AcaVids 3/18/13: A Sing Off Tribute

The Sing Off is Back!

Well, not right now. But, eventually! So in honor of the news every Acanerd around the country has been waiting to hear I thought I’d dedicate this week’s post to the show that made a cappella cool to more than just our devout community.

Never in my wildest dreams as young a cappella disciple did I ever think the music that I loved to perform would be considered cool to more than just the people I sang with. A cappella on national television never even entered my mind. Sure, I got to sing to Katie Couric on the Today Show with my college a cappella group, [Ed.- me too! And Willard Scott was singing along with us from D.C.!] but I’d hardly call that “cool”. We just never thought that the joy we felt from our performances would translate to a mass audience. We didn’t understand why, but then again we didn’t care that much either.

Fast forward a few years (decades?) and I hear that there’s going to be an a cappella competition show on TV in the vein of American Idol. I am immediately excited and annoyed. A cappella on TV? Great! Simon Cowell-esque judges berating performers of a genre they didn’t understand? Terrible! Thankfully, nothing that horrific happened. I watched every episode with excitement. And, after what I thought was slow start with the first season, the competition just got better and better culminating with the discovery of the most electrifying a cappella group I have ever seen, Pentatonix.

So, as we await the new season coming sometime this fall, and wonder if there is a group out there that can blow our minds more than PTX, lets take a look at what some of the old contestants have been up to since then.

~p.s. – Note the professional quality videos too. Should we expect an A Cappella VH1 any time soon?

Season 2 winners Committed

ANY CHARACTER HERE

ANY CHARACTER HERE

Season 2 runner ups Street Corner Symphony

ANY CHARACTER HERE

ANY CHARACTER HERE

Season 3 winners Pentatonix

ANY CHARACTER HERE

ANY CHARACTER HERE

Hope you enjoy them!

Comments welcome.

~Patrick

[Ed.- Couldn’t resist mentioning Delilah’s recent performances at the Texas A Cappella Celebration and Los Angeles A Cappella Festival are worth watching as well- here’s one. http://youtu.be/bCPtYnUCWmk]

PTX: Live in NYC

Sometime in the late 1990’s, I saw Rockapella in concert for the first time. I recall thinking “Wow, it’s hard to believe that they are all singing in tune and sound like a band despite no instrumental accompaniment. That Jeff Thacher guy is pretty cool, too.” It was an eye-opening experience for me, seeing a cappella like that.

Sometime the following year, I saw The House Jacks at the Bottom Line (yes, I’ve mentioned this before). This time, I can definitely remember thinking “Wow, this is rock music with no instruments. Plus, these guys are serious dudes” (for some reason I remember original bass Bert Bacco dressed kind of like a biker/rock star, complete with leather jacket and possibly boots). And they were loud, in a good way. This was a big moment for me, realizing that when The House Jacks called themselves a vocal band, they meant it and they owned it. The show proved to me that the future of a cappella was not just an updated version of doo wop, but rather a modified version of rock or pop music.

It was not until February 21, when I saw Pentatonix in concert in New York City, that I was able to see the next step in this evolution. As in, when Pentatonix came out on stage, I had this thought: “holy shit, this is like a real pop/rock show with professional lighting, professional sound, in a big ballroom with a pit and thousands of people crammed in (official capacity at the Best Buy Theater is 2,100). The bass and drums are shaking the place, and the energy here is electric.”

Now, while I have long been a fan of the live shows offered by Rockapella and The House Jacks, as well as a dozen other contemporary a cappella groups, I don’t believe there is even room for debate: this is a whole new animal of a cappella concert.

Setting aside the individuality of this particular group for just a moment, the atmosphere was unlike any I have seen at an a cappella concert, starting with this:

IMAG0530

You can kind of make out the “P T X” separated by lights…there was also a series of platforms with a singer on each platform. The bass immediately kicked in, and the rumble was so fierce you could feel it in your bones. Welcome, Avi. (and Liquid 5th)

Now, the uniqueness of this particular group. First of all, individual components. At one point, the group pointed out bass Avi Kaplan’s rare ability to sing overtones. Here’s what that means:

ANY CHARACTER HERE
ANY CHARACTER HERE

The remainder of the group also enjoyed convincing Avi to sing the dwarf song from the recent movie “The Hobbit.” Like this:

ANY CHARACTER HERE
ANY CHARACTER HERE

So, the group has a multi-talented and funny bass singer. They also allowed their uber-talented beatboxer/VP Kevin Olusola to show off his array of skills, performing a beautiful cello solo and then performing his famous celloboxing on the Imagine Dragons song “Radioactive.” Here’s the group performing that song earlier in the tour.

