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 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.


esbaird said...

Great thoughts as always Warren. From what I'm hearing they are most likely picked up for next year already. Sing-Off beat the X-Factor lead in in ratings more often then they did not and for a show with such a low "prize" and little money into putting it together (not a criticism, just a comparison) I would be surprised if they cancelled the show.

Warren B. said...

$100,000 is so infinitesimal for a TV network, even for one on the ropes like NBC. In the finale of "Million Second Quiz," the producers added $273,654 to Andrew Kravis's final winnings just so they could say they broke the record for single-show winnings. Good God.