Thursday, December 16, 2010

The Sing-Off, episode 2-4 (Dec. 15): top 5 performances

Oh yes it's Judges' Night, and the feelin's right.

So, despite the best efforts of downtown Brooklyn traffic, I'm finally home to watch the show as it's actually on the air. So this is what life was like before the DVR.

I'm crossing my fingers that Committed gets their act together tonight, as they proved themselves to be potential winners way back in the first episode. As a life-long fan of the Jets, who appeared to have a lock on the AFC East until two weeks ago, I've had my fill of whiplash-inducing competitive letdowns on my plate recently, and I really can't take another.

The show opens with "A Little Help From My Friends" (Joe Cocker style), which of course is Jerry Lawson's bread and butter. He gets a little help in the intro from Joanna (of The Backbeats), who appears to be a flight attendant… from… the… future! And then all five groups kick in, and it's glorious. There's some big fat loud chords and very few arranging gimmicks to get in the way, save some cute descant asides. I also greatly appreciate that the opening numbers are full-length, as it allows the songs (this one, "21 Guns", and especially "Use Somebody" in episode 2) to grow like, well, like a song. Hearing this makes me so annoyed about the edited songs we hear during the actual competition-- not the edits, but the fact that they have to be done to keep the show running under two hours.

On The Rocks dropped by a karaoke bar and, instead of singing actual karaoke, they sang their Sing Off medley. That's "letting loose"? I'd've at least tried to slip in A Tribe Called Quest's "Scenario", considering all of the outsized personalities crammed onto that tiny onstage.

But back to the actual show. I'm really impressed by their blend from the outset. I like the chromatic drops in the transition into "Bennie & the Jets". More great blend, and then a ma7 that transitions almost magically into "Don't Let The Sun…" One fragment is jarringly bare for a second, but the rest is solid, and the final add2 is yet another glorious moment tonight. Not that they haven't been impressive before, but this is a defining moment for them-- a performance of both visual and musical excellence. (Where's my judging form?!) Scherzinger notes the clarity of the blend too, and I can't help but wonder if there's some Auto-Tune going on.

Back from commercial, we're treated to an outdoor clip of Committed performing a twisty modulating introduction to "Joy to the World". And then as if inevitable, the beatbox kicks in, which caused me to instinctively cringe out of fear that we'll be hearing more blandness like last episode. Fortunately the harmonies get modal again, and it turns out to be a really really solid number with one of those impossibly fast and impossibly high arpeggios at the end. But lets be honest: the basses have been the unsung (partially-sung?) heroes of this competition, because you can arrange generic harmonies on top and then have the bass redefine the chord (like he does in this song and in "Apologize" in episode 2). What's that? Need a tritone sub? Then tell the bass to go down a tritone! Hot damn!

An Usher medley might be good them, as it'll give them a chance to set down a groove and be twisty. (Sorry to say I don't know the names of these songs offhand.) The first segment ("DJ") is indeed a great groove, but nothing harmonically interesting happens until the end of it. The second segment is dull. The third is dull too-- I, iii, iv, IV with little rhythmic variety-- and again nothing interesting happens until the end-- the very end, which just happens to be a gorgeous maj9 that should've appeared much, much earlier. Stockman notes that "the transitions were so sick, how y'all put those harmonies out of nowhere…" That's the problem, though-- the harmonies were out of nowhere, like a colorful frame on grey painting. At least they're finding themselves as entertainers, which is good because it means they have the potential to find the balance that On The Rocks found tonight.

Street Corner Symphony opens the Beatles medley with "Eleanor Rigby", which while not sloppy was not exactly full either. "Help" finally has some of those 7th-filled Oak Ridge Boys kind of harmonies you expect from them. "Hey Jude" has no transition, which is fine, because it starts out strong. The singalong coda loses momentum though, due to some sonic holes that take the listener out of the a-cappella illusion. Folds does note that their unisons are great, and indeed that's hard to pull off, but overall it wasn't their finest moment.

The Backbeats' outdoor clip of "White Christmas" is solid.

Back in the stadium, the choral intro of "Poker Face" is really creative, but then the body of the song is really fast, which is jarring. Then "Pararazzi" kicks in an unexpectedly haunting way, and it turns out that the unexpected tempos are their stamp on this, and it's pretty brilliant. These guys look-- and sound-- slick! It's great to hear an audience cheering mid-song, not to "outrageousness"-- like a lame college audience might-- but to quality harmonies sung well. "Just Dance" is a great capper to a solid medley.

Jerry Lawson & Talk of the Town goes with an Otis Redding medley, which is right their wheelhouse. Yet once again they simplify some harmonies, particularly on the hook and in the bridge section (a plain V on "remain the same"?!), which is shocking in such a sacred cow as "Dock of the Bay". Paul brings his A-game to the lead on "Try a Little Tenderness", and the "re-re-re-re" of "Respect" is a lot of fun, and then suddenly it's over. Whoa. I don't deny this group's infectiousness, but you've gotten bring more than just strong leads to hold your own here.

