Tuesday, December 31, 2013

The Sing-Off, episode 4-7 (Dec. 23): season finale

A bold safe new public face of a-cappella is crowned, high school is the new college, and country is the new contemporary.

[Sing-Off and other a-cappella-related postings are simul-blogged at CASA.org and 5th Judge.]

With only seven episodes over three weeks, it was hard enough for me to get drawn into this season. By the end of this episode I was sure, sad to say, that this was the least satisfying finale yet. Something about a pre-recorded finale just doesn't feel right, and I doubt it was Mark Burnett's decision, as he mastered the art of the live final-results episode long ago.

This was a two-hour episode full of filler (and sketches!), so I'll only be embedding (and blathering on about) the full company number and the competition songs (and one more for the heck of it), with some links to clips of other numbers if I refer to them. So many groups and arrangers and choreographers worked so very hard on so many of these songs, and I don't mean to demean anyone by omitting them or not delving deeper into one song versus another.

(Also, for the first time in a long time I'm writing this many many miles from my DVR, and so I'm writing while watching the online clips, hence the timestamps I'm finally able to provide.)

"Man In The Mirror" is a beautiful performance with numerous flaws, which is a head-scratcher since the opening company numbers are partially pre-recorded. Austin seems like a experienced performer, and his tone when he takes the high parts of triads with Home Free is absolutely perfect (he and Scott Leonard would make one hell of a duo), but I haven't fallen in love with his solo voice like the rest of the blogosphere has, and in fact here [0:29] it's very heavy on the vibrato and a bit uncomfortable to listen to, especially after the beautiful intro solo.

(Once the entire company gets involved, most of the rest of the critiquing is on the arrangement, so apologies to the arranger in advance for piling it on.)

The major-7th-ing of the "who am I, to be blind" trio [0:44] and the following inversions downward is a gorgeous new idea, and I'm prepared for similar choices later. And then a HUGE harmonic mistake happens on "that's why I want you to know" [1:06]. A straight V chord is already a suprisingly white choice given that it's an R&B song, but it's even stranger that the solo is singing ^5-^5-^5-^5-^6-^8-^8, which given a ^5 bass implies a V9sus (IV over V), but the massive background instead sings a conflicting straight V, and then even inverts up as group to another V. And when we get to the chorus, which has two more dominant chords [1:12, 1:17], the background does sing what sounds like a (finally correct) V9sus. Weird! (You can hear this exact problem of pentatonic-vs.-straight-V at 0:10 of this recording, which has bugged me ever since I was asked to transcribe it for a UAAS job in 2000; I changed it to a V9sus, but don't tell Deke!) The end of the second verse [2:04] has the same problem as the first, although some part drops to the 7th at the last moment, and given my aversion to straight-up V7 in anything other than streetcorner, barbershop and baroque chorales, it's weird to find a V7 fixing something for once. The next "been any" [2:17] has what I think is a IVadd2, so finally, some crunch. The crunch we do expect from "want to make the world a better place" both times [1:23, 2:18], however, is not there-- it ends up being some sort of Vmi with missing parts.

If there's one massive moment that the original Michael Jackson recording is known for, it's of course the simultaneous key change and sudden earthshaking introduction of the Andraé Crouch Choir (which was recorded on a single stereo pair of mics, btw). This time around [2:23], we get the key change, but not the earthshaking Crouchiness. The "oh, oh" [2:27] is very soft and clipped, like everyone had to take a breath at the same time, and since there are literally a hundred people on stage at this point, I can't imagine it's a breath-catching issue, because if one or two or even ten people had to take a catch-breath there, there'd still be ninety other people singing to cover for it. The next cadence [2:33, "a change"?] is a straight V7 (uh oh) somehow resolving downward (huh?), and is also clipped (why?!) as though everybody on that part had to jump back to the "and no message" parts. The four bars leading to the coda [2:37] is another series of Vmi with the balance skewing heavily toward the 3rd (with a hint of 7th somewhere in there), and that repeating note gets tiresome over the course of fifteen beats.

The coda [2:46], on the other hand, is a less-is-more moment that, on its own, is on par with the best opening numbers of the season (including last week's "Shake It Out"). It's like the singers sudddenly all woke up and decided, hey, maybe we should go to the same proverbial church together for once, or maybe the parts are placed perfectly in everyone's ranges, or maybe I'm just a sucker for a slowly descending bass line. Great crunch on the last IVadd2, putting a good cap on a performance that was surprisingly unsettled for an opening number.

I've got a lot of emotional investment in "It Had to Be You," which is why I wanted to write about this too even though it's not with the full company. Marc Shaiman's orchestration of that song, as well as for "I Could Write a Book", on Harry Connick's When Harry Met Sally soundtrack are pretty much the reasons I wanted to be some sort of musician for a living (and when I discovered in grad school that I was in fact a terrible orchestrator, I died a thousand deaths). This arrangement had better be BEYOND AWESOME, or at least REASONABLY COMPETENT, or there will be hell to pay.

Hey, this is pretty good! Although there appear to be 21 people (the Footnotes and Element) singing backgrounds, best I can tell it's a straightforward jazz arrangement, with a bass line and four-part block over it (with a couple of extra descants here and there), with all of the attendant flat-9's and flat-13's, and now you know what I have to say here: harmonically, this is the most interesting song of the season (except for maybe "Love on Top" later on), so kudos to whoever made that happen. I mean, the first chord of the refrain is, as far I can recall, the first full major-9th chord OF THE ENTIRE SEASON, FROM ANY GROUP; what a shame it had to happen in the finale in an exhibition song. Also, I have no idea what was prerecorded, but the audio was gorgeous on this.

Home Free, for reasons I don't understand but apparently the rest of the blogosphere does, is in the top 3, and "I Want Crazy" is presumably going to be their final statement to the judges as to why they should get half the money that Pentatonix got. In the intro package, Austin talks about how they realize how stuck in their ways they were before they started on The Sing-Off, and I'm not sure what he means, because what they do here is cut from the same arranging cloth as "Life is a Highway" from the first episode.

Austin sounds much better soloing here than he did in the opening company number. The rest of the group kicks in [0:11] with some great triads (and some brief crunchiness). I don't get why a country song (imitative or otherwise) would have turntable scratching [0:13], but I guess that's part of the growth they say they've gone through... no wait, they scratched at the beginning of "Life is a Highway" too, so I'm at a loss. They're okay on the backgrounds up until they start to break up a bit [0:24], and suddenly I remember that they're a quintet, because the dissonances on the two-man "block" just sound like dissonances without anything to mitigate them. Then they're back on more triadic backgrounds (in thirds, not sixths, which is good), and nimbly go to a trio with the lead [0:28] and back, with a one-man block in there for a moment, which isn't as weird as the two-man block. When they go back to a two-man moving block [0:37-0:42], it's weird again, and this immediately triggers my memory banks:

Several years ago, when my "current" (albeit on indefinite hiatus) vocal band lost two guys and the remaining five of us decided to try being a quintet, we re-arranged everything by basically extracting two notes from the four-part blocks (sometimes leaving in chord tones, sometimes extensions), and new arrangements followed the same formula, which is when a friend joked that the two-part "blocks" (as it were) sounded so inconsequential that we might as well just perform as a trio with bass, VP and a rotating group of soloists. When we went into the studio, we could overdub the crap out of everything and complete the chords, and our live set obviously started to sound lackluster in comparison. A year later we decided to re-add two guys-- the five of us talked and decided that we had nothing to prove to an audience by limiting our harmonies for the sake of what was essentially a music theory though-experiment. (My jazz arranging professor at Miami said that arranging four parts is easy, arranging two is hard. I prefer the path of least resistance.) When we rebooted as a septet, harmonically it was like the clouds parted (although we still overdubbed like crazy when we went into the studio again, because hey, why not?). Pentatonix, by virtue of their whole dubstep vibe and their one-in-a-million blend, make a mockery of the limitations of a quintet on a regular basis, in particular with "I Need Your Love" in this very episode, and even as a trio in high school they sounded like more than three people. However, well, they're Pentatonix, with their whole dubstep vibe and one-in-a-million blend. (Does anybody else feel like Pentatonix, who recently debuted at No. 13 on the Billboard Hot 100(!!!) and at No. 10 on the Billboard 200(!!!!!), are slumming by doing this episode?) Home Free suffers by comparison to Pentatonix (as most groups would), but, frankly, they also suffer by comparison to any solid group with more than five people in it.

