Monday, October 10, 2011

Sing-Off redirection to CASA

For the duration of the third season of The Sing-Off on NBC, I'll be blogging directly from my 5th Judge blog page at the Contemporary A Cappella Society's web site. I may even just redirect to go straight there. Either way, read me there for now! -- w

Monday, September 19, 2011

The Sing-Off, episode 3-1 (Sept. 19), 2nd hour: round 1, bracket 2

[Continued from previous posting.]

We're back from commericial, and the interstitial music is still kicking my butt.

Nick Lachey refers to the show as "riding the wave of a whole new musical movement." *sigh* If we're assuming that the "movement" is Contemporary A-cappella, then I could swear theres a Society for that. Founded, um,19 years ago.

I've been looking forward to seeing more of Urban Method, particularly as it's the brainchild of Tony Huerta, who's been behind some seriously amazing projects over the last 20 years and also happens to have the best job a live sound guy could ever have. Not surprisingly, their video's music bed is amazing. Resident rapper Mykal Charles seems like one artistically hungry guy; he wants this so bad, I can taste it.

Eminem and Rihanna's "Love the Way You Lie" is a gimme to showcase a female singing lead and a male rapping lead. The opening solo is quite beautiful, but when Mykal's rap (which is great) kicks in and the tempo shifts up, something gets muddy in the backing vocals; those minor chords are arranged either way low or way too spread out.

Then Urban Method does something we haven't heard in any previous episode of the show: the group vocal flange. (It's at the 3:00 mark in this clip.)

I did a serious double-take when I heard it, and then wondered why no one on a show that features contemporary a-cap had ever tried this. And it is awesome. Unfortunately, it's all too brief (the length of the first chorus) and then we're back to the too-low chords. I hate to say it, but my favorite arranging moment (after the flanging) is the octave doubling of the lead (it looks like Tony's on the low part) along with the female descants during the choruses. That's not to say the whole thing isn't effective, because it is thanks to the energy of the soloists and some solid rhythm.

(Shawn tells a wonderful story of the a-cappella/hip-hop connection, but starts it with "I saw [hip-hop] go from where it was [indicating low] to where it is [indicating high]." I would personally say "from where it was [indicating middle, circa 1980] to where it went [indicating high, circa 1995] to where it is [indicating low].")

(Can we put a moratorium on the word "rapappella"? Please?)

Now we can see what a group called Cat's Pajamas is like. My first impression about their name and demeanor during the opening group number was that they're trying to be an old lady's version of what's "hip" and "cool". Frighteningly, they meet those expectations almost perfectly in their video package (word for word!). They cut to a live performance (for an audience of old ladies in an impressive-looking theater) of "Pretty Women", and suddenly I realize that they're trying really, really hard to be Rockapella circa 1998, perhaps too much. Can't blame them for copying from the best, though. Once of them says they're trying to do repertoire "in a fresh new funkier way," which is directly contradicted by what we're seeing and hearing.

Back to the live show, and "Some Kind of Wonderful" seems like it be right in their wheelhouse-- perhaps their second set opener in their nightly show. I'm pleasantly surprised to see their VP-ist doing double duty on bass ("basscussion", as we once called it), which is really tricky on a single mic. I do have to say that despite the cheese factor, these guys have a really slick act and tight sound going on; 200 shows a year will do that for you. (I doubt the Fannin Family has even had dinner together 200 times.) They're not my favorite act ever on the show, and they're arrangements (for a quintet) aren't the best we've heard, but I'd be hard-pressed to root for their demise. I really respect these guys, and if they make it through I hope their arranging (and all-around vibe) gets more interesting. (Shawn and Sara agree!)

Kinfolk 9's video package is full of people undulating their arms to the music, which is something I feel like you only see when a-cappella groups are rehearsing. Why do we do that? Seriously? And enough of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" already! Everything we see in this package says that they're some sort of bohemian gospel outfit, and I can't quite pin down what their vibe is supposed to be.