It's mid-show elimination time; On The Rocks and The Backbeats are my only must-keeps this time around. And… On The Rocks is gone?! I've now paused the DVR and am trying to soak this in. OTR's Elton John medley was one of the finest performances we've seen in all four episodes, and the idea that these highly musical judges found SCS's Beatles medley or Committed's Usher medley to be better is incomprehensible to me. I'm absolutely floored. And there's another hour of this? I'm considering just going to bed now. Oh, who am I kidding.

On The Rocks, who were finally hitting their stride, says goodbye with "Final Countdown", a sheer wall of sound that hopefully makes Folds, Stockman and Scherzinger immediately develop buyer's remorse. I was looking forward to the Judges' Choice challenge, but I'm starting to lose faith in the judges', er, judgement.

On the other hand, they might be able to get Committed back on track, and Al Green's "Let's Stay Together" is a brilliant choice. The opening passage is lush, and passing the leads around is really, really effective. Yay, R&B and jazz chords! V chords with more than just a triad? Hallelujah! About time! They somehow coasted through the last two eliminations, but finally they've come around. This is exactly what I've been writing about (and eagerly awaiting): you can choose whatever the hell song you want to, just as long as you… what's that again?

Rule No. 3: Do what you're best at, and that will yield the best result.

And… done. Luscious. As long as On The Rocks can't come back, Committed just won the show. I mean really, people. You'll be nuts not to vote for these guys.

(I am a little turned off by Terry's comment that "God brought us so far… God has something great for us." Isn't is usually customary amongst the churchgoing public to ask God to make you part of His/Her "plan", not to assume that you're part of it already? Also, Is it me, or did the filming style change during the panning from left to right? It looked like a lower frame rate like a concert video or something. Weird.)

Street Corner Symphony brings us back from the commercial with an outdoor clip of "Auld Lang Syne" techno-style which felt a bit gimmicky. After the last episode, I'm really looking forward to them making a big comeback, Huge Chord Style… and their judges' pick is "Down on the Corner". Not exactly out of their comfort zone. The first verse and chorus are good and stays in the groove, if derivative. The bridge with some extra rhythmic variety is meant to be experimental, but doesn't really go anywhere. Folds, for some reason, says that they "made a classic sound modern again," and the says "you didn't mess with arrangement." So… which is it? Part-wise, outside of the bridge, this is was indistinguishable from the CCR original, and while it was a tight performance, it's wasn't outstanding.

The judges choose Fleetwood Mac's "Landslide" for The Backbeats, and I'm fairly certain they'll hit it out of the park, perhaps even power-ballad it up. And within ten seconds, even though they go the mellow route, they've hit it out of the park. Risky arpeggios with clever "strings" work together sublimely. The bridge was GORGEOUS, a lush wash of voices flowing in and out of impossible-sounding combinations. The whole thing felt really short, but everything we needed to see we saw in this. Hmm, maybe The Beackbeats just won this. Wow.

(Does Lachey get kickbacks from the Society for Commercial-Break Note Holding? The joke's wearing a bit thin.)

Jerry Lawson & Talk of the Town sing "Silent Night" in a tight though harmonically disappointing arrangement. "House of the Rising Sun", on the other hand, is already fairly harmonically interesting, so the judges are handing this one to Lawson & Company on a silver platter.

(Stockman says that "the margin of error kinda goes up now." Does he mean "gets bigger", which would also be wrong?)

Lawson's lead is perfect, and the backing guys nail the very intriguing mix of neutral syllables and text. The interpolation of "Amazing Grace" gave me chills, and the genius of this was slowly revealed over the course of the song. At the end, Stockman asks in wonderment "How did you turn that into gospel?" as in the musical style, but the question only addresses part of the creativity here. TOTT certainly "took us to church" on this one, but it's not only because of the gospel inflections of the arrangement, but also by finding the religious undertones implicit in the references to God that most people, in assuming that the song is just about the damn house, might overlook. By flipping the script, they've found a whole new angle to a tune that had been recorded by many worthy artists leading up to the Animals' hit version: it's not just about a ruined man pitying himself, but rather about a man trying to come back from ruin. I'm not usually one to fall sentimental prey to story lines on "reality" shows, but the parallel between this new angle on the song and Lawson's career is quite chilling. They may get a pass to the final on that alone.

Wow. Hard to believe we're down to four groups. Based on the last four songs alone, I'd send Street Corner Symphony home, as they had easily the least interesting song of the lot, which is a shame considering their stunning set in the last episode. Committed is in (whew!)… and then Street Corner Symphony? Dammit. And then The Backbeats. Dammit again, Lawson was growing on me. Only a miracle can save him now… and it's a miracle! Like Anoop Desai's rescue from the brink, all four groups will go on because, frankly, they've all redeemed themselves at one point or another.

Lachey reminds us "And now America, it's your turn to choose the champion." I can't say that there will be a bad pick among the four, but Lawson & TOTT haven't been consistent enough over all four episodes to justify a win. I'm still in Committed's camp, but only by a nose. I would not certainly not complain if Committed, upon winning the whole thing, hooked up with Take 6 and Naturally 7 to do a victory lap together at every club in New York City. I wouldn't show up to work for, like, a week.