And don't get me wrong in terms of whether they're good singers; they certainly prove their versatility later in the episode with some great jazz chops on "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" with Jewel (major-9th alert again!). Also, case in point in the song at hand, when they all come together for the channel [0:44], they sound and look like they're having a blast. This is a good use of three middle singers, going fluidly between trio and solo-plus-two [0:54]. And finally, they have a Pentatonix moment when Tim lets loose with his trademark double-low G-flat [1:11] to start the chorus(?), and the big I chord [1:21] is fantastic, followed by an equally-fantastic pentatonic downward drop by the whole inner trio [1:24], and it's a five-inversion drop (maybe six?), so again, serious chops. The final channel(?) [1:43] that ends the the song is strangely thrilling (despite a rare wrong bass note from Tim [1:50]), and I think it's because this is easily the ballsiest 15 seconds they've sung all season. In an earlier recap I thought that they were being distracted by contemporary a-cappella peer pressure from using the power of the country vocal (i.e. not imitative instrumental) style, and they finally nailed it here. That said, my own definition of a good a-cappella performance is not necessarily one that makes me think that there are instruments, but rather one that may sound like voices but it's so full that I don't care that it sounds like voices, and unfortunately there several parts of the song that took me out of that state of not-caring.

(Sorry if I'm improperly naming the chunks of the song [verse vs. channel vs. chorus vs... post-channel?]; this song has as many distinct chunks as Alanis Morisette's "You Oughta Know".)

Let us have ourselves a seat and talk about Beyoncé's "Love On Top". I'm sorry to say that I missed this song's rise up the charts, because it would've instantly improved my view of mainstream pop. The first time I half-heard it was on Beyoncé's recent HBO documentary, but it really stuck for me when I saw it done in person, at one of the Brooklyn shows on the Mrs. Carter Show World Tour earlier this year, and it was immediately imprinted on my brain. That combination of great R&B chord changes, the '70s-Motown-slash-'80s-New-Edition groove and that series of modulations going up into the stratosphere (which Beyoncé followed upward in full voice WHILE DANCING) blew me away. If any group on this strange season can be expected to pull this off, based on their relatively complex harmonic sensibility, it'd be Ten. Please make it work, please make it work, PLEASE MAKE IT WORK...

And my God does this work! I won't do a harmonic breakdown of this, because they do it pretty much as it was brilliantly written, but I'll say that it starts with a major-9th, which is always a good sign. (Side note: A ma9 was also the the first on-stage chord we ever heard from Afro-Blue in season 3, and, as we all know, on Earth-Two they took first place and shot up the Billboard 200. Also, I used to read too many comic books.) Remember three paragraphs ago, when I talked about how a good a-cappella performance is one that doesn't make me care if it's just voices? Well, minute-for-minute this is arguably better than the original, so mission accomplished. It's a tall order to recreate Beyoncé's lead, so it'll take two leads to pull it off, which is perfectly legit and in fact just makes this more awesome. And when Emoni takes over on the solo [0:33] and she's escorted upstage, I'm realizing how great the staging is too. And a third moment of greatness in that same moment is when a few voices start to split off and do horn licks that get more stacked each time (culminating in "hum-de-li-de" or something like that [0:48]). Already this is the one of the best performances of the season, and we're only halfway through. The transition to the chorus is this amazing three- (or four-?!) part parallel ascending figure [0:50] that made me think we were already hitting the key changes. And OH MY GOD who is doing that muted trumpet line [1:05, 1:07]?

Oh, and now here's most insane moment of the song, and arguably of the whole season [1:11-1:15]. On paper this compressed set of key changes probably looks crowded but otherwise pretty straightforward: everybody repeats a pattern that goes up by half-step four times. But with the combination of Emoni's solo, and the background block (which has been flawless this whole time) and the trumpet line, this sounds like a pitch bend wheel on a sample of a chorus of Beakers. Arghhhhhhh, this is so good. Also, these four modulations(!) crammed into four seconds(!!!) serves as a perfect metaphor for how the staff of The Sing-Off has to cut the hell out of every song for time purposes, week after week, season after season. I doubt it was intended to be such a metaphor, but I'm going to transfer that frustration onto them anyway, because after this song they've earned to right to represent me, be it in mental health, in TV show fandom, in elected office or in a court of law.

The insanity continues, with an scalewise downward run in octaves between Emoni and a male voice [1:22]. The ballsy R&B chords come back for a spell [1:25-1:32], and then surprisingly, the coda [1:35 to end] doesn't go anywhere and actually feels like a cop-out. Maybe they should've end before this? I would go on about overusing tonic chords and a lack of pull and a lack of harmonic creatitivity, but this performance is so good up until the right before the very end that I'm too busy picking up my jaw from the floor to care.

Finally, the false climax we've all been waiting for. False, because we know logically that even if Vocal Rush sang the greatest arrangement ever of the greatest song ever with the best blend ever, no large group of students will ever be allowed to win this show, period, end of story. At this point, I was hoping they would sing something unbelievable to make the producers look silly. They... came close, but not close enough.

It could because they have to chop up the song for the show, but the emotional "arc" of this is less an arc and more of a wooden roller coaster. It starts pleasantly and simple-- background unison to three parts. Then things get a little thicker [0:12] with fuller chords and a background bell part that's going in and out, giving the illusion of arpeggiation without arpeggiation. And now we get an IVadd2 [0:22], with more add2's (major and minor) to come later [0:43, 0:47, 1:28], which is always nice. (Why don't more groups do add2's? They're so easy to do: just add the 2!) Sarah enters on solo [0:23] in a very low part of her range, which is a shame considering how she's shredded on previous songs (including, of course, "Gonna Make You Sweat"). The tempo picks up quite a bit here, and this is what the judges have been warning them about for what feels like, oh, six weeks: that their nerves are getting the better of them, and the biggest symptom of those nerves is the tempo. The first chorus [0:32] at first seems anti-climactic, with a solid background block with minimal VP, so I guess (incorrectly) that it's intentionally uncomplicated as a setup for some crazy second chorus. The mellowness is followed by a gorgeous add2 cascade coming out of the first chorus [0:42], and puts Vocal Rush on Ten's level in terms of group coordination.

The similarities to Ten continue into the second verse [0:44], with moving trios (I think) inverting up and down (like "I went from ze-ro-oh") that create an rhythmic pulse that Kyana's unusually sparse percussion isn't providing (although that could be a mix issue). While I usually don't like seeing the same soloists over and over, if you're going to put Sarah out there a second time [0:54], why criminally underuse her like this? Finally, a more propulsive chorus [1:03], but it's just kinda meh. And throw in a V9 underneath a pentatonic melody [1:13], and this starts to feel phoned in. The "breakdown" [1:23], thankfully, is a beautiful moment, the dramatic and (I'll admit it) emotional closing scene of Vocal Rush's season, with open fourths mixing with other moving parts culminating in a lush VImi11 that they should've pulled out earlier. And Sarah finally gets to shred again! Yay!

