Thursday, December 12, 2013

The Sing-Off, Episode 4-2 (Dec. 11): top 9

Wherein the judges' advice is ignored, taken too seriously, and then ignored again.

[Sing-Off and other a-cappella-related postings are simul-blogged at]

Reflecting on the season premiere, I can't recall a men's college group (in this case the Princeton Footnotes) being eliminated so early on. As I fired up the DVR this morning, I wondered if making the Battles a regular occurance is a new way to get rid of the college groups before they get too far along and make Sony Records nervous.

My DVR started right from the very beginning of the opening group number, so I'm assuming it was a cold open again. (Anyone?)

Good build at the start of "Let's Get It Started" from the beginning "runnin' runnin'" and then there's a big power chord hit, and then... Ron's (of acoUstiKats) solo, which sounds so out-of-place. We haven't heard him sing a ballad yet, and I'm sure he'd be fantastic on one, but his classically-trained voice is just so very wrong here, especially on "get stupid," which is certainly not meant to be sung so precisely, or even sung at all. Calle Sol takes the lead in the chorus, and the ladies as a group certainly have a very nasal tone, which is probably contributing to the lack of fullness that the judges were referring to last time.

Vocal Rush, even in its silliness at the beginning of "Like We're Gonna Die Young," has a collective confidence on a mass unison that makes me forget how young they are (well played, "age is just a number" misquoters). Home Free's entrance, on the other hand, looks like a Strandbeest in slow motion. And how unfair is it in "Don't Stop the Music" to have featured leads from Honey (of VoicePlay), Emoni (of Ten)... and then Austin (of Home Free), who's so out of his element here.

And here comes Vocal Rush again with "Gonna Make You Sweat", a song that is as old to them as the Beatles' "Come Together" is to me. That... is scary. Sarah KILLS the opening line, which is such a relief given the energy that a "party anthem" needs out of the gate. Into the verse, though, the tempo takes off, and the jumbling of background parts suffers for it. Then, out of nowhere, the half-time breakdown is electrifying, reminscent of "Good Feeling" from the season 3 finale, and within five seconds Sarah takes her place among the strongest soloists ever on the show. When we come back to the main part (the chorus, I guess?), the tempo gets scrambled again, which undoes everything they just did.

That said, their sound really is full, and I consider that a given until Ben notes what's hiding in plain sight: that there are only two guys, one of whom is on bass, so the personnel on the middle block is very gal-heavy. And yet that hasn't been a problem, so... yay low altos!

Home Free's arrangement of "Life is a Highway" sounds exactly as I imagined it would, and the juxtaposition with Vocal Rush's full is laying bare the futility of the quintet with two-part blocks in the background. As singers they're wonderful, and the bass is both solidly in tune and doing some great moving around underneath, but the two-part "gonna ride it all night long" is so hard to swallow now. The tone color of "between you and I" is oddly reminiscent of Rockapella, which is great, but I'm starting to realize that, even with strong bass and VP, pop quintets are at an even bigger disadvantage than I realized, unless they do something seriously innovative (like, say, the group that won last year).

And along comes a sextet to twist the knife! (Props to VoicePlay's VP in their intro package.)

And sure enough, the incremental superiority of sextets over quintets is laid bare within the first ten seconds of "Play That Funky Music." The middle trio nails the "ah" figures with... full chords! And this is definitely the greatest scooped mi7 every sung to the words "whiiiiite boyyyyyyyyyy." Then they switch to a reggaeton breakdown, and the only reason I can think for why they would do this is... everyone else is doing a rhythmic shift, so why not us? This was so good until that moment, and then Honey does a passable but rushed toast-style rap, ending with the entire group sounding terribly out of breath. I thought, at least is isn't a half-time shift, like everybody else is doing. And then they shift in to half-time! Enough of these half-time breakdowns already! Damn you Pentatonix, and the fact that you were really good at them!

(I used to have Earl's hair, and now I want it back.)