So, a two-and-a-half-hour extravaganza on Monday night it is. Through Sunday at 9 AM Eastern, it's a voting free-for-all. Text early, text often.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The Sing-Off, episode 2-3 (Dec. 13): top 6 performances

Before I could even get home at 9 PM to fire up the DVR and catch last night's episode, I'd already gotten a Facebook message from an ex-vocal-bandmate who wanted to know if I thought the groups were really performing entirely live. This must be one interesting episode.

So… I missed last Wednesday's episode (episode 2-2). I mean, it's sitting on the DVR, but I haven't had time to watch it. I couldn't catch it live, so naturally I was getting taunted by texts and Facebook messages throughout the time slot, telling me how awesome it was and whatnot. Someday I'll catch up with it, but meanwhile I'm going to be pretty much surprised by which groups are remaining. And sure enough… Talk of the Town is still in and Eleventh Hour is out. Must've been a bizarre show last week.

"21 Guns" is a killer number which never gets too busy for its own good even when there are, like, 80 people singing 20 different parts at the same time (although, as usual, many are pre-recorded). Everyone appears to be dressed for some sort of hybrid of Rent and Mad Max. Courtney Jensen (VP for The Backbeats) always has that look on her face like she's afraid someone's going to sneak up on her, which I'll chalk up to having the aspirations of female VP-ists everywhere on her shoulders. Jerry Lawson's voice, alas, sticks out like a sore thumb. (Yikes, those fireworks did not look safe. I was afraid Lawson's hair would catch fire.)

The Backbeats start off "You Give Love a Bad Name" on a mixed note-- an off-kilter entrance and a weak lead entrance that goes into some great voicing and textures. There are more flashes of great voicings in the first chorus, and thankfully it really solidifies as it went on. By the time they hit the second verse, the energy is fantastic; if this really is as spontaneous of a pickup group as the show is leading us to believe, it's quite remarkable.

Street Corner Symphony gets through a verse of a nice but not particularly ambitious arrangement of "Creep". Jeremy's lead is balls-to-the-wall starting in the second verse, and it's pretty much a one-man show for the rest of it. A fantastic one-man-show I would pay to see, but the rest of them are invisible on mostly whole notes tied to more whole notes, so it's no surprise that Folds and Stockman talk about how they liked the performance but could only refer to Jeremy's work as a case in point. And Scherzinger's opinion on the backings rivaling Radiohead's is way out there-- way the heck out there. Whoa. (Samantha was stunned by that as well.)

Jerry Lawson & Talk of the Town's opening video is kinda painful on a couple of levels, mainly tuning. I get the charm of "Still Ain't Got No Band", but make it musical enough to justify the cheekiness. "Satisfaction" sounds like a bad idea in theory, unless they really rework it.

And they do. Iiiiiiiiiinteresting. I think Lawson and company may have found their uptempo comfort zone, complete with an impressive scream on the lead and (finally!) solid backgrounds. Ahhhhhh, I see what it is: they can't hold on to chords well for a long time, but they can hit lots of short chords dead on, which makes some strange sense, actually. I'm surprised at how much I like this song; they finally feel genuine and not like a nostalgia act. And they're singing tight I7 chords, although they shouldn't be switching back and forth between blues and doo-wop worlds so quickly, as the plain-vanilla series of I and IV chords that follow sound, well, plain vanilla.

(NBC informs us that Olivia Munn will be starring in a new series. Um, yes please.)

(There's a trombone in the background for all of the video lead-in interviews. A statement on the overflow of baritones on this show, perhaps?)

On The Rocks's arrangement of "Pour Some Sugar On Me" starts off with some great choral stabs, and the whole thing is very tastefully done for an operation this enormous, and considering the outrageousness of the choreography. It's a probably as clean as it can get for a group this large. Samantha (my wife)-- who is not a musician but has followed me to enough pop a-cappella events to get an ear for this-- noted that it doesn't sound as full as you'd expect that many people to sound, and I agree to an extent; there were a lot of sonic holes that were jarring compared to the loudness around them. I don't agree with Folds that they lost their tonal center; I listened to this twice and it stayed on well. However, did I briefly see the dreaded "VP quarantine" in the first verse? (Scherzinger is finally beginning to own her role as a judge, btw.)

Groove For Thought's take on "Changes" starts out rhythmically and intentionally uneven. To their credit, the bells are gorgeous in spots, and Amanda is blessed with an uncannily mature (read: husky yet Cranberrys-ish) lead voice. The bridge is shockingly generic for these jazzers; so many triads, so few interesting harmonies (save for one chord in the bridge), despite their flawless blend. Ending the chorus on an open 5th? Sung in Christopher Diaz's voice: "What is happening?" This just makes them as mediocre as, well, Street Corner Symphony. I'm floored that they've chosen be so middle-of-the-road not only as a jazz group but also as competitors in round three of a nationally-televised competition. What happened?!?! Why?!?!

I'm really looking forward to how Committed will tweak "Every Breath You Take" into a lush tangle of interweaving six-part modal harmonies. That's… what they're going to do, right? Or maybe not. The opening is heavy transcription-ish pop; the "oh can't you see" section shows some harmonic promise, but then to add self-insult to self-injury, they end the the section with… a plain old V7. No susses or alterations. A regular V7? Out of these guys? Seriously?! Seriously?!?!?! Then the bridge ("since you've gone"), out of nowhere, is a Steely Dan-ish collection of chords that are gorgeous by themselves and makes for a great twisty harmonic story. It's beautiful, but it's an acquired taste, and unfortunately we have, um, about 20 seconds to acquire it. The coda, in another twist, sounds like it could've been some all-too-brief hybrid of P.M. Dawn's cover of "Norwegian Wood" and Seal's "Don't Cry"… and then it's done, leaving us to wonder what could have been. Sigh.