The final chunk [starting at 1:34] finally has the aggressiveness that, again, they should've pulled out earlier. Obviously these songs are truncated considerably, and regardless of that, groups have been told paradoxically by judges year after year that there should be an arc of some kind (musical, emotional, etc.) in a song, but I say that staying too low for too long made it drag for the whole first half. After that energetic chorus, I'm eagerly awaiting some massive add9 chord to end the whole thing, and instead it's a major third with no discernible 5th [1:54], and what was once Vocal Rush's show to lose is now lost. This is not close to what we've come to expect from this 11-student force of nature. Over the course of this season, this group (and even this performance) has been better and more confident that most of the college groups I see in tournaments, so I say they should go out and take over the world on their own (with faculty help, of course).

And here we are again, waiting freakin' forever for Nick to read off the results. As I watched Vocal Rush dropping the ball in their song, I figured it was finally Ten, the dark horse of the season, who would leap into first in the judges' minds for the final decision. And... that didn't happen.

What in any of Home Free's set was ever, in Nick's words [0:16], jawdropping, other than Tim's low notes? When Vocal Rush is placed third [1:18], I think that can't be possible, not if they take the whole season into account. Home Free were never in my top 3 at any point (except maybe by association for "I'm Alright") and yet here they are being declared the champion [4:08], taking home $20,000 each, a contract with Columbia Records that will likely get kicked across the lot to Madison Gate anyway, and the title of Safest Group For The Producers To Publicize, I guess.


Some final thoughts on this season:

This season went way too fast. WAY. TOO. FAST. I love that the ratings were up this year, but that's generally attributed to the timing in that it's supposedly a more "seasonal" show (which I don't personally buy) and that there are a lot fewer new episodes of shows to compete with in mid-December (which is particularly important for NBC which for the last five years has been a ratings graveyeard), and also... a 25% improvement on last season's average of 4 million for NBC nationwide is still pretty poor, even if it is 5.2 million or so people watching the instrumentless singing. Imagine the ratings it could've gotten from even a two-per-week schedule, if word-of-mouth had more time to build for one extra week; for such a short season, this should be less MLB and more NHL. A colleague would ask me "Hey, isn't The Sing-Off coming back?" and I'd say "Yeah, they just showed the first three of seven episodes over the last four nights," and she'd say "Oh, that sucks, sounds like I pretty much missed it." It's not like the production schedule of the show-- generally one week per episode, over the summer-- has any influence on the rushed programming.

Another problem with the rushed-and-downsized season is that, even though my analytical brain adjusted to how I perceived the season, my emotional brain didn't, and I imagine I'm not the only one. Knowing that there's a week of production for each episode (or two episodes in the case of split brackets), it's odd to think that this seven-episode "season," which aired over the course of fifteen days, took up six weeks in real life. By the seventh episode of season 3, we were in air week seven (five weeks in real life), and there were still three competitive episodes to go (three more weeks in real life), followed by the live finale (three more months in real life). When we got to the end of season 3 episode 10, when Pentatonix broke down in tears backstage after their set, we felt it with them, because we were going roughly through the same amount of time with them, and it was a pretty long time. This was a shortened season broadcast in an even shorter way, and that didn't work.

(On a more petty note, it felt quite lopsided that they split the third round [top 8] between calendar weeks, but that's a high-class neurosis to have. Also, for a good laugh, search Google for "neurosis definition" and listen to their pronunciation of "neurosis.")

In the end, something is better than nothing when it comes to high-stakes instrumentless singing, and season five seems like a done deal already, which makes me (and the instrumentless-singing community at large) happy. To celebrate, I leave you with my nephew running himself ragged to the greatest string of major-7th notes ever.

Excelsior, y'all.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

The Sing-Off, episode 4-6 (Dec. 19): top 4

Contemporary a-cappella hits its maximum theoretical level, harmonic less is suddenly harmonic more (and vice-versa), and OH GOD THE FLAMES!!!!!

[Sing-Off and other a-cappella-related postings are simul-blogged at CASA.org and 5th Judge.]

This is a top 4 I can 75% live with. As of the cold open, Home Free is my iffy group, as VoicePlay was their incrementally-superior-by-comparison group and, based on the overall season, I think the latter should be in the former's place. But the top 4 last season was when the gauntlet was truly thrown down across the board, so who knows, maybe Home Free will go Pentatonix on us and all lurch downstage and belt at the top of their lungs together. Or... perhaps the opposite, to the same end.

"Shake It Out": now this is a great idea for a company number-- a great anthemic tempo and opportunities for big group chords and sing-alongs.

Having four groups left offers a great opportunity to have one singer from each group come up front and create a super-quartet trading off leads. Or even better, a super-octet consisting of a super-quartet of men trading off entire chords with a super-quartet of women, like they do on "looking forever for the devil in me," which is electrifying. This arrangement is just perfection. By the final ten seconds of this, I'm just floored by how, with the exception of the VP which is not very prominent anyway, at no point am I either a) feeling like anything is sonically missing that would make me not accept this as a commercial recordings, nor b) hearing anything that is imitative of non-vocal instruments. This is the way it should be done. Mission accomplished, a-cappella people; time to pack it in.

Are Filharmonic now called The Filharmonic? I must've missed the memo, or at least the chyron. (Also, as usual on this show, I am loving the way the bass fills my head.)

In the intro and first verse, the most obvious musical comparison that we can make to other Sing-Off groups is to Talk of the Town (season 2), North Shore (season 3) and Street Corner Renaissance, who, as I've effused before, can make a plain major chord sounds like a ringing gift from the heavens by virtue of their sincere (and, let's be honest, old-guy) tone. While this song is certainly not strictly streetcorner (a/k/a doo-wop, a term I find demeaning), the vocal styling is similar (assuming they're going for something Four Tops-like, which they are), and it suffers in comparison to the aforementioned groups (including the Four Tops), both in trying too hard with the flashy neo-soul approach and in the overly technical singing. The latter is really apparent when they all sing in the first chorus "Baby I need your lovin'... got... to have all your lovin'," where you can hear an attack on every change when syllables have more than one note on them ("a-all yo-our lo-ov-"). Man, I love their blend, and their unisons are some of the greatest ever on the show, but this is an example of trying way too hard for too little of a result. They were my #1 seed from episode 1, and have done such wonderful and surprising things on this show, but after last episode (the lackluster "I Don't Want to Miss a Thing") and now this, I'm just shaking my head wondering why they're not bringing their A game anymore.

While I initially had doubts about a group of backup singers throwing a group together, I have grown to love Ten's sound and energy. The idea of them singing "Proud Mary" made me nervous, because, assuming they take the Ike & Tina Turner route, I can easily imagine them doing the "take us to church" thing again and making rhythmic mincemeat of the faster part of the song like they did with "Chain of Fools," a song that was certainly not asking for that.

My nerves go up as soon as I hear the spoken intro, which is such a gratuitous lift from the Turners' version that I'm already bracing myself for the tempo change. As usual, they do a good job of separating the blocks of the arrangement (words on house left, "oo"s on house right), but that last chord of the slow section, of all things, is iffy. When they shift to the faster tempo, they still keep a good separation of blocks (whew!), and the energy, while super high throughout, is well controlled-- unlike with "Chain of Fools," they're not telegraphing the tempo change by running around like maniacs. My only big complaint-- although it's kind of an important one-- is that the arrangement, while "correct" in the "they completed the chords" sense, lacks particularly interesting voicings and figures (like those crazy runs we've heard in "Hot in Herre" and "Chain of Fools") and (until the very last section) feels too low to boot, thereby reducing the audible energy from where it obviously could go to given the power in this group (and which Shawn refers to later). I love Deonis's role as clown-prince of the group, but you can't spend a whole song doing a consistent rock beat and then end with two fills that sound like yelling. And ending with a major I, followed by... a minor I? I originally thought they meant to do a 7-sharp-9 (a/k/a the "Purple Haze" chord) and whoever was supposed to cover the lower major-3 dropped the ball, but on repeated listening I couldn't pick out a 7th either, so... weird choice.