ANY CHARACTER HERE

Ok, Pentatonix showed that their rhythm section is comprised of two uniquely talented individuals.

What about the other three? Well, over the course of an approximately 90-minute set, the big 3 (Scott, Mitch, and Kirstie) offered one of the cleanest and most impressively tuned sets I’ve seen. They sounded a bit tired, having performed the previous night in Philadelphia, but their intonation was stellar. I’ve watched a lot of the group’s YouTube videos and thought “well, that sounds very tight without any production, but they also could have shot 15 takes before they got that one.”  In New York City, it was truly remarkable how clear and solid their tuning was. This is important. I’ve seen a lot of groups who might be considered among the best in the world suffer from tuning problems onstage. There were very few such moments for Pentatonix on this night.

A few other thoughts about Pentatonix as a performing act. First, they have charisma. They are funny, humble, and authentic, all of which are appealing, and they are so young. The group has broad public appeal, as demonstrated by their appearances at all kinds of corporate locations and on all types of television shows.

Second, they are creative about their song selection. Yes, they performed the songs from their album, but they also performed a few from their YouTube videos, a new boy band medley (‘N Sync) and a new original (the Kaplan-penned “Peaceful World”[Ed.- the song is actually called “The Peaceful War”]).

Third, they enjoy getting the crowd engaged in the show. At one point, Kevin and Avi spent time teaching the audience 3 parts to a song, then had the crowd to sing back to them in 3-part harmony. I’ve seen Ben Folds do this numerous times onstage, and while not everyone in the crowd necessarily loves it, I think it’s great- especially for the type of crowd at a Pentatonix concert. In other words, a crowd of people who love vocal music.

As should be clear by now, I was very impressed. This is a group of young performers who are talented, entertaining, and the scariest part: getting better (according to Acatribe’s Tara Ahn, who saw them on their previous tour). In addition, they have a cappella professionals (Liquid 5th) running sound on this tour.

It seems to me that if they’re not selling out amphitheaters in 2 years or less, someone in their management or label isn’t doing their job.

Final conclusion: if you can catch Pentatonix live in concert this year, do it. Their show IS the bridge to mainstream pop culture that a cappella fans have been predicting for years, and it is being executed by young, charismatic, and immensely talented singers.

2011- The Year in A Cappella

In many ways, 2011 was a huge year for a cappella as a community and an art form, both internally and in its role in the greater realm of popular culture and social networking. Obviously it was also a year in which my participation in the a cappella community jumped for the first time since 2003 (wow), but the much bigger picture belongs to the following, in no particular order:

VoCALnation– I attended this festival for Contemporary A Cappella League (CAL) groups in New York City, and I can only say this: it was fantastic. There were a number of incredible workshops, including the one broadcast on a May episode of Mouth Off which featured Duwende explaining their collaborative songwriting process. The room was overflowing, and the content was fascinating and well-demonstrated. The Saturday night concert featured Euphonism, a scorching set from Duwende, and then perhaps the biggest surprise- a breathtaking set from The Swingle Singers. I will be the first to admit that my general impression of the group, prior to that evening, was as a niche British group that sang a lot of classical and jazz, and were generally classy but maybe not edgy. In fact, when Duwende left the stage and the audience was basically drooling and sweaty, I feared a massive letdown. Instead, the Swingle Singers were simply stunning. Their pure musicality was literally the best I have ever seen; simple and sparse effects did nothing to hide the fact that these guys and gals were completely and entirely in tune and featured perfect intonation and personality in their voices. The choreography and the vast range of styles which they covered just completed a concert which I think I can safely say rocked the house. The buzz I seemed to hear as we were walking out was that few if any people had seen them live before, and nobody knew exactly what to expect; and the consensus upon leaving was unanimous approval.

