The Sing Off Episode 8- Rock and Pseudo-Country Music

I have a few other posts in the works this week, so I’m going to keep it relatively short  for my summary of this week’s episode of the Sing Off.  I was a little surprised by the result, but even more surprised by the general level of inconsistency with the groups. I thought the only groups to perform two songs at an average or better level were Pentatonix and Urban Method, the first of which did not surprise me, and the second of which DID surprise me.

Without further ado…

Pentatonix– Despite the potential great disparity between a classic rock tune and a country tune, several of the groups chose to perform songs which weren’t all that different from each other. Pentatonix, however, started with a sneering, growling version of “Born to be Wild.” The rhythm section drove it, and the other backing voices were appropriately subdued to let Avi and Kevin just burn it up. This was fun, articulate, and top-notch, as usual.

For their second tune, Pentatonix chose a laid-back, clean, smooth version of Sugarland’s “Stuck Like Glue.” The reggae section in the middle was a little closer to a typical “Pentatonix-style” performance, but even in the beginning and end, the song was consistent, well-sung, and very hard to pick apart.

Dartmouth Aires– Starting with Twisted Sister’s “We’re Not Gonna Take It,” the Aires offered yet another high-energy performance full of visual, visceral power. The arrangement was fairly busy from the get-go, and I actually found it a bit overwhelming to the point of perhaps distraction. It wasn’t bad, but I felt like it was just a little heavy on the ears (which, to be fair, is true of Twisted Sister’s original too). I really did enjoy the little transition (“and now we’re going to the bridge…”), and I really did not enjoy the joking attempt at choral singing. It was a cute idea, and I even sang a rock song or two in college with my group that had just such a segment, but I found it a weak distraction from the driving force of the song. Overall, the song was pretty good, if a bit sloppy musically.

As for the Brooks and Dunn cover, many of the same criticisms and praises apply. These guys always crank out absurd levels of energy in their performances, and they didn’t seem so far out of their element with this song, largely because it isn’t the most traditionally classic “country” song. My biggest problem, again, was the very crowded arrangement and sometimes blaring sound of the backing voices. I know it isn’t always easy to arrange for 15 singers (although it can be a lot of fun) on a very upbeat tune without sounding too busy, but I felt that this song was also a little heavy on the ear. Nevertheless, it was hard to take issue with the overall performance, and I have to say they definitely nail the showmanship aspect of performing each song. Now if they could be a little tighter and more nuanced with the music, they could have a real shot at reaching the finals.

Afro Blue– Oh, Afro Blue. Why do you seem so lost the past 2 weeks? The good news is that the group still does what it does really really well. I mean, the problem with this song wasn’t the actual performance of the song, as they hit every crucial chord and executed the song very well. I thought the problem was the arrangement, specifically the choices they made with the arrangement, and maybe even with selecting the song. I mean, there are plenty of classic rock artists and songs out there which Afro Blue could have chosen which they could really manipulate to make their own in a smarter, more natural way which works to their crossover strengths. I just felt very lukewarm about the overall arc and choices they made with this song. This got me a little worried about where they would head with their second performance…

Which was SO much better. Lady Antebellum’s “Need You Now” really allowed the group to emphasize their emotional, vulnerable, subtle capabilities…something which they might do better than any other group in the competition (other than Delilah, but sadly they are gone). Nice belltones to start, light smooth “oohs” act as a pad underneath the very delicate solo and harmonies… this is one thing which Afro Blue does so well.  I was so glad to hear them regain their sensibilities with this song. It wasn’t perfect, it wasn’t one of their top 2 or 3 performances on the show, but it was clearly very effective.

Delilah– I thought “Dream on” started out great, sparse with the pedal just like the original. Then things got… complicated. The ladies had a few pitch problems once the song hit the chorus, and I can’t decide after several listens if the problem may have been related to the syllables they were on, which produced a very spread (and potentially grating) sound. It also seemed like some of the inner parts were really struggling to find a pitch center. As usual, Amy rocked the solo and the VP was very good.  The ladies went all out on this song, and I totally respect their choices, which were legitimate and well-founded. But, as with some of their past performances, the pitch problems left them a bit exposed (and no, I do not think that the problem here related to the fact that they lack any male voices).