Honestly, I'm not sure what "risky" parts Ben was referring to, nor do I agree that it was "wimpy" by any stretch. I think they could've really cooked on an arrangement that was more inspired by Creedence Clearwater Revival-- and that band already has the word "revival" in their name, so the church would come to them! (Also, where has that woman in the white dress with the tasseled waist been this whole time? She's adorable! More chyrons and interviews with her, please.)

The two issues I've had with Home Free up to this point, and the reason that I don't think they belong in the top 4 (by the thinnest of margins) are:

• They're a vocal band that depends to much on specific (albeit great) novelty moments, as opposed to making the whole song an organically great song, to carry the audience's interest. In "Ring of Fire" alone they had the high add2 and that insane double-low Gb, both of which "stopped the show" figuratively (as people cheered) and literally (as the group inorganically stopped to let those moments happen).

• They're a country group that appears to revel in reproducing the instrumentation of country music (strumming guitars, root-and-5th bass, double-time drumming, etc.) as opposed to using the unique vocal aspects of country (and all of the genres that fall under that umbrella) to create something new and exciting, which feels like a squandering of their talents.

Ironically, this very performance of "Colder Weather" should be exactly what I'm asking for, right? I don't know this song at all, but what I'm hearing in the video package is a lot of tonic chords. Like, a boatload of tonic chords. Last episode, their "Pretty Woman" was sunk (in my opinion) by missing notes, particularly tonic chords that should've been VI (relative minor) chords but were missing the, er, VI. It was a jarring omission that left me scratching my head, so not knowing if all of those tonic chords are "supposed" to be something else, I hope that there are more interesting things going on around this onslaught of tonal stability that'll hold my interest, because great ballads (like "Against All Odds" and "Skyfall" from last episode) should have a harmonic pull that compliments the lyrics. (I mean, would Chicago's "If You Leave Me Now" be as heartbreaking without those insane chord changes?) Appropriately, but probably coincidentally, Austin says "We can't miss a note; we cannot drop the ball; we have got to give better than our best." In that case, make interesting harmonies without The Filharmonic's help. Please.

As I'm writing this, I'm watching this for the fifth time. And... I don't hate this! Rob's solo seemed wimpy on my first listen, but that's probably because I've become so inured to all of these ridiculously powerful (and less subtle) soloists in the other groups. We rarely see small groups do ballads on the show, and I appreciate that Tim and Adam are singing together in the "background" during the first chorus under the lead trio-- Tim is on the roots (B [IV], F# [I]; B, F#; B, F#; long low C# [V]), while Adam (as best as I can tell) is on some one color tone the whole time, maybe an A# (just below middle C), which is the major-7th of B and the 3rd of F#... whoa, wait a minute! That's why they kept singing tonic chords over and over in the package: because it's Tim's bass notes, inaudible in the package, that ultimately define the chords, and it just so happens that I/IV (or more properly IVma9no5, or more colloquially the Carole King chord, here F#ma over a bass B) is one of my favorite chords, so... well played accidentally, Home Free, well played accidentally. Then Adam switches to his usual role as VP, and I'm realizing what an underappreciated VPist he's been this season. His snare is a very tight "pbf", similar to the way I figured out how to VP... and after some research (initially to remind me what his name was), I discover that he started as a trumpet player too! All the trumpeters-turned-singers, holla back.

I've mentioned before about the problem that quintets generally have: that a two-note "chord" between the solo and the bass becomes tiresome real fast. So when Adam's VP kicks in, this should rear its head again, right? Actually, no, it's still a convincing background, which means they've been arranging strategically-- I can't pick apart the notes, but my guess it that they're putting the two parts closer together while still making sure that at least one of them is on the 3rd. (Putting two-part backgrounds farther apart for the sake of "correctly" filling out the chord, like the always tempting 6th apart, tends to backfire, as Urban Method and Pentatonix [twice!] demonstrated in rare sub-par moments last season.) Does that make them contenders, as so many people in the intarwebs have insisted since episode 1? I dunno. Simply overcoming a disadvantage does not a Sing-Off winner make. And that's not to say I wouldn't pay to see them-- I just wouldn't pay $100,000.

Finally, the group I've really been looking forward to. Since episode 2, Vocal Rush has been doing so much music from 20 or 30 years ago that I forgot that they're children of the late '90s. I still can't believe that there's a song with as unwieldy a title as "My Songs Know What You Did in the Dark," but after this performance, I'll deal with it:

They start with such a strong unison at the beginning, and then abruptly go into a flangey background that subtly shifts the harmony each measure-- Emi, Emi11, Emi6, Emi7. Only after four bars do they start to hew closer to Fall Out Boy's harmonies (alternating Emi and Cma7). The channel is like the intro & verse in miniature. The chorus and second intro do pick up a bit in tempo and sound collectively out of breath in spots, and yet they still kick ass and sound full beyond logic. The next verse and channel bring out all of the soloists they've ever used for a super-quartet over shifting harmonies similar to the first verse (which may be the "bridge" that Shawn says was "so hyped that you didn't leave yourself room to go down and come back up", and if so HE IS INSANE FOR THINKING THAT THIS BRIDGE DIDN'T BUILD WELL), and it melds into a huge Bma (which may be the V chord that Ben refers to as weak and unglued, and if so HE IS INSANE FOR THINKING THAT THIS CHORD IS WEAK). The second chorus (i.e. the end) is even stronger that the first and brought it home big-time. Game, set... tournament?

(The pyrotechnics are way unfair. If I were a future competitor, I'd chose a song with the word "fire" in it just so I can have flames shoot out of the floor while I'm singing.)

Vocal Rush earned their ticket to the finale from episode 1 as far as I'm concerned, producer conspiracies against large academic groups be damned. The idea that The Filharmonic and Ten would have to Jenga Battle for a spot in the finale while Home Free gets a free pass would have been inconceivable even three episodes ago, but here we are. Nothing Home Free has done (other than, ironically, their "I'm Alright" team-up with The Filharmonic) has been an extreme standout, while Ten's "Skyfall" and Filharmonic's "This is How We Do It" are two of my favorite songs of the season, so "Should I Stay or Should I Go" feels like a taunt directed straight at me. Oh no! How many choices did Sophie have to make?!

(That last link will probably make no sense if you haven't seen the whole episode, but you'll thank me later for introducing you to the show.)

chunk 1, Ten: Odd choice to have a low guitar strum.
chunk 2, Filharmonic: They still have a killer blend on the trios.
chunk 3, Ten: A triplet meter is a fun switch, but it should be anchored by lower parts or even VP, not by a trio way up high.
chunk 4, Filharmonic: Dubstep time! And again, their uncanny blend lends themselves well to the synth stabs.
chunk 5, Ten: Finally, something in their wheelhouse, namely a choral section that takes advantage of their power.
chunk 6, Filharmonic: They do triplet meter this time, reminiscent of Michael Jackson's "The Way You Make Me Feel", and it gets a little harmonically hinky.

(Why are The Filharmonic getting exactly twice as much time as Ten? Weird.)

