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.