When they began “If I Die Young,” I thought they might redeem themselves from the first performance. The intro did a nice job of building upon the solo and growing with nice layers. I thought the song was incredibly expressive and tender, and really a very convincing performance overall. At first I thought there pitch issues, but as I relistened, I realized the problem was more the sagging energy under the persistent “aaaahs” that they sang through the first minute or so.  There were also a few issues with timing on syncopated sections. Tremendous solo, really rich bass part, and the lower sections did a nice job playing off each other. I thought this was a very moving performance, if a bit low on energy in the backs.

Urban MethodI really liked how these guys started “Here I Go Again” with the simple harmonies and kick drum, then the bass dropped in and the chords built a little, and then… BAM! New style which Whitesnake never considered for the original (I would assume). I think this was a risk which worked, particularly because of Myke’s ridiculous skill and his recreation of the rhythm and the use of two trios in the second chorus. In the past, I have been unimpressed with the backing vocals utilized by this group either as a result of arrangement issues or pitch issues. For this performance, I actually liked the arrangement, and heard no serious pitch issues. As always, the rhythm section was tight, and I thought the ladies sounded very controlled on the backing vocals. Overall, a smart arrangement and great performance.

The second tune, “Before He Cheats,” was a little more straightforward and more typical a cappella cover from a group which rarely does that. This time, the group really went away from their typical strengths, and did a very convincing job. Though she is not a typical “country” singer, the soloist (Katie?) was terrific. The 2 female harmonies were very solid, and the rhythm section was predictably successful. For the second time on this show, the backing vocals had no pitch problems, and the parts worked well together. Overall, I wouldn’t say this was a top-notch performance, but it was definitely hard to find serious flaws in it.

Vocal Point– Now THIS is how you use a guitar feedback/flange sound which other groups have failed to produce earlier in the season. The beginning of “You Really Got Me” is dark and twisted, sinister almost. Slow kick drum drives through it, picking up until they turn it into what the song actually sounds like… sort of. And that’s where they lost me a bit. I mean, let’s be honest, the song is something of a one-trick pony, by which I mean it just repeats over and over again. The soloist worked hard to make it interesting, and he did a great job, but the backgrounds were simple and generally uninteresting until they went through the hammering chords into the breakdown, which was pretty sweet. Then it dropped back into the regular rock beat and backs, and I was somewhat uninterested again. End it all with a series of jazzy chords and a high note on the solo, and I’m back in. I guess I found the song inconsistent, but it certainly wasn’t due to any flaws in the performance. Chalk it up to another situation where I just didn’t love the arrangement, but these guys clearly know how to energize any performance.

Interesting choice (and smart) to take a rock song, “Life is a Highway,” which was later covered by a country(ish) group. The arrangement was fairly smart, if somewhat simple, and they did a terrific modulation towards the end which really locked. As always, these guys sounded great. They have rarely demonstrated any problems with pitch or rhythm, and that was equally apparent here. The soloist did a nice job, and the overall feel I took from the group’s performance was “Safe.” I would have liked to see them take a few more risks in the arrangement, vocal effects, or something else, but you really can’t fault them for choosing a song they could probably could do in their sleep (especially given their apparent return to school and the travel schedule).

As always, these guys are fun, talented, generally smart about their choices.

Overall, I thought it was an interesting night. My first reaction to Delilah’s exit was shock, but now that I have listened to the entire show again (and again, and again), I can see the judges didn’t really have much choice.  At this stage, there were only 6 groups left, each of which has a particular skill set and undeniable talent. I really liked the emotion, soloists, and niche that Delilah brought to the show, and for those reasons alone I thought they had a chance to make the finals.  Unfortunately, they also suffered from periodic pitch problems, and their arrangements occasionally failed to temper the potential problems they had in featuring a slew of powerhouse voices who were frequently forced to sing background parts (can’t all sing solo all the time).

I really enjoyed them the first two performances and the last 3 or 4 performances, and I know at least a few of them are going to be performing with Musae this weekend at SoJam, so these ladies will be back in some shape or form. For now, the wheel keeps on spinning and next week we get to watch another talented group go home.

Thanks for tuning in!

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…

This post is also available on Sin3g right here!

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!

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!

The Sing Off after 5 Episodes

After a total of 4 performances from each group that competed Monday night, I think we have reached a point where we can begin to sort what we have left on this season into a few categories. Before I do so, however, I just want to make it clear that I have infinite respect for every group that has competed. As Christopher Diaz noted on the Mouth Off podcast a few weeks ago, singing a cappella is HARD. Getting a group of five or fifteen individual voices to blend despite differences in timbre, intonation, power/strength, and intelligence (yes, I think a singer’s voice, or at least his use of that voice, has intelligence) is HARD. Getting a group of five or fifteen individual people to learn an arrangement, learn choreography, and learn how to PERFORM (smile, exude confidence, project the voice, etc.) is HARD. Anyone who has performed a cappella music and worked at it knows as much, and for that reason I have total respect for all of the competitors.