Chunks 7 thru 10 start the final sequence and are super brief, with Ten returning to the Church of Chaos and The Filharmonic playing it safe with "daaaa da, daaaa da" chords that get very vague. Chunk 11 is the big finish, which mainly comes across as Joe and Emoni screaming at each other. Considering this was for a spot in the finale, I expected more consistent excellence to the end. Still a lot of fun, or at least they looked like they were enjoying themselves.

Based on this performance alone, The Filharmonic would've won by a whisker, but overall Ten has become the stealth favorite, and after last week's "Skyfall" they could've just gotten on stage and twiddled their thumbs for their requisite 115 seconds of air time and still squeaked past The Filharmonic. Based on their finest moments this season, The Filharmonic have an incredible future ahead of them, and I look forward to seeing it happen.

The Sing-Off Live tour is comin' to a city near me? I wouldn't say Westbury is a city, but I'll take it! But long before that: the finale this Monday, which is not live, which is a bummer. Maybe Mark Burnett isn't comfortable with a finale being decided by the general public, as opposed to a tribal council, or a crazy businessman-turned-politican and his children in a midtown boardroom. Well, we'll be lucky to get another season of this, and the aforementioned crazy businessman isn't involved (yet), so let's count our blessings.

Friday, December 20, 2013

The Sing-Off, episode 4-5 (Dec. 18): top 6

Everyone's gone to the movies; now we're top 4 at laaaaaaaaaaaast.

[Sing-Off and other a-cappella-related postings are simul-blogged at the Contemporary A Cappella Society and 5th Judge.]

I'm writing this well after episode 6 aired (on the night of Dec. 18), as I had no time to do a full recap of this episode in time-- critiquing a two-hour episode with my usual detail with only a 22-hour turnaround on a work day was not happening-- which is a shame, because this was an overall thrilling episode. I was originally going to be a wiseass and just compile my favorite Facebook statuses and tweets about the episode as it was airing (in all time zones) from friends and colleagues, but even that was too overwhelming (as awesome as some of the statuses and tweets were). I even encouraged people to use the hashtag #5thJudge to make their commentary easier to find... and then discovered that #5thJudge is commonly used by fans of The Voice. Could've used some heads up on that, folks. Also, Samantha called me out for hypocrisy-- NBC's Today is our morning news show of choice, and for the last few months I've been ridiculing their new "Orange Room," which is a special section of the set dedicated to social media (usually anchored by Voice host Carson Daly when he's not stuck in L.A.), basically making the reactions to events stories in-and-of-themselves, which is just nauseating to me, and when I told Samantha I'd be doing a compilation of social media reactions, she immediately said, "so... you're creating your own Orange Room?" In my defense, my circle of friends and colleagues are more clever than anonymous jerks on the Internet at large, and I'm also NOT A MAJOR NEWS ORGANIZATION. Still: touché, cutie, touché.

Anyway, here's a link to the full episode in case you missed it, but for those of you have as little spare time as I do, here are my personal favorite performances of the night (and my opinion is relative, as the concentration of talent has gotten higher):

"I've Had the Time of My Life" is one of my favorite songs of the '80s (and was one of the first sheet music singles I ever bought with my allowance), and this opening company number did it justice. And Jeremy (of acoUstiKats) steps out as a solid soloist, establishing this as the season of the bass lead.

If the challenge of the episode was "to choose a song that was made famous by a movie," I wonder how Roy Orbison would feel about his song "Oh, Pretty Woman", which hit #1 in 1964 as recorded by him and later hit #12 in 1982 as recorded by Van Halen, being supposedly "popularized" by a 1990 film. Awwwwwwkward. Anyway, Home Free's performance of it wasn't in the top tier of the night, particularly because they make so many chords erroneously tonic somehow-- the "yeah yeah yeah" in the bridge, and in alternating measures in the bass-less chorus with no ^6 up top to turn the chords into the VImi my ears so badly want them to be.

Here's Vocal Rush's gorgeous super-balladization of Phil Collins's self-penned power ballad "Against All Odds" (which I also had as sheet music as a kid, both in a 1984 pop hits compilation arranged for beginning piano, and in a still-awesome 1986 drum tablature compilation), and it really hit me in the gut. (Not be a wet blanket, but Kyana isn't the first designated VP to take a solo-- Geena of Delilah in season 3 staked that claim first. But still, well done!)

By halfway through, I was going to say the acoUstiKats' "Old Time Rock 'n Roll" reminded me the Dartmouth Aires' "Shout" from season 3, and then they actually overtly referred to "Shout", so congrats acoUstiKats, you're now Aires Lite.

Filharmonic did a heartfelt but suprisingly generic rendition of "I Don't Want to Miss a Thing". They've been my #1 seed from that start, and this made me nervous for them.

If you always wanted to hear what a nervous breakdown would sound like on this show, check out VoicePlay's bizarre ending to "Don't You Forget About Me", which sounds like an angry reharmonization of the intro to Tears For Fears' "Break It Down Again".

I can't remember at all what Adele's original version of "Skyfall" sounds like, but it can't possibly be as good-- despite some iffy VP-- as Ten's performance here. Holy moley, can these people wail together.

The last three songs are ostensibly Battles, but as we learned quickly, they were more like lovefests between the paired groups, and OH MY LORD they are all fantastic, which is why I'm embedding all three of them.

Exhibit A is this performance of "Eye of the Tiger" that is so much fun (and brilliantly arranged) it's ridiculous. acoUstiKats and Ten both redeem themselves here with a huge sound, and the massive flange halfway through is worth ten replays of this.

On "Fame", Vocal Rush's blend and group power is still stellar, Ten makes up for doing the overused half-time shift in the chorus by doing some crazy modal shifts (under "I'm gonna make it to heaven, light up the sky like a flame"), and the Latin section is REE. DIH. CUE. LUSS. People toss around the cliché that groups "leave it all on the stage," but this is worth the cliché.

"I'm Alright" has always been wallpaper to me-- it's a song that's just sorta there, the gopher in Caddy Shack seems to be dancing to it out of licensing obligations... just not a song I've ever given any thought to. And then this happened. While I expected excellent things from Home Free and superlative things from Filharmonic, I was not prepared for what happens starting at 0:40. Despite two other stellar Battles right before this one, this melange of musical styles turns into possibly the greatest competition performance (i.e. without backing tracks) in the history of the show.

Interestingly, Jewel implies that Home Free patched up the holes in Filharmonic's sound (holes I've never heard myself), from which I infer (incorrectly) that Filharmonic is on its way to elimination.

In the end, acoUstiKats (who I didn't expect to get this far) and VoicePlay (who could've dominated but took their eyes off the the prize) both go home. Vocal Rush is absolutely killing it every time; the conventional wisdom is that the producers try to skew the finals to not include a large academic-based group, but the Aires made it to season 3's final, so there's hope there. Ten gets stronger every night, and could ultimately be the combination of power and tasty harmonies that we've been hungering for this season. Filharmonic and Home Free were both washes this time after an amazing Battle (with each other) made up for a meh individual songs; seems like they saved each other!

And we have a top 4 already! This compressed season is playing tricks on my mind; I kind of long for those long-ago days, way back in 2011, when there'd be one episode per week and we'd go on the intarwebs and discuss it like NFL fans breaking down a team's wide receivers' prospects against another team's impenetrable secondary, and after a week (also like the NFL) it was time to see the contest at last with all of the attendant hype. (And I could use that now, since the Jets and Giants absolutely imploded this season and were both eliminated from the playoffs this Sunday.) If only there were an ESPN-style show for people to break down a group's VP's prospects against another group's impenetrable block harmonies. Wouldn't that be nice. But no, only sports (and apparently Game of Thrones) is allowed to engender open geekery such as that. Someday, my people... someday. *sigh*

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

The Sing-Off, episode 4-4 (Dec. 16): top 8, 2nd bracket

In the land of the jazz-less, the four-note cluster is king.

