Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The Sing Off, season 1 (Dec 14, 15, 16 & 21)

As I've been fairly steeped in the contemporary a-cappella scene since college (and continue to be), I was really interested in doing an episode-by-episode blog about NBC's four-episode competition The Sing-Off. Personal conflicts, including my own sing-off in the form of prepping for my new school's winter assemblies, have kept me from doing with The Sing-Off what I did with American Idol. That said, there are lots of things to take away from the show, from contemporary a-cappella and general performance angles. I won't be nitpicking individual performances; just making general observations.

[Heads-up: I hyphenate the term "a-cappella", as opposed to writing it as two words. I wasn't inspired by anyone else to do it; about ten years ago I just thought it'd be easier to read that way, as opposed to having that Italian preposition "a" sitting all by itself, just begging to be confused with the English indefinite article.]

Issue One: Why did it take three episodes for the sound mix to finally work?

For the first two episodes I thought all of the basses had been quarantined. The sound in the third episode was so much stronger and authentic to what the performers were doing. Is it that hard to find an engineer in the Los Angeles area who knows what close-miked group vocals are supposed to sound like? I imagine an NBC exec was watching playbacks of the first two episodes, and it occured to him "Hmm, maybe a musical showcase should have a sound mix that doesn't suck."

Issue Two: Maxx Factor sold out. And it backfired on them.

This was never billed as an exclusively "contemporary" a-cappella competition, as far as I can tell. ("Contemporary" in this context is an umbrella term that refers to simulating the impression of a band, whether that be through rock, jazz, latin or other genres.) The irritating mantra in the first two episodes, spouted by group after group in their pre-song profile clips, was how each group was going to show the proverbial world that "a-cappella" isn't just doo-wop and/or just barbershop and/or just jazz and/or just R&B and/or just pop and/or just classical and/or just big choruses and/or just small groups and/or just inexperienced college guys and/or just old-fashioned adults. (Anything else we want to throw into the contradictory mix of what a-cappella isn't supposed to be? Doesn't that kind of confusion kind of prove its own point?) So here is an award-winning quartet, the cream of an incredibly huge and competitive international crop in the barbershop world, with a chance to bring barbershop-- a difficult and gorgeous vocal form-- back into mainstream attention. And from the get-go they announce "we're going to show the world that we're not just barbershop."


This goes to the point of numerous previous postings I've made regarding American Idol: DO WHAT YOU'RE BEST AT. Samantha (my wife) and I thought that three of the four of them (excepting the youngest one) sounded ridiculous trying to do pop & rock solos. It's not because they have bad voices, but because they're not pop or rock singers, and they shouldn't have tried to be. How kick-ass would a true barbershop-style re-imagining of a current popular tune have been? It would've brought the house down, reminded the world of the more-than-the-sum-of-its-parts power of skilled arranging and correctly-tuned singing, and would have confirmed what makes them the best in the world at what they do. (Barbershop singing has particular approach to tuning-- where the octave isn't always neatly divided into twelve identical steps-- that creates that distinctive ringing sound that makes four people sound like twenty.) If the Beelzebubs or Noteworthy tried jazz harmony, I'm sure it would've been a disaster-- not because they're bad singers, but because it's not what they do. Portions of Maxx Factor's Beach Boys medley verged on genius, and its a shame they didn't apply that genius to their other material.

Issue Three: What's happened to The Beelzebubs? (This one is going to be serious inside-baseball a-cappella talk, so bear with me. I also may need to go into hiding over this.)

I was in awe of The Beelzebubs throughout college ('91-'95), and followed them via their brilliant recordings and by virtue of singing with some of them over the years. When I was in college, if the 'Bubs were coming to our campus (from nearby Tufts Univ.), the anticipation among our vocal groups was palpable. Their live performances were like testosterone personified. They were guys' guys who barged into a recital hall (or conference room or chapel) and f-ckin' took the place over. Just... took it over. And not just by virtue of their sheer numbers (they've always been 12 guys and up), and not by virtue of loud colors (they did muted shirts & blazers then, not the ├╝ber-frat fun-house weirdness of the last week). They chose songs that either rocked your face off or were really powerful and intense, and their in-your-face performances and inventive recordings made you want to either a) if you were a guy, get drunk with them, or b) if you were girl, get drunkenly groped by them. And now on this show, it's so... cheesy. It's like they're playing into the stereotype of an old-school college group that every other group was saying they'd avoid: hyperactive movement and a collective shiny-happy demeanor without true vocal strength behind it. Being cheesy is easy; true ballsiness is hard. And they've really tipped the scales the wrong way this time. I know it's odd to use such a wide time frame, but I haven't seen them in concert since '97, so my image of them is frozen from then; making it more jarring is that their recordings, especially from the last six years, continued to be stellar. (I mean, listen to this. Or this. Or this. It's damn good.) If their change in stage style is a result of pressure from the producers of the show, then I'll forgive them, but otherwise I wonder what's gotten into them over, um, the last twelve years. What a shame.

Issue Four: Thank God that actual a-cappella-experienced people were involved.

When I heard about the show being developed several months ago, I was intrigued. Then, as the promos began airing on NBC in November, I was somewhat dismayed to see Ben Folds on the judging panel. Let me preface that: I love Ben Folds. His piano chops and heartbreaking lyrics have driven me to dancing and tears respectively; I own all of his Transcribed Scores books; "Boxing" in particular is in constant rotation on my iPod. However, his involvement in this show obviously stems from his recent album Ben Folds presents University A Cappella!. I am proud to own a signed copy of this CD as a cultural touchstone of sorts, but I don't listen to it, because it's... not good. And its not the groups' fault. On Folds' web site, Mickey Rapkin describes Folds as a latter-day Jane Goodall, discovering and studying this heretofore unknown world of college kids singing in groups other than choruses. Well, unknown to him, which is why it's such a sloppy album: it's an unfamiliar musical realm for him, and what's tolerable to him turned out to be very corny and sub-par for those of us who listen to this kind of thing all the time. (I could go on and on; listen to the premiere episode of Mouth Off starting at 12:03 for more on this.) Point being, Folds is a stellar musician who I was afraid would turn out to be talking out of his butt on the show; fortunately, he turned out to be a pretty killer judge. (Shawn Stockman was great as well, as expected. And, um, that's all of the judges, I think.)

Now, having qualified judges is one thing; having people behind the scenes that understand how to make it work is another. Thankfully, Deke Sharon (founder of the Contemporary A Cappella Society) was one of the head arrangers and was part of the production process, and Ed Boyer and Roopak Ahuja (both formerly of my boys) recorded the interstitial music. (I noticed that Petra Haden was the other head arranger in the final credits; I'm curious as to which charts were hers, as her a-cappella outing The Who Sell Out is my only [very raw] frame of reference.)

Issue Five: We now have confirmation that Bobby McFerrin is a musical god. Not really an issue; just wanted to say it.

Issue Six: We now have confirmation that Nick Lachey is a really bad singer. Not really an issue; just wanted to say it.