The Sing Off Season 3/Pentatonix– The 3rd (and first full) season of the Sing Off in America was both a success and a failure. In terms of “failure,” the ratings were mediocre to begin, and plummeted as the season went along, thus likely depriving us of another full season of the show. The success in our community, however, was remarkable. The show spawned numerous weekly blog reviews (including my own, I counted 6), a ton of Twitter chatter (see more below), and featured what was certainly the best collection of a cappella talent on any television show at any time in media history. There was a top-notch jazz group (Afro-Blue), an innovative group focusing primarily on hip-hop and rap (Urban Method), a massively talented female group (Delilah), and 3 fabulous all-male groups.  And of course the biggest surprise and most impressive showing was a group of three 19-yr-old friends who met their rhythm section through YouTube and word of mouth. Seriously. And not only that- they were REALLY good. And consistently good. From an a cappella fan’s perspective, this season was truly remarkable: it showed the huge range of possibilities in the a cappella world, and more importantly showed us that boundaries in that world are still there to be broken. All in all, a huge success. Great work by Deke Sharon and the arranging/music staff (Christopher Diaz, Ben Bram, Rob Dietz, and I believe Nick Girard at the end) for helping to highlight these groundbreaking groups.

The Sing Off Netherlands– After 2 seasons in the U.S., the show went international for the first time. I have no idea if they intend to feature another season, but the finale had a 17% share- which is pretty amazing.

SoJam 2011– While I have heard for many years about the success of the SoJam festival, and I was unable to attend this year, I must include 2 facets of the event which I believe occurred for the first time. Even if they did not, I found both to be somewhat revolutionary and exciting, and I have to give props to the folks at CASA and SoJam for making them happen. First, I loved the idea of inviting numerous college groups to sing around the campus at random times; I forget what exactly they called these, but I thought it was a fun and cool opportunity for those groups. But the far bigger and more impressive feat was technological in nature. Since I, having 2 young children in day care and no disposable funds, was unable to attend, I was unbelievably excited to learn that the entire Saturday night concert would be streaming online on Ustream, thanks to (I think) Sled Dog Studios. Although the sound and stream was not perfect, I was able to watch Musae, the Boxettes, and then Naturally 7 perform, and I can safely say it was the best concert I have ever watched live on my computer. I really respect the decision to try this, and I know there were a few of us out there watching who were absolutely thrilled to feel like we were sharing the concert, even on a lesser level, with the audience that was live tweeting the show. So, thanks to the folks at SoJam, CASA, and Sled Dog Studios, and I hope you can pull it off again next year!

Peter Hollens– this dude was busy! Hollens, who came into the year 2011 as the spiky-haired lead singer for U of O’s On the Rocks from Season 2 of the Sing Off was productive and successful this year with approximately 15 songs and videos online at final count. He sang all (or most) of the parts, recorded and mixed most of them, and shot the videos as well. More importantly, the videos progressed from the common multi-track/windows for these types of You Tube videos to some real storytelling videos and an original song (“Sleepwalking”). He had the videos up on YouTube at a fast pace, and the songs up on iTunes equally fast. Kudos to him for being so prolific and hopefully his hard work pays far greater dividends in 2012.

Turntable.fm– Sometime in the summer of 2011, Peter Hollens announced on Facebook that he was on a website called Turntable.fm, acting as a DJ and spinning a cappella music. Many a cappella fans who followed him (including myself) went to the site, then available only to those on facebook who had a friend or group already admitted. In the first month, I was able to meet (in a virtual sense) and converse with (again, virtually) a slew of artists, arrangers, producers/engineers, and other fans from the a cappella community. I met people like myself who were former a cappella singers and who had simply aged out of college groups and been unable to get a group going afterwards, and it was this (in part) which led me to get off my ass and audition for a group again (after a very long hiatus of a cappella inactivity), and it was that audition which then led me to start this blog. I know there are questions out there about the legality of the a cappella sharing going on at Turntable.fm in the immortal a cappella room started by a mega fan, but I last took my copyright classes in law school more than 5 years ago, and I simply do not know what has changed since then, so I will not opine on that aspect of the site. But the bigger impact, I think, was the introduction of, essentially, a chat room for all members of the a cappella hierarchy to meet and discuss the common interests resulting from all-vocal singing.