[Sing-Off and other a-cappella-related postings are simul-blogged at the Contemporary A Cappella Society and 5th Judge.]

The episode (full stream from NBC here) begins with a recap, including the final hugs after the Battle. Between Street Corner Renaissance's pink jackets and Filharmonic's multi-color everything, it looks like the world's biggest bowl of rainbow sherbet.

"Talkin''Bout My Generation" is such an odd choice to start a show. Barring specific themed numbers (like Halloween two yeas ago), most opening numbers are big sweeping power anthems (e.g. 2010's "Use Somebody", last week's "In Your Eyes") or head-bopping rocker (2011's season opener "I Got The Music In Me"). I'm just not so keen on the song, I guess. Also, Austin from Home Free sounds like he's auditioning for the Broadway version of the song or something-- that affected on "dowwwwwwwwwwn" is a choice? For real? "We Will Rock You" is more like it, although it doesn't give much of an opportunity for harmonic interest; kudos to the folks holding down that long flangey unison underneath. "It's Time" is weird, not musically (which is great), but because lyrics like "giving the academy a rain check," that sounds dismissive and surly from Imagine Dragons' singer sounds oddly chipper here.

I don't quite get the theme "across the generations," "chart-toppers that span the decades," or "iconic hits that capture a moment in time." Like, songs that have been covered in different decades? If it literally means songs that go back to no later than a specific year but no earlier than another specific year, then at what point in the past are the generations properly spanned? If that is the case, it's more limited set of possible songs compared to "No. 1 hits," which could've been anything from 1936 to last July.

In Home Free's intro package, Austin says "'Ring of Fire' isn't necessarily from my generation, but I grew up with it, so it feels like a part of who I am." Alright, now I'm really confused about this theme.

Starting out (and later continuing) with a bass on the lead is probably expected from most folks given Johnny Cash's range, but I've been repeatedly listening to Chanticleer's new recording of this song, on which their bass Eric, who is as low as Tim, sings the full solo and kills it, so I'm unfairly thinking "Enough with the basses already." Austin takes over briefly, and it's just not his night-- he's having trouble sustaining pitch, particularly on "desire". We go into the "dancehall country" feel, solidly supported by Adam's VP, and it's not particularly gripping until Tim goes back down to the bass part that moves agilely through the arpeggios and destroys my headphones.

It speaks volumes about the lack of harmonic sophistication in general this season that the huge "****higher?)" on a Gbadd2 sounds so refreshing to me; if there were a Committed or and Afro-Blue or a Groove For Thought this year, that kind of chord would've been one of six equally crunchy passing chords in a transition that lasts two seconds, and they'd've nailed each one too. Even Pentatonix upped its harmonic game (particularly on "OMG") to keep up with Afro-Blue last season, so there's something to be said about being pushed.

(I've been using "add2" and "add9" interchangeably, but now I'm going to stick to my syntactical guns and use "add2" from now on. Since there's no 7th, and the root is sung in the top, the note in question isn't substituting for the root like a 9th; it's just being added, hence it's "only" a 2nd.)

Tim's double-low Gb at the end left my headphones in ruins. That's insane, and I believe it's the lowest note ever sung on The Sing-Off. I can't say for certain, but I've never seen judges get blown out of their chair like that before, so I'll stand by that. It was so low, it rendered Jewel unable to pronounce schwas.

Slade featuring Criss Angel VoicePlay puts some R&B harmonies into the intro of "Don't Speak" (F#mi9 to Badd2[?]). The lightness of Eli's top range in duet with Honey on "it looks as though..." is stunning; the effect is like two women duetting. The chorus hits hard-- strong bass (doing root-5th movement) and VP, but also such a tight blend on the block with these tasty changes. After Eli's solo (that may have gotten garbled by my cable company, or perhaps it's Jewel interrupting it with her side comment), the final chorus is far less tasty, and in fact the harmonies, which had such a strong pull earlier, have gotten rather abritrary, with bass notes that sound outright random.

Nick refers to "You Keep Me Hanging' On" as "a girl-group hit from the baby-boom generation," referring to The Supremes in 1966, but here is finally a truly generation-spanning chart-topper, as it was covered very successfully by Kim Wylde in 1987 and was unavoidable on pop radio that year. (The jazz-rock music underneath Ben's coaching is really good; anyone know what it is?)

Emily G. starts, and Emily B. joins her on a duet, and I can't help but think... is everyone else in the group incapable of taking a lead? (Even Geena, Delilah's VP, took a solo last season and killed it.) The first "keep me hangin' on" is nice and crunchy (Bbmi7 to Bma9[?]), but then much of the rest of the harmony is very vague, particularly in the transition into the second chorus where there's no cadence to speak of (i.e. no strong V) and "set me free" sounds like a key change when it's not supposed to be. Jo, as strong as she is, can't be relied on to create chords out of thin air with the power of her contralto. The second chorus itself is better and crunch again, and the second verse starts well, but then they make an odd choice to go to an Asus (to A) under Manjula's "heart again," which not only sounds nebulous itself (and uncrunchy) but also doesn't set up well for the ambitious key change coming up. Rachel's VP is super-punchy in the breakdown and makes me forget about that for a moment, but then "let me sleep at night," which is customarily a VIma7 like before and the coolest chord in the song, is just a Imi, which is a headscratcher, because where do you go from there if the next chord is a Imi also? (Someone also sneaks in a 7th, which is even more of a headscratcher.) "Keep me hangin' on" gets the VIma7 back, and I think it would've been cooler to end on that, instead on neatly tying it up with a Imi.

Shawn says he heard an "unglued" aspect to the harmonies, and that it lacked drama, like "one movement and it wasn't enough change for me," which is a good way to describe the strange static choices. Then Ben says, oddly, "We got to know the Emilys a litle bit, and that's definitely a step in the right direction." Is he joking? The Emilys have been the de-facto frontwomen of this group from the start!

Nick says something that seems incongruous, even though it factually isn't: "Alright, we'll all find out in just a moment if you steered clear of the Ultimate Sing-Off." Who would want to avoid something as awesome-sounding as an Ultimate Sing-Off?

How is it that "the biggest challenge in doing this song," as Carmina of Vocal Rush puts it, "is probably that we weren't born in the '80s"? Being born in 1980 would make them four years old by the time this song came out, so it wouldn't exactly be of their generation anyway, the way that I consider 1977's Saturday Night Fever to be before my time, and 1991's "Gonna Make You Sweat" is also before their time and still worked out pretty well for them. Ben is already a big fan of their precocious maturity, and deservedly so, although he holds reservations about their collective ability to control their nerves, which we've definitely seen has been their biggest enemy in the form of rushing the tempo in transitions.

Hmm. That tambourine-like snare we heard from Ten last episode is back, this time with Vocal Rush (courtesy of Kyana). I wonder if this in endemic to the show in general, like an effect the guys in the booth are putting on, because the more I hear it, the less human it sounds. (I'm pretty sure it's not an issue on my end, because I hear it on TV via fancy headphones and streaming via semi-fancy earbuds.)