And then out of nowhere, awesomeness strikes. The Backbeats' rendition of "Love Shack" is an explosion of harmony and color that's the most interesting thing we've seen so far tonight. Granted it's a busy pop arrangement, but it's right in their zone. The whole thing clicked, not only visually but as a balance-- as is the eternal struggle-- between bass & drums and the harmonies. The blend was dead on, tuning was perfect, everything… clicked. That's probably the best word for it. And it clicked with a vengeance.

Why is "C'mon Eileen" considered a guilty pleasure? In all seriousness, it's one of the greatest songs ever recorded. I caught it on the radio the other day and jammed to it like crazy. And by jamming, I mean I mentally broke down the Celtic instrumentation and bopped my head to that impossibly percussive piano playing the ^6 on the upbeats over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over. As Street Corner Symphony is really essentially a pop group, I fear the worst where imitative transcriptions are concerned.

And then… they out-Groove-For-Thought Groove For Thought. Holy… freaking… crap. They start with this lush (lush!) sus-filled intro and later more lush (lush! seriously!) harmonies in the verse, of all places. Now this is more like it. Wow. I wish they'd taken the banjo transition seriously, though, as it could've taken it yet another level instead of telegraphing that it's supposed to be goofy. This totally turns the tide for them in a big way. The original Dexy's Midnight Runners recording, along with the rest of the Too-Rye-Aye album (if memory serves), is basically traditional Irish gone rock, which seems like it'd be right up SCS's alley, and it was, but going jazz on our asses was icing on the cake, and also the cake itself, and also the shop where they bake the cake. That was NUTS.

So, a brief recap: Groove For Thought and Committed were harmonically dull, and Street Corner Symphony was harmonically lush. Cue the cats and dogs living together.

The Commodores' "Easy" is a "guilty pleasure" too? What the hell is going on here? Earlier, Nick Lachey describes "guilty pleasures" as "those memorable songs you might not want to admit you love." Why would someone not admit to loving "Easy"? Big-hair metal and boy-bands I can understand, but this? Is anything "guilty" anymore after this?

Now I know what the true guilt here is: Jerry Lawson & Talk of the Town is guilty of arranging a song into something less interesting than the original. Which, by my definition, makes it not an arrangement. Where The Commodores gave us four R&B chords in the verse, Talk of the Town gives us two triads; where the Commodores gave us a beautiful progression in the chorus, Talk of the Town gives us generic freshman-theory voice leading. But then where does Carlton the countertenor come from? Holy crap! Name the group after him too!

Groove For Thought had better bring the funk(iness) this time. Hall & Oates is an easy target for guilty-pleasure-seekers, but they also had some gorgeous progressions, so "You Make My Dreams Come True" should be interesting, even if it's one of their less interesting songs. Sure enough, they've totally uptempo-swinged it out, which is a great idea not only because it's a genre we haven't heard yet this season, but also because it takes the temptation to imitate out of the equation and leaves you with a melody and (perhaps) harmonies to run with. That said, for a jazz arrangement this is really scattered and arbitrary, and you can almost hear the group struggling to keep up in the first half (Amanda's lead sounds lost in spots). The rock breakdown would be a funny diversion if only the rest of it weren't so iffy; thankfully they end on a killer progression with Amanda's ridiculous soprano trumpet. We've now seen a jazz group going way outside of their comfort zone to their detriment, and then a hour later go way, way, way inside their comfort zone and tank there too. Going the swing route is a great idea; if they'd stuck with the basic chord structure and then flat-9'd and aug-5'd the hell out of it, it'd probably have been a masterpiece. Instead, they thought way too hard about it, particularly as they had a mandate to "find the fun," or whatever they're talking about. (See Committed's rendition of "This Love" in the premiere episode for the right way to do it.) A standing ovation? Really? I mean, I don't deny the difficulty of what they just did, but to what end?

"Kyrie" is another not-so-guilty guilty pleasure that On The Rocks starts super strong. HUGE chords into muted guitar fingerpicking that sound hellishly difficult. The way they edit songs is driving me nuts, so we don't hear much of a first chorus, but the final sections are enormous. Not a tuning issue at all in this one, which, you have to admit, seems a bit, um, suspicious. I almost wish they did something wrong, so I'd have more to write about, but all I can think of is HUGE. It's all about the harmonies, folks; busy-ness only works if it stays out of its own way, like those guitar arpeggios did.

