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 98ยบ song offhand, to be honest.)

(NBC's bumper immediately afterward is for a "learn to beatbox, Sing Off style" thing on NBC.com. 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.

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