Anyway, this first verse is fantastic; the backgrounds continue to defy their female-heavy lineup's expectations by being really balanced in their range, the kick is shockingly heavy, the opening open-5th allows for very interesting harmonies as the bass moves downward, and it looks really good with their trademark stomping and what-not. (Ben looks like he's experiencing the Rapture all by himself.) They also kept it dark by delaying the natural-7 leading tone until later, I'm bracing myself for a major speed-up after the cutoff, but it stays on an even keel until "he's gotta be sure," when the snowball of tempo starts rolling and gets faster and faster throughout. It's hard to tell if the fact that the song is much faster by the end is intentional. The solos trade off seamlessly into the bridge (although the first bridge soloist sounds like she's too high in her range), and there's that a brilliant 16th-note-filled and syncopated rap at the end of the bridge which sounds like it's always belonged there. Back to the chorus, and my main complaint is the syllables have suddenly gotten very... um, a-cappella. There's a lot of four-part block rhythms on "ba daaaaaa, ba daaaaaa," oddly conflicting other figures singing the lyrics. (I personally would rather everything sung using a variation of the words, which sounds more natural.) On the half-time break, there's a great slow alto descant going on, and I wish I could hear what words she's singing.

At this point, based on this episode, Vocal Rush is my #1 seed (I can live with the tempo issues), and Element is my #4. Home Free and VoicePlay had their moments of awesomeness and disappoinment, so I'm on the fence about them.

Turns out the "bottom two" are Element (agreed) and Vocal Rush (whaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa?). In a way, this is okay, because this is Vocal Rush's Jenga Battle to lose.

The groups are taking the whole "oh no you didn't" thing a leeeeeeeetle too seriously. If they're going to put on an act of being hostile to each other, it should be about the lyrics, not the music, because pantomiming issue with the other group's singing just seems like a bridge too far. The finger-in-the-ear thing from Vocal Rush comes across not as dismissive but as actually rude.

chunk 1: Element's enormous "wahhhhhhhh" is like a theremin, and having one person singing that angular "keyboard" line is a bad idea. Emily G. is switching tones between gritty, girly and angry, and it's not working; I'd rather hear one tone that's good than three, two of which are jokey. The backgrounds are suffering from the same "holes" that we've heard before.

chunk 2: Vocal Rush is living up to their name. My goodness, slow down! The chords underneath are smoother than Elements. Love the solo.

chunk 3: Element does a lot of the same.

chunk 4: Vocal Rush's rap (more like a rant) is awesome, and they changed up the chords to staccato figures that are still meaty range-wise. (And what great coordinated movement!)

chunk 5: Element's backgrounds are little more mobile and better balanced.

chunk 6: Vocal Rush's background lose something here; it sounds like a lot of people aren't singing, and it's just a trio based around the melody (plus bass and somebody singing "what" for some reason).

chunk 7: Emily B., Emily G. and Manjula (surprise!) come forward for a trio, and we lose harmonic cohesion. Man, this is a really catty battle!

chunk 8: Sarah steps up, and rises to the cattiness challenge. Vocal Rush's "better than that" backgrounds stay... harmonic.

chunk 9: Probably the best of Element's chunks, because they goes all-in with everybody together, which we're now learning is their strength.

chunk 10: Vocal Rush kill it again; I was going say that their "yeah" is like a battle cry, but I'm not in a punning mood.

chunk 11: First, is it fair for one group to "own" more chunks than the other? Second, this is obviously meant to be the "a-cappella" breakdown, so to speak, of their arrangement, but in a competition setting it makes no sense to be entirely off-harmony.

When the groups join up at the end, holy crap is it full, but really it's full because Vocal Rush is back in with the backgrounds, with, as far I can tell, Element singing above them. And given a choice between a "lead" group with background that have been empty, and a "foundation" group with some killer leads, I'm going with the latter. And I don't mean to imply that Element are bad singers or even a bad group, but they still had (as of this taping last summer) work to do on crafting their sound that can't be done on the air, or, more accurately, in the six days in-between tapings.

Element is out, and Vocal Rush, who shouldn't have been put in this position, is moving on. Down to six, and as usual the next theme-- music from the movies-- is vague enough to keep the licensing department busy. I look forward to hearing the deep cuts from the Ghostbuster II soundtrack.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

The Sing-Off, episode 4-3 (Dec. 12): top 8, 1st bracket

Gospel goes polka, humility leads to boredom, and the Dark Side of the Battle is revealed.

[Sing-Off and other a-cappella-related postings are simul-blogged at CASA.org and 5th Judge.]

This is the first time I have ever had a problem with the arrangement of a "group" number, and ironically it's about a unison. There's a very prominent background unison underneath Sonny's (of Street Corner Renaissance) solo on "when I want to run away" and "but whichever way I go"; I'm guessing it was meant to support Sonny's voice, but a) IMO his voice does not need supporting, and b) the backing unison's tone is so straight on and smooth that it creates a tuning issue in "unison" with Sonny's gritty tone. In the chorus I love the enormous "YOUR EYES! YOUR EYES!" figures, and I appreciate that the chord progression (in A major) is made more raw by the basses hitting the ^5 (E) and then bypassing the customary ^3 (C#) and going straight to ^4 (D), creating a crunchy Dadd9 (and maybe something else going too).

(Peter Gabriel had an extended version of this song, with this "accepting all I've done and said" bridge? Wow, you learn something new every episode. I'm just now for the first time listening to the original extended version; "In Your Eyes" always felt out of place on So with its straight-ahead romanticism, and this bridge (vocally anyway) ties it to other moody masterpieces on the album like "Red Rain" and "That Voice Again".)

What's this bossa-nova tune playing underneath Shawn Stockman's company pep talk? It's so... peppy!

The Queen of Soul, says Nick? Is this finally the episode when Ten takes us to church, or at least to the non-demoninational house of worship they apparently rehearse in?

Something really cool is happening in the VP; it's a strong kick, but there's also a something extra on the snare, like a high-pitched "khee" sound that's like a snapping sound (and I'm pretty sure it's not the audience clapping). This is pretty good, if static, for the first 40 seconds, and then the "backup singers" do that thing on "nothin' but your fool" that they did last episode: create this brand new moving line that feels like it keeps inverting down forver. Then parts drop out, revealing rhythmic things that I missed before, followed by... an awkward tempo change into a fast stomp-clap gospel, which could've been achieved a lot easier by just doubling the tempo they were already in, instead of having the soloist telegraph the change by literally speeding up into this new tempo, which not incidentally is way too fast for the VP and bass to handle (Ben agrees, likening it to a polka). So now we have this jumble of thumping that conflicts with the singing stabs that land off the beat, while DeeDee wails at will in front. I was hoping that the end would justify the middle, but the last two chords (B to C#mi) were so heavy on the testifying and the vibrato that they didn't lock. I think this group may have take the "taking it to church" thing a little too literally; energy and grit was definitely what Shawn was looking for, but not chaos.

Shawn's advice to acoUstiKats to "pick a girl in the crowd and sing to her" (heteronormative as it is) is a great example of a great principle that separates the groups that get to the ICCA finals from mediocre groups that place at bottom in the quarterfinals: every person in the group need to make an emotional connection and create a sense of immediacy (being "in the moment") that not only keeps one's energy up but also keeps one's apparent interest in the song up, because boredom, even in a technically excellent performance, is kind of an insult to the audience. I can't count how many groups I've seen (at ICCA, ICHSA, Harmony Sweepstakes, at clubs where actual regular people go to see music, etc.) with members who keeps their eyes closed the whole time thinking it makes them look intense when it in fact makes them look like Mr. Magoo, or who stare into angstily into space in a way that makes their appearance look as phoned-in as their performance sounds.

Jordan calls the response to last week's performance of "Hey Ya" humbling, which is way too critical for a performance that was really, really good overall and only earned them a spot in the bottom two because the episode was so competitive all-around.