(Their song will be "Secrets", one of many dull songs from the beige harmonic cloning laboratory of OneRepublic. Can we put a moratorium on OneRepublic too? To paraphrase Chris Griffin, covering OneRepublic just perpetuates the stereotype that OneRepublic is worth covering.)
Soloist Moi is way too low in his range at the beginning, which momentarily offsets Kinfolk 9's great blend. Seriously, their tuning is dead on the whole way through, even on the breathy rhythmic backing lines. Killer add2 final chord too, which locks instantly. I don't think anyone is vocally hiding in this group; you can tell they're all experienced at this.

On to Vocal Point (from Brigham Young Univ.). If memory serves, I ranked them 1st on my judge's form when they won the ICCA in 2006. I haven't seen them since (or heard them, save perhaps an occasional clip on Mouth Off!), and five years for a four-year-college group is a long time, so my curiosity is piqued. For a self-described "clean-cut" group to get past this round, they need to go loud and uptempo (like they did in '06) or risk being unmemorable. They're short a low baritone (if Ben's speaking voice is any indication), which means they really need to bring it.

And "Jump Jive and Wail" is a pretty good vehicle for that, as long as they maintain their blend and don't cheese it up too much. Their blend is great initially, but then their attempts at imitating brass veer into more nasal territory. Then I realize what's going wrong: they've got a baritone soloist, a (solid walking) bass, a VP-ist, and apparently five tenors singing at full volume. Perhaps they didn't try to accommodate for their lost baritone? Unless all of the tenors are singing different notes, which I'm pretty sure they're not, there's no good reason they couldn't shift some guys down a third.

I'm loving the hip-hop half-time feel of the third(?) verse, as it gives the "horns" more space to be featured as "horns", with some great jazz harmonies, though it's still really too heavy on the countertenors. My personal ideal arrangement for all-male groups is to have maybe one part singing super-high, not two or three. The trumpet is a soprano instrument, and if the group doesn't have a full bank of actual sopranos and doesn't have enough baritone support, they shouldn't be singing in that screechy range for so long, as it doesn't read as high-- just screechy.

That said, this is one hell of performance and earns them a spot in the next round in my opinion. Shawn makes reference to Ben's absence in the group's range, referring to him as "the baritone", which begs the question: is Ben this nine-man group's only baritone? Are they hoarding tenors or something?

Elimination time again, and the choice seems a lot less obvious. Vocal Point and Urban Method are saved first, leaving the intriguing choice of Kinfolk 9 versus Cat's Pajamas. These a both groups with experience, although in different ways; the former seems like they'd be the better group eventually if given a little bit more time. This is tough, because neither of them outright suck at all (unlike an hour ago).

And Cat's Pajamas-- a group with solid showmanship and musicality that performs in-residence at a large theater 200 nights a year in the "live music capital of America"-- is eliminated, which speaks to how tough this bracket of four was. I hope the Fannin Family (eliminated for good reason from the first bracket) was an anomaly, because if a mediocre group makes it past next week's show because another other group was even worse, that's going to hurt the credibility of the show, which would suck. Fingers crossed.

The Sing-Off, episode 3-1 (Sept. 19), 1st hour: round 1, bracket 1

Almost like a miracle, The Sing-Off (the American version, anyway) has returned for an upsized third season. Once again, cue the cats and dogs living together.

This isn't a recap blog, per se; if you haven't seen the episode in question, this blog will do you little good. For those first reading my blog this season, take a look at some previous entries (such as this and this) for the skinny on me, my background in a-cappella, my general objective with this blog, et cetera. Also, this season, the web editor of CASA (hi Amy!) has asked me to be an official blogger, so you can comment here or on CASA's feed (direct link TBD).

If you're interested in some great behind-the-scenes talk, in-house vocal arranger Christopher Diaz spilled the beans on the always-brilliant Mouth Off! podcast while the season was about midway through taping. Insightful (and hilarious) stuff.