Do you remember that age is just a number? The Sing-Off remembers. (Someone please do a meme of that with the Pepperidge Farm guy from Family Guy.) In Street Corner Renaissance's intro package, Sonny goes from eschewing VP last time to learning VP from a high-schooler this time, which is just hilarious. If they survive, I expect their next intro package to feature Sonny dropping a beat at the ICHSA finals.

One thing we can definitely learn from this performance of "Do You Love Me", in contrast to Home Free's verses, is something that barbershoppers (even the time-travelling kind) have known for over a century: that you can create full harmonies and the listeners will mentally fill in the rhythm, but not vice-versa. When the group is singing triads behind the solo, it's rhythmically propulsive, and when Sonny is just chugging along on the bass waiting for everyone else to come in, those are the emptiest moments of the song. The problem is, this dichotomy alternates... every four beats! The next-to-last chunk ("work, work") is surprisingly sloppy between the "work"s-- are there two bass lines going on?

I have to respectfully disagree with Ben here-- not on the fact that they don't need VP, which of course they don't, but on the fact that the audience's clapping is sufficient cover the lack of rhythmic propulsion.

In Element's intro package, Manjula says that "it's hard to be a female group in this competition," but we have no evidence of that-- MAXX Factor did fine in season 1 (and without VP), and Delilah pulled 6th place out of 16 last season. She continues "but our real challenge is that we're such a new group"-- again, c.f. Delilah. Despite Shawn's criticism, I thought their song last episode was great, but Manjulu expresses a need "to make sure that our arrangement caters to what the judges asked of us", and this isn't the last time a group overthought the judges' comments. The stellar Afro-Blue did last season, and that didn't work out well. Manjula is both geeking out and absolutely correct about differentiating consonants, although she could have, er, chosen her syllables better.

The last time I saw "Raise Your Glass" done a-cappella was by the "Dalton Academy Warblers" (quotation marks intentional) from Glee on NBC's Today show, and it was not a good scene. Erase those memories, Element!

From the start, Jo (with the mic on her nose!) kills it on bass as usual, and everyone is in a good place in the backgrounds, but the lead (which was a solo in P¡nk's original) is sung as a duet... at what sounds like the very bottom of Emily & Emily's ranges, which is like the time my orchestration professor at Miami saw that I'd put two oboes in unison on a middle C, and he wrote, in red pen, "You must be joking." Going into the channels, there's a lot of great arranging-- the solid bass, the solid VP, a block triad, and a rhythm guitar to keep things moving, all working together well. The IVadd2 on "Why so serious?" was hot! And the transition worked too. I love that there are enough women in the group-- and that Jo is low enough-- that they can double the lead an octave down on "if you're too school for cool" and we lose neither voices nor the illusion that Jo is indeed the bass. The modulation works well, the altos are working harder this time (they took Ben's advice, and he noticed), and they end on the best ending chord of the season so far-- I want to say a Dadd2add4?, with the tonic on top, which makes it R&B and rock at the same time. Shawn didn't seem keen on the whole thing, but I thought this kicked butt.

The only time I've ever seen "Hey Ya" pulled off by an a-cappella group was by Mt. San Antonio College's Fermata Nowhere at the ICCA finals in 2004, where they placed second in the nation. Good luck topping that.

The intial solo (name?) has a great focused tone, but then Ron (who appears to be a de-facto frontman already), with his classical tone, is inscrutable as a pop soloist. His lyrical tenor tone does somehow works in the duet, though. The chorus rushes quite a bit, but the arrangement is great, like "Raise Your Glass" doubled, so it cancels out, and the syncopated "ice cold!" swings the needle back into positive. Ron's tone finally finds its strength at the end of the bridge, and who know it would be screaming at the top of his lungs? Ron really was working overtime on this, wasn't he, and Shawn explains it perfectly. For God's sake, there's twelve of you, so you don't have to be as economical as the quintets; spread the work around!

Calle Sol's intro package tells us that, per the judges' comments last time, Craig (VP) and Windy (mezzo?) will be switching duties, which is okay, because so much Latin percussion is high-pitched (agogo, cowbell, etc.) that it can be covered by either gender.