So I want to be clear that any comments or criticisms I make (or anything perceived as such) come purely from the perspective of this show as a competition.  I am sure that many if not all of the individuals in these groups are great people, hard workers, and talented singers. I am simply weighing in here on my views about the show as a competition.

That being said, I welcome opposing opinions and criticisms– put ’em in the comments below, or shout ’em out on Twitter @acatribe.

This post is also available at sin3g.com

So, let’s move on with the categories.

GROOVE THANGS

Pentatonix– these guys have been consistently great, if not excellent. One of their many strengths is their rhythm section, with equally solid performances on bass and VP. I believe that all of the best groups in this competition and really the best vocal bands or a cappella groups in the world owe a great deal to the strength of their respective rhythm sections, and these guys are no exception. Perhaps even more importantly, Pentatonix have been smart with song selection AND arrangement choices. I will have an upcoming post on song selection for a cappella groups, but I think Pentatonix has done a nice job of choosing songs which are identifiable, upbeat, but also showcase their particular skills and strengths.  As far as their arrangements go, they recognize their limitations with a 5-person group that includes 2 on the drums/bass and 1 on solo, and they have made choices on the inner voices which were smart and satisfying. For the most part, you never find yourself thinking “I wish they had another baritone,” though it would undoubtedly help them out. Finally, they have their own niche sound. If you listened to all the groups blindly, you would easily know which group was Pentatonix. Add in some bold choices with the scratching and other vocal effects, and I think you’re looking at a favorite to win it all.

Afro Blue– another example of a group whose biggest strength might just be the rhythm section. From their very first performance, I found myself really enjoying their smooth basslines. While it is a very different type of bass/VP from Pentatonix, these guys do a terrific job of locating one of the real keys to a successful rhythm section. Specifically, they know that a bassline has to not just groove with the drums, it has to syncopate with it. In other words, the best rhythm sections in most popular genres are those where the bassline locks in with the drums, sometimes literally. A bassline which really pops is one where emphasized notes match up cleanly with the kick drum hits (or sounds), and Afro Blue does that really well. They know how to find and sit in “the pocket.”  They also have have a different timbre or color to their voices which is not only unique in this competition, but very pleasing to the ear. They don’t sound like they are trying to blast their way through anything, they sound relaxed, and they sound and look confident. Like Pentatonix, they are smart about their arrangements, showing off more consistently interesting arrangements than any other group on the show. Most importantly, even when they are “off” their game a little, the sound is not bad or awkward– just a little less than perfect. Finally, the fact that they look like they are having so much fun provides a contagious energy which intrigues the viewer. I just don’t know if a college group can win it all.

IN THE HUNT

Urban Method– As one of the 4 groups with its own real niche sound, I would think Urban Method has a real shot at winning the whole competition.  Their rapper Myke has a great flow, and the VP is generally powerful and driving. The bassline is also powerful, though I’m not always convinced it is in the pocket as much as some of the other groups. At first glance, these guys are superstars. They have personality, they have what seems like a raw energy in their performances, and yet… this is ultimately an a cappella competition, and there are some serious pitch problems and intonation problems with the backs occasionally. If you remove the rhythm section, solo, and rap, you are left with some voices that have seemed, at times, shaky and not at all locked in. I think this is a problem which could be solved by some different choices in voicing the parts or perhaps syllables, but they’d better fix it soon because otherwise I don’t know how they’ll compete with Afro Blue or Pentatonix.

Vocal Point– these guys do an awful lot of things really well. Energy? Crank it to 11. Personality? Undoubtedly. Arrangements? Interesting, with an impressive use of moving parts for a group of 9 or 10 guys. Solos? Very solid. Rhythm section? While not as great as the top two, I think they have a good grasp on letting rhythm drive the group. Tuning? Consistently tight. They do jazz (swing and big band) well, and last night they did a pretty solid job with Kenny Loggins. I think they have to be considered serious contenders, though I feel that there is some intangible quality which they might be a little short on which keeps them in this category and not the top grouping. And of course, they are a college group (so is Afro Blue, I know) which some would say precludes any possibility of their winning it all.