Anyway, let this surreal talent parade commence.

In the opening video package, Nick Lachey says we're about to be treated to "music like you’ve never heard." I recall two previous seasons of this show have already occurred. I might have imagined it, though. No, wait, I'm pretty sure I blogged it. I have a feeling this whole novelty angle with contemporary a-cappella is never going to die. If I had a nickel for every time I've heard an a-cappella group since 1991 say that they're breaking new ground in a-cappella-- "not your mother's a-cappella", "you've never heard voices do this", "a new kind of vocal music", etc.-- I'd probably have enough to buy a decent microphone.

So after a breathless video montage of light sweeping around and judges being mean, singers finally take the stage for real, group by group, to sing Pink's "Perfect".

It's hard for me to truly critique the opening numbers, because they're a) usually UNBELIEVABLY AWESOME (see last season's "Use Somebody"), and b) usually pre-recorded and pre-mixed with the exception of solos. That said, Kinfolk 9 (I hope that name is explained later on) look hip enough to be the Streetcorner Symphony of this season, with raw solos and somewhat bohemian garb. Urban Method, Delilah, Vocal Point, Cat's Pajamas (really?) and Afro-Blue (of Howard Univ.) follow in succession, and I realize that the tonal palette of the song hasn't changed a bit. Last year's season opener ("I Got the Music in Me")* was a great showcase for each groups unique vocal and performing style, and this year it isn't doing the job at all. A milquetoast number like this may have been a bad idea for a season opener. I mean, how is a jazz group like Afro-Blue supposed to tailor this mid-tempo groove and boring harmonic progression to their unique talents?

Ironically, the first switch in tonal palette comes from the Fannin Family, who look terrified to be there, like they might be a bit out of their league here. Finally, we get some cajones from The Yellowjackets (of Univ. of Rochester), there a serious wall-of-sound chorus, and then a guy from Urban Method finally brings some much-needed hip-hop to the show for the first time. Not the perfect storm that previous group numbers have been , but pretty powerful stuff all around.

And now, the slightly-new opening credits. I have to note here that the theme song of this show is jarringly boring. Well mixed for contemporary a-cappella? Yes. Well written in general? Um, no. We hear some crazy-ass harmonies in the competition, and really slick bed tracks right after the opening credits, but all the producers can come up with to introduce the show every week is a pastiche of the theme to The Partridge Family?

Well, the arrival of Sara Bareilles as a judge hasn't generated the media frenzy of, say, Paula-to-Kara-to-JLo, but it is a big deal on this show, as she has both the professional credits and contemporary a-cappella experience to make for credible judge. I must admit that Nicole Scherzinger was growing on me last season, but this was a good move.

Anyone know who's doing the fast underscore before they throw to commercials? It's pretty impressive! [EDIT: I'm told that the new interstitial music is by Austin Willacy [of The House Jacks] and Nick Girard [of Overboard]. Well done!)

The Yellowjackets have a less than impressive video package to introduce themselves to the wider world. The balance is pretty poor, with the tenors blaring in particular. I do like the recorded beds a lot… and then they break into what sounds like a three-part arrangement of "Tutti Frutti"… with twelve guys. *sigh* The "do you remember" passage is almost painfully collegiate. They play their connection to the Eastman School of Music as an advantage, but unless they're doing opera, I'm not sure what the advantage will be.

Their take on K'naan's "Wavin' Flag" starts with a great percussion, and then some inconsistent solo work. The arrangement at the beginning just reeks of "collegiate". (By the way, I listened to it first through my stereo speakers and then in headphones, and interestingly it was slightly better the second time.) The whole thing does pick up a bit, perhaps partially thanks to a nervous tempo shift, and the arrangement gets slightly more interesting, but only rhythmically. After the flag-waving is done, Sara says she "may or not be right" in wanting a more elaborate arrangement. I think she's right-- I mean, there are twelve of them on the stage, so throw in some more interesting horn stabs or some sort of counterpoint or harmonic interest. Three minutes of "ah" gets old fast.