Committed needs to be a little less hard on themselves in these intro videos, where they fret and fuss over going out of their comfort zone and then have a .750 average hitting live numbers out of the park. "I Want It That Way" doesn't seem so out there in this context; in the premiere episode they turned Maroon 5's "This Love" into a game-changing crunchiest. So, tongue-in-cheek Backstreet-Boys movement and all, they launch into the song, and… sigh, it's a snoozefest for the first verse and chorus. They go directly to the bridge (as seems to be the norm on this show), which I hope is going to be a complete shift to their crunchy strength, and… it isn't, it's more imitative pop, made emptier by the fact that one of them is doing a mediocre VP-- taking a precious voice out of their killer jazz-alteration formula-- and ending on a triad. Oh man, this is so frustrating. Stockman says "It's one of those songs that everybody loves, so you can't make it too intricate or else it'll sound silly"-- and yet "This Love" had moments of brilliance that were of no resemblance to the original, so what would've been the problem? This is a real head-scratcher all around. A poor showing overall in this episode for the group I'd thought could win the whole thing.

(Oh right, Lachey used to sing in a boy band. I can't think of a single 98º song offhand, to be honest.)

(NBC's bumper immediately afterward is for a "learn to beatbox, Sing Off style" thing on I can already hear the approaching thunder of thousands of fair-weather VP-ists auditioning for open spots in college groups around our great nation come January. I miss the good ol' days when nobody knew how do that and I actually seemed good in comparison. The Good Ol' Days being 1995.)

When they come back from commercial, I'm jarringly reminded that we haven't even seen an elimination yet tonight. Jerry Lawson & Talk of the Town squeak by, likely thanks to their great first number. Street Corner Symphony, doing the opposite, save themselves with that amazing second number. Committed, who squandered their earlier goodwill by going 0 for 2 tonight, are also in, which does not bode well for the remaining far-less-shanktacular groups. The Backbeats earn their way in with one-and-a-three-quarters great songs tonight. And in the last oh-so-suspenseful reveal, On The Rocks will move on, which they earned big-time tonight.

And that leaves Groove For Thought, who totally dropped the ball tonight, to be sent home. This is as good a time as any to reveal…

Rule No. 3, a/k/a Musical Economics 101: Do what you're best at, and that will yield the best result.

If you can kill it in your particular style, why go way off elsewhere? It doesn't make sense. Committed could've easily suffered the same fate tonight, if they didn't have this spell over the judges. And they sing themselves out of the studio with a crunchy and cookin' jazz-blues arrangement of "That's Life" which, of course, is better by far than anything else they did tonight, which proves the point.

I don't believe at all that the fix is in where the judges in concerned, but it seems like the producers have designed the show to tempt groups into sabotaging themselves, like it's as much of a test of will power as it is a musical competition. Why not just give groups the marshmallow test and get it over with?

On Wednesday, more groups sabotage themselves, I presume. This is starting to get weird.

Monday, December 6, 2010

The Sing-Off, episode 2-1 (Dec. 6): season premiere

[This blog will be simulcast (simulblogged?) at and at Feel free to comment on either.]

Well, here we are again. The Sing Off is miraculously back for a second season.

Take a look at my posting regarding the first season for some background as to where I'm coming from in the contemporary a-cappella and music ed departments. It's hard for me to make musical judgments about this show without a twinge of emotion getting in the way-- much as the central wedding in Wedding Crashers is "the Kentucky Derby of weddings,” this show is the Kentucky Derby of contemporary a-cappella. I mean, good Lord, it's five-episode series of live on-mike a-cappella! On national broadcast television! Musical-directed by the guy who started the Contemporary A Cappella Society out of his dorm room! Mixed by a guy I know who produces pop a-cappella recordings for a living! With ICCA and ICHSA finalists and winners, some of whom I've judged myself, competing together on national television! I mean... I could go on. It's quite a moment for the movement.

Oddly though, although the audition pool was significantly larger this year, they've somehow picked some surprisingly mediocre groups. Last year's crop of eight were all top-notch (if memory serves), and any of them could've gone all the way if they hadn't taken severe missteps. After tonight's results (I saw it before writing this), the inevitable the rumors began to fly on "the boards" about casting, favoritism by the producers, rigged results, etc. (in addition to logistical questions about the nature of the show). Deke Sharon (the musical director and aforementioned CASA founder) nipped some of those concerns in the bud soon after the show ended, so I'm running on the assumption that fix is indeed not in where judging decisions are concerned.

Anyway, on to it. My take on American Idol and The Sing Off has been meant to be from a detailed musical and performance point of view, as a jumping-off point for other educators and performers, and I'm going to try hard to stick to that. However, If I do feel compelled to comment snarkily on something outside that realm, like regarding the gratuitously color-coordinated outfits or raunchy comments from the judges, I'll parenthesize it. Like so:

(The opening montage of news clips was a little self-aggrandizing. And why in the world would you obscure Natalie Morales's face?! I was at the box office at the USTA Center in Flushing last September, trying to get last-minute tickets for the U.S. Open semi-finals, when a limo pulled up and Morales stepped out, dressed to the nines and looking even better in person. Oh my Lord.)

The opening song with everybody performing ("I Got the Music in Me") is pretty killer, although granted most of it is pre-recorded (as are all of the multi-group showcases). The adrenaline is running high in this number, and in retrospect it's interesting to see so many of these groups (and their soloists) wailing when later on their they'll put in some very nervous staring-at-the-floor performances. Half of musical performance is, alas, visual (hence the Performance vs. Music split on the ICCA judging forms), and half of coming across as confident comes from, well, confidence. As the first five rounds are judged by a panel with serious performing and musical chops, sitting at the foot of the stage, the difference between the confident and the full-of-themselves will probably lead to worthy cuts before the nationwide vote starts and the teenyboppers and hausfraus-- you know, the ones who put Taylor Hicks, Kris Allen and Lee DeWyze over the top-- weigh in.