Twitter/Facebook/interwebs– Having turned to Twitter for the first time myself in the middle of 2011, I was shocked to learn how many of my a cappella idols and favorite groups/performers/arrangers/engineers were not only frequent contributors to the Twitterverse, but were quick to respond to my blog posts or messages. The same is true of Facebook, and I really am impressed with how groups have become active and smart by using Twitter and Facebook to promote their concerts, appearances, albums, auditions, and free downloads.  New and innovative websites like sin3g.com were terrific contributions to the a cappella community as well. Bonus points to Overboard for completing their 52 weeks of free tracks (wow).

Voca People– I posted my review of this show here, so all I will say is that this off-Broadway show which consists of music made entirely by the human voice should be an even bigger success than it is, and if you haven’t seen it, you need to put it at the top of your list the next time you are in NYC. Check it out here.  PS- they have an album which should be available soon!

AcaPolitics– I have a post coming shortly wherein I will review the web novel which turned into a full paper (and E-)novel.  The author, Stephen Harrison, has created a universe instantly identifiable to and comfortable to anyone who sang with an a cappella group in college. And he did so by first repopularizing an old standard, serialized chapters, and then using cutting edge publishing technology by making the book available for e-Readers. Excellent job, Mr. Harrison!

Tom Anderson– according to a recent tweet, the guy from Random Notes compiled 101 arrangements in 2011, a stunning feat that works out to a completed arrangement every 3-4 days. He also taught arranging workshops at 3 (or more?) a cappella festivals (Los Angeles, New York, and SoJam), co-hosted Mouth Off a few times, arranged and co-wrote the song “Sleepwalking” with Peter Hollens, and got arrangements onto Sing 8 and BOCA. I suspect he went from a guy that a hard core a cappella people knew about in 2010 to a guy that everyone in a cappella knows about in 2011. Not bad.

and Things to Look Forward to in 2012

New albums from Sonos, Transit, Euphonism, and other groups…

– the first incarnation of BOSS: Boston Sings, a festival in Boston in mid-April

– Anything new from The House Jacks with their new lineup, featuring Nick Girard (Overboard) and John Pointer (this)

– Anything new from Musae, The Boxettes, and/or Delilah (all-female professional groups building on the big year of 2011?)

– another season (even if an abbreviated one) of The Sing Off? (we can hope)

– Pitch Perfect, a major feature film based on college a cappella

– the unknown- so much of what happened 2011 in a cappella was unpredictable, will 2012 be the same way?

Thanks to all of you for reading, and I am hereby wishing you a very belated happy and healthy New Year!

The Sing Off- The Finale and Holiday Show

I realize this is a belated post on both the results of the Sing Off finale and the holiday show, but things have been very busy for me at work and at home. I don’t have a whole lot of time for analysis, but then again, not much analysis is really required here.

I will note that the ratings for the finale show were the best of the season, averaging somewhere over 5.98 million for the two hours.

It is also worth noting that while NBC has not yet announced any decision about the future of The Sing Off, folks on the inter-twitter-facebook-webs are starting to mobilize to request a 4th season of the show. For the best example thus far, check out the A Cappella Blog right here.

All of that being said, let’s talk about the last 2 episodes (ever?) of the Sing Off.

Finale

Before discussing the episode, I will give full disclosure that I voted (repeatedly) for Pentatonix to win it all. I think it was clear from my prior posts that I believe they were the most innovative, talented, and marketable group and probably the best group to represent the a cappella culture in popular music.

Needless to say, I was happy that they won. :-)

In any event, the show opened with a decent Michael Jackson cover, “The Way You Make Me Feel,” which was kind of an odd choice given the sentencing of his doctor the following day, but MJ’s music has always been a cappella gold. I personally enjoy nearly every song on Duwende’s recent Jackson cover album more than the opening number here, but the song here certainly got better and better as it went along and it really built to a nice finish.