The Fannin Family's package is even worse, with tuning issues and questionable blend and poor arranging choices-- seriously, how many open 5ths can eight people sing together before they realize there's something missing? This is the second group of the season and I'm already questioning the wisdom of expanding the show to 16 groups. Of course, their bed track sounds slick, but that's the best Band-Aid network money can buy; the contrast in quality between recording and live is shocking. Maria Fannin appears to be a competent soloist based on these clips, but the only soloist? That's not a good sign; does no one else sing well?

Their live song-- Selena Gomez's "Who Says"-- is dull, and goes to a straight-up V. Later they hit a nice vi9sus out of nowhere, but it's iciing with no cake. I am surprised at how good their unison is on the ascending figures near the end, but man is this mediocre. Ben says that they have an advantage because their blend would be "effortless," which doesn't make sense anymore-- didn't he just hear their blend? Ben is also spot-on about their bass (Chris) being out of his range; find a bass who isn't your sibling who can sing low, for God's sake. Are the judges just being nice here? I'd've torn them a new one at this point.

(I think Nick is as mediocre at hosting as ever, but God damn, I want his hair.)

Within 15 seconds of Afro-Blue's package, I'm already hooked. They hit a 9(+11) chord in passing, and then some insane series of chords on "The Star-Spangled Banner", and then a killer unison on "Mas Que Nada", and individually any one of those is better than anything we've heard on stage from either of the previous groups.

Did Nick really introduce the Afro-Blue saying "Will their old school sound be embraced by a modern audience?" ARE YOU F-CKING KIDDING ME?! Do The Sing-Off's writer think the public has a collective cultural memory of freakin' five minutes? That's one of the embarrassing things I've ever heard on a musical competition show.

Corinne Bailey Rae's "Put Your Records On" is a samba softball for them, and they hit this one out of the park. Finally, a freakin' major 7! (Chords with more than three notes in them! Was that too much too ask for, previous two groups?) These guys have a more effortless blend than the Fannin Family, that's for sure. Setting up themselves with a "rhythm section" is a great touch, and their bass (Reggie) nails this so hard it hurts. This is one of the slickest numbers we've ever seen on this show. Find a clip of this and watch it. Oh wait, found it:

All-star time! Some of my favorite performers from previous seasons are returning to stack their own deck as Delilah. I love seeing the Pitch Slapped, Noteworthy and Voices of Lee girls getting a second shot, but most of all Eleventh Hour was my second-most favorite group from last season, and ohmyGodIlovedKendallsomuchitwaslikeshewaslookingrightthroughmeandweconnectedandwewerebestfriendsforever. (Geez, how old am I again?)

Bruno Mars's "Grenade", one of the most overrated songs in recent memory, gets a really good overhaul by Delilah. Thoughtful arranging! (Although there's an occasional harmonic cop-out.) Strong, multi-leveled lead! The bass is driving in the mix in my headphones in this opening quiet part, but somehow it doesn't hold water in the louder section (starting at "if my body was on fire")-- it sounds like the bass line on an 8-bit video game, where it's loud for a video game but in the end it still sounds like a video game. The Destiny's-Child-style breakdown ("watch me burn down in flames") is really, really effective. The VP doesn't quite cut it here; it's laid quite bare when they close-up on her buzzing on the snare rolls and it sounds more like static. I think this would've been just as strong without it anyway-- after all, Amy's lead is the strongest I can recall ever on this show, and she probably could've sung it all by herself and still kicked the Fannins's butts. Ben refers to "rubbing seconds" on the breakdown, which I'm not hearing in the mix, but I'll take his word for it. (With a group this smokin' hot all around, the rubbing might be wishful thinking on Ben's part.)