I like that their backgrounds, even if they're not literally all constantly moving parallel, are still always moving in some way-- like under the first channel ("she makes you..."), there's a part moving downwards, ever slightly changing the nature of the chord from beat to beat. The "makes you live" (Ami7) and "takes away the pain" (Bmi7) backgrounds are especially crunchy; there sure like to do clustered notes. But thieir love of clustering backfires with the Emi11 on "bullet to the brain"-- I know I shouldn't be judging based on the original, but there's got to be a V of some kind to take it home to the chorus (and the bass dropping to B doesn't count, because they've already established the tonic), or the transition to the chorus sounds weak by association (and the "c'mon" sounds thrown in). Then Craig goes back to VP and Windy to mezzo(?), so now the judges' previous comments about finding a middle range are being ignored during the most upbeat part of the song. The bass is slammin', but this mixed group is showing an acoustic hole in the middle that even all-female Element didn't have. Shawn's comments picked up on stuff that we couldn't see on TV, and all three were relatively brutal as judges' comments go. When Jewel finishes with "...and so for me, there were holes in the performance," and Ben finishes with "Just tighten up the music," and both times they cut to Amaris holding back tears, the audience claps like they usually do, and I'm like "Stop clapping! This is an awkward moment!"

FINALLY, in the fourth season, we have a full performance of Nelly's "Hot In Herre," the jam that made Pharell Williams a household name. (Yes, Urban Method mashed Mastermixed it two years ago, but that was... weird).. I hear some jazz-gospel harmonies in Ten's into package, and I have very high hopes.

(Side note: I just spent twenty minutes Googling "Hot in Herre" and the two songs it supposedly interpolates or samples, and... the Nelly track really does stand on its own, especially harmonically. The opening Rhodes progression, punctuated with the ever-so-brief Neil Young sample, kills me.)

But watch the Nelly video through 0:15, and then watch the same parts of Ten's song. Where are those great chromatic harmonies that don't conveniently end on the tonic every four chords? Kind of a bummer. I do appreciate when a rap is turned into a melody for the sake of the show (like what BYU Vocal Point did last season), so props to Emoni for that. And you can tell that these are background singers by trade (in a good way), because their unison underneath is perfect (no pun intended). And then "dance floor" and "askin' for" -- Ebmi7 (tonic) to F7 to Fb7(?) to Ebmi7 -- are the best harmonic moments of the season. And then these crazy trumpet stabs alternating with more killer unisons, like that "horn" line worthy of the bridge of "Sir Duke" that you might miss underneath all of the other stuff. And then, instead of going half-time like everybody else, they go reggae, which is like a time shift without the shift, and throw in some tasty jazz changes (like the Cb7 to Bb7). Except for that missing chord in the intro (and Emoni's last lick that goes a little too long), this has everything we need for moving on to the next round. This goes from zero to hero in about ten seconds flat.

Shawn is spot on when he constructively complains "I'm waiting for you to take us to church! I'm waiting! I'm waiting!" I was thinking the same thing, as not only were there tinges of jazz-gospel in this week's package, but in their first, Elgin says "Our group's common ground is that gospel foundation", and in fact we see them ACTUALLY REHEARSING IN A CHURCH.

Filharmonic was my no. 1 seed at the end of the last episode, but other groups have given them a serious run for their money with harmonic inventiveness and pure ballsiness. "This Is How We Do It" seems like an odd choice, unless they find a way to take unsual advantage of the Fmi-to-Gb progression that permeates the song.

For the first full minute, it's certainly energetic, but there's not a lot of singing in the backgrounds (other than unisons on "this is how we do it"); one of the few chords, on "ba da bop bop ba dop," is super low, and barely sounds like a chord. Then there a great reverse cascade on a Fmi9 at the end of the chorus, and on the bridge is suddenly full of tasty chords, ending with a gorgeous cascade on Abma9 (relative major tonic) to Db...9sus? I can't tell exactly, but whatever, it's gorgeous-- shades of Afro-Blue and Committed. The "ba da bop bop ba dop" sounds better closing the song, but it's a shame that the best of the arrangement was saved for the middle.