(Um, isn't "streetcorner" one word?)

First up is Eleventh Hour, a high-school group who recently came close to being cut out of their school's budget (per the boys of Mouth Off); I wonder why that fact didn't make it into their video piece! The whole Breakfast-Club vibe of the piece was probably meant to rally the audience behind them, but my experience with high-school a-cappella groups has been overwhelmingly positive. When I judged the ICHSA (high-school) and ICCA (college) finals on consecutive nights in 2006, the ICHSA show was far better, and I attribute that to the "adult in the room" factor. The college groups came off as bratty and short on musical detail, which the high-school groups all had, usually out of administrative necessity, some sort of adult advisor who could keep their egos in check and provide much-needed perspective if not actual musical guidance.

"Baby" is an odd choice for a vocal-group competition, as it's a harmonically dull song. I... vi... IV... V... *snore* Luckily for them, they've got great presence and a great blend, particularly on the add9's. Ben Folds says what I was thinking: that the bass and VP worked together very well, which is especially impressive considering how many college groups of this style I've seen over the years who had no idea that those two things are supposed to work together. (This also indirectly attests to the dramatic increase in sound quality over last year, at least as it's coming in over my bass-friendly system.) Nicole Scherzinger, as seems inevitable, calls them "the real life Glee," which I would personally take as an insult, as that would imply robotic pitch-correction and obvious lip-synching, no? I wish I had more to go on with these guys, although they've got good raw talent.

On The Rocks (of Univ. of Oregon)'s video piece is odd; first they're leaping like a latter-day West Side Story, then they're singing in togas in front of what appears to be a beirut table.* (Nice family-friendly show we've got here.) Anyway, I haven't seen their viral hit video of "Bad Romance", so I'm looking forward to seeing them perform it without prejudgment. "We're going out bring everything we have to the audience," says one of them, and I'd say they do. It's a hell of a performance, with a full arrangement that doesn't make me cringe in frustration that they'd squandered their numerous voices, as often happens with groups like this. I didn't hear the pitch issues that Folds did, although there were moments during the bridge that were "fuzzy", i.e. a wall of sound as opposed to be solidified chords. But it was good enough for me to consider them worthy (so far) of advancing. This is probably the closest we have this season to The Beelzebubs (from last season), i.e. a ton of guys on stage having the freakin' time of their lives.

What a pleasure to finally see a jazz group on this show! Groove for Thought seems to have some serious chops in the opening video! But then the chords in the first verse of "I Wish" are mushy, and the tuning following the first chorus is way off, which is a shame because the ending passage, with the group unison leading into seven parts, is awesome and worthy of its own arrangement. I rewound the DVR to hear that part again, it's that good. Alas, everything before it was iffy, and a performance of an R&B standard that keeps the bass line intact while taking out the percussion makes the whole thing shockingly hollow. Shawn Stockman's comparison to Take 6-- crunchy jazz harmonies in an R&B style-- is not totally on, but certainly understandable.

I've been hearing about Pitch Slapped (from the Berklee College of Music) for a long time, so I was looking forward to seeing them here. Then the video cuts to a live set with the ladies singing "jim-a-nit meh-now", and suddenly they're just another stereotypical unmiked college group doing pop covers. If I were one of the bad-ass jazz majors standing in that audience, I'd have a puzzled look on my face, thinking "Really? Berklee isn't above this kind of thing anymore?" (I tried to put something like this together at the Univ. of Miami, and it was kinda lame in retrospect considering how killer the music school's jazz vocal ensembles, who had better things to do than imitate pop recordings, were compared to us. Oh, wait, I spoke too soon; there's an independent pop group at Miami competing in the ICCA this year, with, of all people, Alexander Wagner-Trugman, the Chris Griffin of American Idol season 8.)

On stage, the boosted bass definitely serves them well. The breakdown itself is certainly well-yelled. I'm on the fence about this group; if these two soloists are the best they can do, they may not have the depth to get very far. Considering how many guys are on stage (7 men to 5 women), there's not a lot of depth in the backgrounds either; it felt very female-heavy, which is not good if, even after you've got one guy on solo and two more tied to bass and VP, you still can't hear baritones, leaving a big sonic hole in the performance. (Stockman essentially says the same thing.) It's doesn't help that this seems to be a very open-fifth-heavy song, which kind of ruins the whole point of group harmony.

When they segue to Jerry Lawson & Talk of the Town's video, they're in the middle of a tight performance of "Dock of the Bay", which bodes very very well for them-- when doo-wop (or doo-wop-style rock 'n roll, anyway) is done badly, it can be really bad, and when it's done right it'll send chills up your spine. Lawson, of course, has a heartbreaking growling baritone, and is no stranger to performing (dig that clip from the '70s!), so that's another good sign…

...and then they sing "Save the Last Dance" live. The very first entrance of the backgrounds is a mess, the chords in the opening section never lock, and they seem to change key (not in a good way) during the hook. Solid ringing I, IV and V7 chords, sans the extra notes you'd throw in for jazz or R&B, are the bread and butter of doo-wop, which makes these intonation problems all the more bewildering. And that ii chord on "save" is... oh boy. On a show like this we should expect some attention to detail, and we're not getting it here. It's great to see Lawson get a national audience again, but it shouldn't be like this. I can't believe the genuflecting from the often brutally-honest judges after that performance.