It's already elimination time for the first four groups (of 16!), which on principle would seems colossally unfair. In this case, I can deal with it if the Fannin Family makes an early exit. Afro-Blue and Delilah leaving already would be unconscionable, and the judges prove their independence early in the season by saving them (as opposed to the Fannin Family, who appear to be a Middle America group straight out of network focus groups). I can see the Yellowjackets being on the bubble in the future already, although the phrase "Ben warned you about tempo fluctuations" sounds hilariously awkward coming out of Nick's mouth.

Not surprisingly, the Fannin Family are going home; they really collapsed here. There's no good reason that eight people who seem to be able to practically read each others' minds can't get their act together and become an absolute powerhouse group, but at this moment it was way too early for them to compete on a national broadcast stage like this, or even in an ICCA quarterfinal for that matter. Even on their farewell song ("Tomorrow" from Annie) they can't do a simple ii-V-I (following "and lonely…") without wavering like someone turned their mod wheel way up at the wrong time. The whole thing is so skimpily arranged, and it's made even sadder when you see them smiling at each other, particularly the Kristen-Wiig-looking one (third from left), as if to na├»vely say to each other "Yay! We make such beautiful harmonies together, don't we?" Ah, youth. Remember last season when groups would kick ass on their farewell song and make you briefly forget that they were the marginally inferior group that night? Not this time. "Come what may" as a straight V7? The odd uncoordinated arm movements? The final chord with only two notes, doubled in octaves? At long last, senator, have you no sense of what genre you're supposed to be?! The producers really dropped the ball on bringing these guys in. I really do hope the Fannin Family prove the judges (and me) wrong someday, but for now… yikes.

Nick throws to commercial saying "There's so much more great talent ready to hit the stage." Let's hope it's more than 62.5% overall talent this time.

(Continued in the next posting.)

* This song was such a great fit, the Dutch version used it for their opener too!

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

The Today Show, Apr. 19: The Warblers (of Glee)


So "The Dalton Academy Warblers" (quotation marks intentional), the fictional prep-school a-cappella group on Glee, made appearances on NBC's Today show yesterday. I will not go into all of the many reasons I dislike Glee, but amongst the few things I do like about the show is The Warblers, who are a top-notch (albeit unrealistically coordinated) pop a cappella group, using some really killer arrangements and singing them well; all-around they put on a reasonably good portrayal of idealized pop a-cappella performances. That said, the singing and arranging is actually being done by long-time collegiate a-cappella studio wizards The Beelzebubs, and mixed by their brilliant MD emeritus Ed Boyer. (Not coincidentally, The Beelzebubs appeared on season 1 of The Sing-Off, and Ed is that show's house mixer.) The Bubs/Warblers performances I've seen on the show are solidly mixed without too much processing, and when they're lip-synched by The Warblers (i.e. the actors) it comes across quite seamlessly; in the context of the show the tracks don't sound much less realistic than a superlative set at an ICCA competition or in the competition portions of The Sing-Off. I also appreciate the lead performances of Darren Criss, the de facto front man of the group (on the show and now in real life). Criss's character has also added another layer to the anti-homophobic message of the show, which I appreciate greatly. The Warblers have taken on a life of their own, with numerous best-selling singles on iTunes, including a stunning debut at #1 for their (that is, The Bubs') cover of "Teenage Dream", and talk of a spin-off for Criss.

But fake life clashed with real life yesterday, and it wasn't pretty.

Darren Criss and The Warblers "singing" "Hey Soul Sister”:

Although this isn't strictly musical, I do have to mention how odd it is that a fictional singing group is being introduced as though they're actually singers. Matt Lauer says "Their performance of Katy Perry's 'Teenage Dream' hit number one on the Billboard charts..." Both Lauer and Kathie Lee Gifford (in the next clip) say "Its lead singer, Darren Criss, has become the breakout star." This is weird, right? When Broadway actors come on the Today studio to perform a number from a new show, they're not introduced as their characters, they're introduced as actors playing characters. The only fictional performers who have license to be referred to on television as though they are real are the Muppets, and that's mainly because we don't want to ruin it for the kids.

