Monday, September 19, 2011

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!

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