It's first cut time. On The Rocks is the best so far in my opinion, and Talk of the Town, for all of its inspirational vibe, is at the bottom for me. Lawson's group somehow advances; I suppose Pitch Slapped, after their Gregorian pop performance, kind of set themselves up for elimination by making Talk of the Town's harmonies seem rich by comparison.

(Deke Sharon says that reason the cuts are made after only five groups, while appearing arbitrary, is actually pretty obvious: they can't fit ten groups across on the stage.)

And now The Whiffenpoofs (of Yale Univ.). Oh boy. In their intro video, musical director Stefan Weijola sets the Whiffs up to be the villains of the show with this instant classic line: "We are the first a cappella group in history. We invented it." The Whiffs invented… singing without other accompaniment? Were they founded shortly after the formation of the Catholic Church? Hmm, maybe "villains" is too strong of a word; "irritants" might be more appropriate. They've got all of this distortion in the music bed, with quotes about "feeling inordinately powerful" in a tux, followed by... vibrato-heavy choral singing in a fancy restaurant. Something's amiss here, guys.

Imagine my surprise when the intro of "Grace Kelly" is very lush, particularly when they slide into that bVII9 like they own it (kudos to the basses). Aaaaaaaaaand then the fake pop begins. I just heard the Mika original, and the Whiffs, while not obligated to hew exactly with to original, are throwing too many bluesy flat-sevenths into their I chords at the beginning, making the bVII chords in the same phrase that work on guitar jarring in a choral context... or it could be a tuning issue too. And that's the kind of arranging that takes the authenticity out of an a-cappella performance. (And that's even though Brendan, the countertenor soloist, is killer! Usually it's the other way around.) The rest of it works… kind of. Their collective vocal tone isn't suited to pop-- no big surprise-- but they use their "bigness" to fill out their generally triad-based sound. Probably the biggest advantage in being a primarily choral group is their attention to dynamics, which the pop groups could use a lot more of.

Ah, Men of Note. (Of Cherry Hill [N.J.] West High School.) I had the pleasure of judging them at a home-field ICHSA semifinal in March 2008, which they won by a landslide (on their way to a third consecutive title). Their collective stage presence was shocking mature for high-schoolers; I clearly recall writing "You guys look like you're moving even when you're standing still. That's some fast standing." Their blend and power were also killer, thanks to the "adult in the room," choral director Christine Bass. So they're announced in the Sing Off lineup, and what's more it'll be mostly alumni, and I'm thinking that they could be serious contenders. (And sure enough, there's Bass in the opening video!) Then… it turns out they'll be doing "For The Longest Time", which could be either a showcase for the killer blend and expressiveness I knew they could pull off, or it could lapse into cliché.

And sure enough, by the fourth (IV) chord, they're already out of tune, the baritones are way too loud, and, oh yeah, it's BLAZING FAST. The lead (Richard) is strong, but it's hard to concentrate on him with these meter shifts (cut time to 4/4 and back) and random snapping, and then the completely out-of-place group staccato "doo, doo, doo doo" on a low chord puts the nail in the coffin for me. Why would you shift from group harmony (which, alas, had nowhere to go but up) to a low "guitar" strumming (or whatever it was supposed to be)? Another loss of authenticity in what could have been a salvageable performance. When we get to the bridge, the rhythms (while still a hair fast) are in time, but feel so heavy, which is kinda surprising for a group of 18-year-olds. Kudos to the basses, though! Damn. They're worst crime, though, is that "more than I hoped for" is squandered passing-chord opportunity; it's rushed, and the "for" in particular is a bit of mess. This calls for a new set of cardinal rules, which can apply equally to a coffeehouse jam and a nationally-televised competition.

Rule No. 1: Every chord counts.

You can't have a V chord on top with the bass landing on ^6 on the beat and walking up to ^7. I know, that's how Billy Joel did it, but he also had a bass player underneath, so the V was there in the bass (if I recall correctly) while the bass singer could afford to walk up. When Men of Note get to "for", the chord doesn't land because the ^6 in the bass collides with the V7. As we learn later with Committed, it's all about the harmonies, not the busy-ness. Every. Chord. Counts.

The lead is still killing it, which is impressive, and the merry-go-round choreography into action, which is fun to look at. The closing chord is strong and much lighter than the rest of the song, but ends on a sudden VP hit that sounds like a rock being thrown into a pond. Why even bother?

Rule No. 2: Choose a style for an arrangement and stick with it.

Not that you can't throw something in for comic effect, but don't start a jazz song and then sing straight V chords, or commit to keeping the groove by snapping and then throw in a vocal drum fill. Part of the fun of sing unaccompanied is singing so well that the audience forgets what's missing, like how a solid rendition of "Coney Island Baby" or "Milky-White Way" will never seems rhythmically bare-- unless you throw in a random VP fill and burst the bubble. The sudden VP hit here in particular wasn't that jarring, but it was distracting.

