show. Shawn talked about how the solo looked spent, but you get the sense the whole group left it all out there. I can imagine the room was bowled over by the dynamic performance.
Not sure that meant it deserved to win the whole competition, but let’s be real- this isn’t a competition so much as a showcase for a cappella music, and this is the first year that (conspicuously) there is no recording contract at stake. In other words, none of the logistical nightmares that might go along with trying to sign a collegiate group to a record label would apply, and for the first time I thought maybe…just maybe…The Exchange might not win.
During the interim, someone on Twitter suggested that the Melodores might win but The Exchange would end up on The Sing Off Tour, and this struck me as a possible compromise. I did not agree with this outcome, but I could see how that might happen.
When we got to the performance of judges with Home Free, I was a little disappointed. No disrespect to the judges, but I’m never all that interested in hearing them sing. I understand that non-aca people probably want to see it, but I’d rather see another tune by any of the competitors or Pentatonix. I was relieved that at least they sang with Home Free, and man Tim Foust is such a beast on the basslines. Also- LOVED those reverse belltones they did under the solos by Jewel and Stump.
On the topic of how we could have squeezed more music out of the contestants, do we really need a recap of performances we heard less than an hour ago? Really!? I’d have preferred another tune from the eventual winner or how about bringing Committed back? Something else.
Anyway, as you surely know by now, the Melodores won it all. Congratulations to them, and this format was obviously the best chance for a collegiate group to “win.” I think The Exchange has already begun charting their path towards bigger national and international success, and their presence on The Sing Off Tour (which I hope to attend and review) will only help them towards that success. They have the talent and arranging skills, plus the personalities, to be very successful for a very long time, and I really hope it happens for them. I also hope the rest of the groups continue to build upon this platform that was provided for them, and you can check them all out below.
All of that being said, congratulations to your Season 5 Sing Off champs- The Melodores!
Lastly, the overnight ratings for the show are 5.1 million and a 1.3 share, which is slightly down from last year. On the flip side, #TheSingOff was trending number 1 in the United States on Facebook and Twitter and number 4 internationally, so the social media turnout was pretty big. Not sure it will be enough to convince NBC to bring the show back again, but maybe next year they can do one 60-minute show with 45-second clips from each group and we’ll have our first Lightning Round Sing Off.
What did you all think? Did the right group win?
Vanderbilt Melodores- http://www.melodores.com/
The Exchange- http://www.exchangevocal.com/
San Fran6- http://www.facebook.com/SanFran6
Timothy’s Gift- http://www.timothysgift.com/