Delilah– I have to say, I was blown away by their first performance. It was powerful, engaging, and just REALLY well-done. And unfortunately, it reached a level which they have failed to duplicate in their subsequent performances.  With “What Do You Want From Me,” they came close, but in their last 2 performances, they’ve had some weak moments with intonation, they’ve had some unintentional breakdowns (or awkward moments musically), and they’ve looked a little less confident. I expected them to really thrive on Flashdance (I don’t know why), and I was really underwhelmed. There is no question these women are TREMENDOUS vocalists- they are a powerhouse group of soloists with a solid rhythm section. And yet…they only achieved that excellent balance of blend and emotion once. I want these women to do well, I expect it each time out, and I think the judges really like the potential that they bring with such talented members. But Monday night, as Ben referenced, there were some weaknesses in the arrangement which emphasized some of their flaws. There’s no question that they were bold in their decision to go with an all female group and with their subsequent choices, and I think the judges will reward them for those choices up to a point. But they will need to get stronger each week to hang around, and Monday night might have been their weakest performance thus far.

DEAD GROUPS WALKING (OR DANCING)

First let me just note that I think the Top 8, which includes these 3 groups, is generally at a pretty high level. I don’t think any of these groups were bad, and each has had a few great moments. I just don’t see any of these 3 making it beyond the next few weeks. And perhaps the biggest part of the problem with The Aires and The Yellowjackets is that they cancel each other out a little. I feel that Vocal Point’s musicality and consistency distinguish them from the other 2 remaining male collegiate groups, and that’s why they are bumped up a little bit in my eyes.

The Aires– Energy, energy, and energy… they have it visually, they have it in their sound. But if you listen through their songs without watching, that energy only gets you so far. Even in Pinball Wizard, arguably their strongest performance, you notice problems with transitions and pitch problems from oversinging. They have some great voices, and the arrangements are exciting and fresh in some moments, and pedestrian in others. Coming from a background of male a cappella groups, I love what these guys do and I know how hard it is to get that many guys that energetic. But, I’ve also seen quite a few college groups perform at least in the same vicinity musically, and I just don’t think they distinguish themselves enough to win it all.

The Collective-Hmm… I think this group proves that a collection of singers, no matter how great, does not necessarily translate into success as an a cappella group. Since their first performance, I felt this group struggled with pitch, blend, intonation, and rhythm. On the plus side, their performance Monday night was better in most of these areas. I don’t doubt that these folks could develop into a very good a cappella group, but I still don’t feel that they *get* what singing a cappella is all about (see my previous posts). In other words, I think singing a cappella is something that hinges entirely on group dynamic and chemistry, selflessness, and listening. So far, I have felt nervous each time this group performed, as if they were about to head right over the edge of a cliff. If it wasn’t one flaw, it was another. I Will Survive generally did not feel that way. Perhaps one problem they face may in fact be their membership or instrumentation.  In other words, as Warren Bloom noted on his CASA blog (http://www.casa.org/content/5th-judge-sing-episode-3-5-oct-17-top-10-1st-hour), it seems like they have an abundance of baritones with few or no real tenors.  As a result, the backs on many of their songs are muddy. They have a rhythm section, solo, a woman not singing solo, and a whole lot of mid-range male voice. I just don’t see them developing enough as an a cappella group, musically, for them to win it all.

The Yellowjackets– Another all-male college group with high energy, tons of members, and a lot of potential. As with The Aires, these guys represent a very high level of showmanship, draped over a very typical level of male collegiate group musicality.  This is not to say that they are bad- far from it- but rather that if the Beelzebubs didn’t win in Season 1, and On the Rocks couldn’t go the distance in Season 2, I’m not sure what would make these guys any better. I thought they did a great job with their vocal horns in “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You,” maybe the best vocal horns in the competition. On the flip side, I felt that their performance of the Spice Girls tune last night was, while fun and energetic, a bit grating and shticky. The sound was clean, but I found some of their performance choices irritating and awkward. Energy can only take you so far in a competition like this, and where there are some groups with very unique attributes, I just don’t see the Yellowjackets going much further.

So, that’s my summary of the remaining groups. If I had to guess, I’d say the final 3 will be Pentatonix, Afro Blue, and Urban Method, but I wouldn’t be shocked if Delilah or Vocal Point beat out the pioneers of rapapella (I really think hiphopapella is more fun to say).

I could be completely wrong, but these are my opinions.

You can check out some other blogs about The Sing Off at:

Sin3g

Vocal Blog

The A Cappella Blog

5th Judge at CASA