Pentatonix stepped up to the plate first with a cover of “Without You” by David Guetta featuring Usher. I knew that the contrast between the mixing/production for the remainder of the season, which was done over a period of several months, would make the live finale show, with mixing done on the spot, seem a little rough around the edges.  What I didn’t expect, however, was to be fairly underwhelmed by the group who were so consistent throughout the prior 2.5 months. The problem was pitch, but more importantly, they just sounded vocally tired. I’m sure they spent quite a lot of time working on the various numbers in the week or so preceding the show, but their voices just sounded a little tired for the first minute or so of the song. Of course, they are so good that they got better as the song went along and by the end I was back to loving them unconditionally.

Urban Method was up next singing “Stereo Hearts” by Gym Class Heroes. Through much of the song, I lamented the same problems I have discussed all season. Though these guys have the potential to really sound fantastic, their arrangements can frequently sound muddy and rambling. I loved the cascading chords right near the end, and that was all, but I still know I would buy an album of theirs if they could get more consistent with the arranging. Finally, I think Shawn’s comment about how this group brings a “new” element to a cappella– head nodding– reveals that he has never listened to the House Jacks who recorded the bed tracks for this show.

The Aires, whom I have criticized on more than one occasion for pitch problems, offered the best performance of the show thus far with “Paradise by the Dashboard Lights”. The group sounded in tune, lively, and showed how large collegiate groups can harbor a real advantage with the volume of their performances (presuming that they have had a few performances since the taping of the last episode aired a few months earlier). This song was fun, and I loved their incorporation of Amy from Delilah, who I think is a total star.

Pentatonix got another crack at performing live with “Give Me Just One Night (Una Noche),” a 98 Degrees song which they performed with Nick Lachey, and I have to say this was a little more like what we have come to expect from Pentatonix. I also have to note that the “Stallion of the Sing Off,” Mr. Lachey, did a far better job with the solo here than I expected (or remembered him capable of). I know that he seems wooden and (to many) irritating as a host, but I thought he more than held his own on this number. Pentatonix sounded much better on this tune, and the breakdown was really fun and well-executed.

Urban Method was next, performing with this year’s unanimous and undisputed success, new judge Sara Bareilles. THIS was an example of an Urban Method arrangement which, while not their typical style, really worked for their members. Ms. Bareilles sounded terrific and the group behind her sounded full, complete, and properly controlled. I thought this was a fun and really great performance by Urban Method.

Next up, the Aires with Ben Folds performing “Not the Same,” a great song from Ben’s “Rockin’ the Suburbs” album. I was happy to see Ben get the audience involved with the same sections of the song as he does live (Disclaimer: I have seen him live a half-dozen times, maybe more, and he is well worth the ticket price every time). The Aires sounded great behind him, with some great blend and really solid pitch and intonation.

The women of the Sing Off did a nice job with Aretha Franklin’s version of “Natural Woman” and the guys did a serviceable job of “Born to Run” by Springsteen. I have to confess, I had a harder time with the men because when you think Springsteen, words that DON’T come to mind are ivy-league, preppy, sweater-vests and skinny ties, rap… you get the idea. But it sounded fine, and I’m sure it was a heckuva lot of fun in rehearsal and in studio.

Afro Blue with Smokey Robinson was, as expected, like comfort food for the ears. Reggie cranking out a perfect bassline, the group’s sensitive use of dynamics and solid intonation were further proof that they belonged in the final 3, but I’m finished making that argument. 😉

In a bit of a surprise to me, Urban Method took 3rd place in the popular voting. It wasn’t a total shock, but I felt that they had a better shot at defeating Pentatonix from the “breaking-new-ground” position. Of course, if you looked at iTunes sales charts, the Aires really seemed to resonate more than any group other than Pentatonix, so I suppose they were always the natural challenger.

If Urban Method is smart, they’ll work hard, hone their sound, and get a headlining gig at one of the a cappella festivals. I think if they do these things, they have a legitimate chance to be a successful semi-pro a cappella group.

And, finally… Pentatonix won! I thought they deserved it, I think they will do the most going forward with the recording contract, and I really look forward to albums from them and each of the other groups from the final episode of the show.

A Sing Off Christmas

I thought this was a little bit of a misnomer, since the show featured quite a few songs which were not strictly (or even remotely) Christmas songs, but no need for me to be a Grinch about it. Har-dee-har.