(Shawn says that the dancing "encompassed what the '90s was about, and that was partying, having a good time..." I guess different people in different places experience time periods differently, because while I was vaguely aware of New Jack Swing as it was happening, and was obessed with alternative hip-hop, I was under the impression that grunge absolutely dominated the '90s. Although that could be because northeastern colleges are breeding grounds for flannel-wearing anyway. Also, as Shawn is talking, we see Ben from the side-- his silhouette is like an early Simpsons character!)

The Biggest Loser (which I've been watching since season 4, when an acquaintance and her team ran the table) used to have eliminations by vote, which I thought was counter to the point of the show. More recently they've made eliminations more in line with actual weight loss, and it's a lot less arbitrary now; they've also added three "coach's saves," like on American Idol. I've always wished there was a way on this show for groups to be "saved," and in a way this is a compromise, where the bottom two (as opposed to one desperate, sad looking group) get a last chance to prove themselves.

This elimination reveal is the most arbitrary thing I've seen on TV since the top 7 results show on American Idol season 7. It's not suspensful-- it's annoying and confusing. Nick starts reading off names, and I have NO IDEA WHY HE'S READING THEM, and then there are four groups, and he names two and says he's going to advance one of them, and then names the other two... arghhhhhhhhh. I mean, just announce the groups who are safe like you did last time, because the process here (and it shouldn't be a process!) is impossible to follow. Then after acoUstiKats and Calle Sol are declared the bottom two, Nick delivers his silliest solemn line ever: "Both groups better bring everything they've got, because... the judges will be watching." Oh really? I was under the impression that the judges check their email during songs and then have personal assistants give them their talking points.

acoUstiKats and Calle Sol are set against each other in a death match in which they wield spongy cream-filled Jenga pieces of songs. Ron is obviously the understood front man of acoUstiKats at this point, because, well, they keeping putting him in front for everything, despite the fact that his doesn't match every solo, and that not every solo sits well in his range (case in point: this solo). Calle Sol, not surprisingly, goes salsa on most of their portions, and they're certainly more mobile an operation than the small army of college boys before them. On the first viewing I gave the win to Calle Sol, but on second viewing (particularly with headphones), two things tip the scales toward acoUstiKats: a) the "thanks to you..." sections are the only pair of Jenga pieces that are in the same time signature, and Calle Sol's version is weaker, and b) acoUstiKats' multi-octave "unison" immediately afterward has more range than Calle Sol can (or seems to be willing to) produce.

Prompted by Nick, Ron of acoUstiKats inexplicably says "I know there are some technical things we could've done better..." Oh god, I'm yelling at the screen, STOP SABOTAGING YOURSELF NOW. He's like a Top Chef contestant who can't stop running his or her mouth about how the dish could've gone better despite the fact that Tom and Padma had no problem with it, and then they're like "Wait, there was supposed to mascarpone on it, but you ran out of time? Pack your knives and go, you uncivilized barbarian."

So Calle Sol is out, which still leaves us with this big college group for Sony to inevitably eliminate later. And what have we learned, once again? Acoustic holes sink ships. Let's hope this lesson doesn't fall out of the remaining groups' heads over the course of the production week.

1 comment:

Todd said...

Thanks for coming back with the Sing Off! I really enjoy the perspective of your trained ear. Although I sang a capella in high school, it's been a long time and now I mostly just listen and enjoy the music (or not, as the case may be) without understanding the technical details like you do.

I realize you have a life and little time, but I would be interested in your thoughts on Pentatonix and their success following the show. I have purchased albums from a few of the past competitors but none have grabbed me they way they have. You mentioned their innovation - what makes them innovative? Why do they sound so different from other a capella groups? Do you personally like them or listen to them?

Thanks again. It seems like this is a labor of love for you and I appreciate the time and effort.