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 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.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This is a great recap!! You really know your stuff, far better than I, on the technical front.

I found your review because you and I were both linked by for Sing Off recaps.

I hope you go check out mine and vote in the polls as well, and I'll look forward to reading your next one!