Stockman is right that they're stiff (at least at the beginning); Folds, surprisingly, thinks that there are too many tenors, which seems the opposite of what I heard, but also rightly notes that their rushing stifles the harmonies.

Street Corner Symphony (seriously, isn't the noun "streetcorner" one word?!) seems like a genuine grassroots (bluegrassroots?) vocal group, and after the southern-fried vibe in the video, I'm really looking forward to their song… which oddly is "Everybody Wants to Rule the World", which doesn't seem to fit into that vibe. This is their "signature" song? Really? The lead (Jeremy), alas, is thin at the beginning, and the arrangement is pretty much a transcription of the triads of the original, although the bass and VP are really solid here. The middle of verse 2 suddenly gets crunchy with an add9 on "decide", and Jeremy's lead get the stronger, which suddenly reminds us how milquetoast the previous verse was. This is a competition where everybody gets 90 seconds to showcase themselves; why not bring the crunch earlier? The second lead sounds out of breath, the bridge is rushed with some awkward voice leading to boot (although I dig the half-time shift). They do a slowdown at the end of verse 3, which I suppose is meant to showcase their blend but backfires when their tenors aren't up to the task. (See Committed, who, well, are up to the task later.) There's little to recommend them in this set, alas, at least compared to what's come before them.

I'm sure there are dozens of group who formed for the express purpose of auditioning for this show (as they do for the National Harmony Sweepstakes), and The Backbeats seem like a particularly solid bunch-- jazz vocal majors, talent from last season, etc. I'm a little skittish when I see the "a-cappella bounce" in their opening video-- you know, that awkward up-and-down that singers without microphones feel they need to do to to make up for the lack of holding something.

They start out "If I Were a Boy" with beautiful arpeggios melting into solid group harmonies, exploding into a loud chorus and finally melting back into a gorgeous closing passage, all supporting a killer alto lead (Joanna); altogether this is the fullest sound we've heard yet. I really have nothing to criticize here; it's shockingly solid for a pick-up group, and this arrangement (with addition of more sections) will be certainly be in heavy demand during the next ICCA season. Wow. "Off the chain," as Stockton says with more authenticity than I ever could.

(Nick Lachey refers to their elimination reveals as "heart-stopping", which is accurate in the sense that they suck the life out of the show.)

In their opening video we see Committed walking into their church, and immediately I'm thinking they're going to go all Take 6 on us. AND THEY DO. They do more in their video than most previous groups did on stage (maj7#11 chords and all), which bodes very, very, very well for them… until one of them says "We're a gospel group; we haven't been singing Top 40 pop music long, and this is a completely new experience for us," "We are a little nervous; pop music isn't our bread and butter," and so on, and the bells go off in my head. For licensing and promotional reasons (this is a Sony Pictures show on NBC that leads to a Sony Music contract, after all), the show is going to be pushing mainstream popular music, but I'm hoping it's not going to hamstring the group and they'll put a jazz-gospel spin on it (unlike Maxx Factor, the barbershop group from season 1 who went the pop-arrangement route to their detriment).

And the opening chords of "This Love" do not disappoint. Remember how every chord counts? They remember. Good Lord do they. They probably could've coasted on a whole song of that, but then they go into a more pop a-cappella arrangement for the rest of the first verse, and it feels like a sellout somehow-- a jazz-gospel group imitating keyboards? Does that really need to happen? And then the verse, shockingly and frustratingly, is very generic. Triads? TRIADS? After the six-part nirvana in the intro video? What a disappointment. They salvage it in the transition after the verse, when the chords arpeggiate and their blend kicks back in, and then we're back to their strength in the bridge, where the suspensions are lusciously suspended and we get a parallel major ii-Valt-Ima7 that's like the sky opening up. The bawdiness of the lyrics in the lead seems weird for them, but who gives a crap when the chords are locking like this. The last chorus goes from generic bass-and-VP pop to a gorgeous breakdown halfway through and back to the generic, which is soooooooo frustrating. Thankfully they end on a stunning series of chords that makes the final unison worthwhile. (As my arranging professor at Miami said, you need enough cake to justify the icing, but also vice-versa.) This groups has depth too; all solid, as far as I can tell.

Committed and The Backbeats are the groups to beat, as I see it. Men of Note gets cut, which is not a travesty, but two other groups could've been cut based on what we've seen tonight. Men of Note's goodbye song** ("Take a Bow"), for some reason, is better than their competition song. Actually, all of the groups' songs we hear from the "opera boxes" in the closing sequence is better than than what we heard in the competition (except for Committed's, oddly). Hmmmmmmmmm. Could be the pressure of competing.

(Next time, if the closing-credits teaser is correct, we will see Nicole Scherzinger's "musical climax". I... would like to see that, I'm not gonna lie to you.)

* In confirming the name "beirut," I just spent some quality time reading the Wikipedia article on beer pong. That's five minutes of my life I'd like back.

** I refuse to call it their "swan song," just on principle out of my annoyance with Nick Lachey. Oh, and it's corny.