I loved the opening number, and it left me feeling that each of the 3 groups which has won The Sing Off was eminently qualified.

I’m not gonna go through every performance on the show because it’s already almost a week later, I don’t really have time, and I don’t think anyone really cares about my thoughts on this lighthearted, entertaining evening.

Highlights:

-Delilah’s legs (http://fr.twitter.com/Delilegs), and Courtney Jensen stepping out to sing part of a solo rather than beatbox,

-Afro-Committed? Committed-Blue? Either way, the sick chords and color tones were shooting all over the place and I have never enjoyed any a cappella bass dancing more than Reggie (my personal favorite bass on the show) doing his weeble-wobble/crab-scurrying-acrosss-hot-sand bass dance,

– the North Shore bass’s lip caterpillar, er mustache, nearly swallowing the mic,

– the Ben Folds and Sara Bareilles skit (“baby coyote inhaled helium”), her solo, and the “Sing Off Five”

– the seemingly awkward moment at the end of “Mistletoe” after Avi held mistletoe over Kirstie’s head…they looked at each other like “should we go one step further and kiss or something? Nah, that would be weird…but…. we do sell everything in our performances…nah, that would be weird….”

– Jerry Lawson

– Courtney Jensen and Kevin from Pentatonix rocking VP while dancing it up behind Jerry Lawson; Avi holding down the bassline alone while approximately 1000 other people sang around him;

– (*my favorite) Shawn paying tribute to Jerry Lawson blazing a trail with “The Persuaders,” which for this genre is a little like saying the rock “trail” was blazed by “The Bottles” or “The Rubbing Stones”,

– fun, fun, fun all-male a cappella with an absurd level of testosterone (the “Testostertones,” anyone?) with OTR, the Bubs, and the Aires,

– Troy Horne (I have heard better bass solos on the Grinch, but that guy is just too good as a performer),

– fake snow (I want some),

– Nick Lachey singing (again? he really is a decent soloist),

– the basses from Pentatonix and Urban Method on “Good Feeling” with Flo Rida… they sounded like they had an octavizer on, but I suspect they didn’t,

– my wife’s comment when 19-yr-old Kirstie from Pentatonix got near Flo Rida- “Stay away from him, honey, you don’t want any of that”,

– people singing into fake or dead mics on that last tune (because it isn’t possible to run that many channels on wireless)

– seeing the names of people like Christopher Diaz, Ben Bram, Nick Girard, Rob Dietz, and of course, DEEEEEEEEKE SHARON at the end.

Lowlights:

– The lack of edge in the Aires’ cover of “All You Need is Love” (it just felt very safe and uninspiring),

another version of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah?” I love the song, but the Lister-nation version of this made me want to move to a monastery where music is banned (http://www.leonardcohenfiles.com/zenord.html),

– vocal horns that, for the most part, didn’t really sound like horns on the Jerry Lawson tune,

– my recollection of OTR and the Bubs being better visual performers than is apparently true (from seeing the recap clips in the intro), as I now realize the Aires were by far the best big group in the 3 seasons of the show in terms of choreo and visual theatrics,

– Noda, Noda, Noda….c’mon Nick, you’ve had 2 years! It’s No-TA!,

– Shawn singing (sorry…I don’t like to be negative on this blog, but…well, you watched),

Well, that’s it. The Sing Off is over for now, maybe forever. If you are curious about some of the behind-the-scenes stuff, check out Deke’s article on CASA right here. I certainly hope the show will return next season, but if not, we got some great groups out of it and we got a chance to show our friends, family, colleagues, and the rest of “Mur-i-ka” (as Ben called it at the end of “Not the Same”) what it is that makes us fall so hard for a cappella music.

I got even more out of it- I got a name and partial inspiration for this blog. I got to hear from people I truly respect in the a cappella community, and I got to share my thoughts with all of you. I will continue to do so on other a cappella topics, and I hope you’ll continue to read. Most importantly, I hope a cappella continues to grow internally and externally as a result of this network television experiment.

Thanks for reading!

~Dave

The Sing Off- Time to Vote (Ep. 10)

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.

Decision Time

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

1-877-674-6403

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!