The actors (or "the Models", as a-cappella impressario Deke Sharon likes to refer to them) do get individual real-life introductions as members of the group, but... but... they're actors! They're not singing! I mean, yes, some of them have had minimal dialogue on the show, but... they're appearing on live morning TV as representatives of a singing-centered show and they don't actually sing! And Darren Criss is the "breakout star"? Uh, yeah, no crap, he's the only one who sings. What is happening?!?!

Actually, this meta-ness issue is relevant to a musical critique, because while watching this I'm not sure what I'm supposed to critique. Do I assume the producer expects us to be fooled into thinking this is real live singing, in which case I should think it's a bad performance with weird mixing? Knowing that it is lip-synched except for Criss, do I deem it a mediocre lip-synching performance? (This is going to bite Glee's promotion machine in butt: do The Beelzebubs go on tour, or the Models? And do they risk that the teenyboppers won't know the difference?)

So how about the performance itself? Yikes.

The music (except for Criss's lead) is prerecorded, and not all of them are wearing or holding microphones, so the filtered effect on the guitar chords sounds bizarre in context. That said, on headphones, the pads ("ooh"," ahh", "let you blow my mind", etc.) do sound fantastic, and it sounds good in general, although I can't count that as a plus for a group that's not really singing. Man, it's really hard to get past the inherent absurdity of this performance. Anyway, if you can get past the absurdity and close your eyes, you've got about a minute to sit back and enjoy the combination of the squeaky-clean backing tracks and Criss's not-too-shabby Taylor-Hicks-esque lead. I say close your eyes, because the movement isn't impressive if they're not really singing, and some of the Models aren't even changing the shapes of their mouths when the recording changes vowels.

And when that minute is up, things start to go even further south. And by "things", I suppose I mean Criss's lead alone, because, again, no one else is actually singing. Criss needs to build up his endurance, because he already sounds exhausted by the beginning of the first chorus! The lame lyrics "so gangster, I'm so thug" sound even lamer with Criss trying his hardest to fight the limitations of his own vocal cords. If this were a live competition, this wouldn't fly at all, and it's made worse by the perfect tuning of the backing tracks. And when he adds any sort of spontaneous character to his singing, it makes the backing tracks look bad for having the nerve to be well-tuned and pre-recorded. And the Models continue to phone it in in the movement department, which is the bland icing on this rapidly collapsing cake.

Darren Criss and The Warblers "singing" "Raise Your Glass":

(Is it me, or is "Raise Your Glass" and "Teenage Dream" basically the same song?)

Again, here's a killer contemporary a-cappella recording being inconsistently lip-synched in a live context. So bizarre. Criss holds it together for the most part, which is no surprise as this is a far less taxing song on the voice, but the Models often look like they can't handle moving and fake-singing at the same time. They look like a typical mediocre college group that threw in movement at the last minute. Oddly, they look more enthusiastic on the larger movements-- the twin circles, following Criss around the stage, etc.-- but totally lose their commitment when they're simply grooving to the song, which is where it counts the most. I mean, if you're recreating the experience of a TV show on another TV show, freakin' commit!

If The Warblers as a "real life" entity are essentially a movement troupe with a front man singing, they didn't even do that particularly well. For a fictional group, they've really gotta put it together. I mean, there's a long, storied history of fictional groups from a cartoonish television comedy topping the charts and performing live on a major network:

ACA nomination!

So, as I'm on spring break, I set aside a couple of hours today to update this blog-- I've had the Grey's Anatomy musical episode on my mind, and yesterday morning's Warblers set on the Today Show was a disaster on several levels... and then this morning I was nominated for a 2011 A Cappella Community Award. Now people might actually expect new content. Um... gotta get on that.

EDIT: Got on it.