So, "Amazed" is supposed to be the result of their great humbling... and it sounds like this? This is so counter-tenor heavy and so vibrato-heavy, I could swear that the Footnotes have snuck back in and are providing backing tracks. Also, I've never heard this song before, but I'm going to make an uninformed spot judgment: THIS IS A DULL SONG. Not a single harmonically interesting thing happens in this performance (except maybe the last "amazed by," and that's partly the group's fault: you couldn't throw in an add2 or R&B'd up a V chord or something to make this interesting. This song just washed over me for 90 seconds. I watched it again, and it still just washed over me. Ross's powerful lead, as classical in tone as it was, was the only thing holding my interest here.

Ben says he's been thinking about how this group is going to stand out amongst the many all-male college groups, "and you guys just did that." Wait, what? This was the most sterotypically all-male college group thing I've hear since... well, since the Footnotes were eliminated.

(Should we make much out of the emotional on-air marriage proposal, in the context of how it will affect the judges' decisions? One could say that the proposal may bias the judges in the group's favor, but on the other hand the judges inexplicably loved their song across the board.)

Cee-Lo Green's "F-ck You" has been performed as "Forget You" so often that I forget that that's the original title. I can't even remember the last time I heard it in its original form, other than just now on YouTube to satisfy my curiosity over whether Cee-Lo singing "f-ck you" to a seven-year-old girl is still as disturbing as it was in 2010, and the answer is a resounding "yes." And don't get me started on how the target keeps changing-- is he singing to his ex's new guy, or to his ex, or both at the same time? So many things wrong with the lyrics-- good thing the music is great.

I'm in love with this from the start; the strong "o" in four parts rings gloriously. In the first verse, the "dit dit-dit, dit dit-dit dit-dit" figure that would sound awkward with a big group is super tight. They take advantage of the rhythmic propulsion they've amassed in the verse to take them into the block whole-notes in the channel, and even sing an octave line on "I've got some news for you" without it sounding like a weak moment. Props to their bass Kwame for carrying them into the bridge (which, this being a TV singing competition, follows the first and only verse) with great movement and a low F# (^6). "So bad" and "your dad" has a rawness to it that takes me by surprise, but it's part of how streetcorner tone color works, so I'm willing to overlook it. And Maurice... my Lord, where does those high notes come from? And despite having lost 33% of the block to that high run, we don't miss it in the chord. That's some economical arranging.

In Filharmonic intro package, Shawn tells them "It's an argument song, so give that type of energy to it," and says he hope they go a little more agressive and staccato (although I don't think one necessarily follows from the other).

And from the top, Vijay looks way too happy to be singing a song about a possibly violent relationship. Lots of great new material in this arrangement-- the background's chromatic (or whatever it is) slide down after "makin' me love you-ou" is really slick, and the progression on "got you stuck on my body like a tattoo" (pedal Eb under a "Hot In Herre"-like Ebmi7-F-Fdim-Ebmi, I think) is brilliant. A killer bass lick takes us into the chorus, and we get to my only two complaints of the song, both regarding Joe's bleeping riff (that's not self-censorship; he's literally making bleeping noises). The riff is there in the Maroon 5 original but it doesn't stick out so dramatically as here; maybe they could've harmonized on it so our ears wouldn't get so tired of it? Also, they've got a great off-beat triad block going, but when Joe goes to the bleeping riff the first two times, we lose the top note and therefore the balanced harmony, and on the third time the background disappears entirely! Props to the VP for keeping it together in the coda, going back and forth between scratching and drums. Altogether, this is a song I wish had gone on longer.

(Damn, this group is wearing every primary and secondary color-- except orange. Because, you know that would've been ridiculous.)

After the break (which includes a promo for what turned out to be a treacly Very Special Holiday episode of The Michael J. Fox Show that was only worth watching for Sting's surprisingly good self-effacing comic timing), the acoUstiKats are lined up neatly in a 3x4 grid like blue-and-white toy soldiers. I hate that the top 8 have been split like this, but if I had to send two groups to the Jenga Battle specifically based on tonight's performances, it'd be Street Corner Renaissance (just barely, and not because they sounded less than great, but because I take the degree of difficulty into account relative to Ten) and acoUstiKats (definitely, because their song was a snoozefest).

From here on in, I'm going to refer to anything negative that Nick quotes from the judges as the "but" comments, as in "Judge X said that it was the greatest song he'd ever heard and he can now die a happy man, but, judge Y said you're the worst singers imaginable and he wishes you would all die right now in front of him." Nick's "but" comment to Ten is that Ben said that "the rhythm wasn't always supporting the other singers," and his "but" comment to Street Corner Renaissance is that the judges "pushed you to grow as artists and discover something new about yourselves." My immedately reaction to that is that Street Corner Renaissance would be saved, as something technical and actually discernable in a performance is a bigger problem than something metaphysical from a group that performed well, in my opinion. Then I remembered Cat's Pajamas' first-round elimination in season 3, when Ben (I think) explained that the judges thought that there wouldn't be much more growth from the group. And sure enough, it's the group that needs to "grow"-- Street Corner Renaissance-- that's sent to the Jenga Battle. And from the other two, the judge choose to save... acoUstiKats? Seriously?! I'm absolutely floored right now. People on the intarwebs like to say that the producers have the ultimate say in eliminations... are they perhaps intentionally setting up the niche-marketable Street Corner Renaissance with a broadly-marketable group they definitely can't beat? Poor guys.

Whenever Nick does the karate chop to start off the Battle, I now like to imagine he's chopping an imaginary Twinkie in half.

I'm about to contradict myself, or at least appear to contradict myself, in critiquing this last performance ("Na Na Hey hey Kiss Him Goodbye"). Earlier I effused about Street Corner Renaissance's performance, and I effuse about the streetcorner style in general, because it's about a big open ringing sound that makes up for overt rhythmic propulsion (and heavily boosted bass). S.C.R. opens the song with said beautiful open chords (and a great lead to boot), and then when Filharmonic comes in on chunk #2, for a split-second I'm thinking "what a great setup to start with open chords and then add layers with VP and heavier bass," and then I remember "OH CRAP THESE ARE TWO DIFFERENT GROUPS." I was essentially telling myself subconsciously that Filharmonic must be better because it has VP and heavy bass. Shame on you, subconscious me. But it's so hard to ignore the fuller sound of Filharmonic when they're singing the same song side-by-side, literally! It's like having an A/B button going between the late '50s and the present, and now I see the Dark Side of the Battle round-- things one normally won't see as a problem with Genre X in its own context will suddenly seem weak when you compare it nearly simultaneously with Genre Y. For years I've been reading on discussion boards about how the whole conceit of The Sing-Off is flawed because the groups are so diverse that it's like apples-to-oranges, and I've respectfully disagreed, but now that argument is crystallized in this one song right here, and it's scaring me. And I'm now trying to fight my knee-jerk reaction, reactions that are the very point of this head-to-head performance. At S.C.R.'s entrance on chunk #3, as gorgeous as their "good-bye!" is, again my brain is telling me "Oh, this is the part where the VP drops out," which is absurd because S.C.R. never had a VP to begin with. Arghhhhhhhhhh. Finally Filharmonic makes a small mistake in chunk #4-- the first tonic was a ma7, but the 7th disappeared the second time-- so I'm like "AHA! Ten points off from United Colors of Gryffindor!" just to ease my conscience. This internal conflict continues for the whole song, but alas, I eventually have to conclude (along with the judges) that Filharmonic won the Battle, despite Maurice's amazing blues-scale final riff.

And now it's all over but the crying (I'm looking at you, Joe). Monday's episode will feature the other bracket-- Vocal Rush, Home Free, VoicePlay and Element. That's a strong (and bass-heavy) lineup! Should be fun. If my next recap is unusually late, it'll be because I came home late from my two-hour session with a therapist to resolve my Battle-related cognitive dissonance.