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.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the recaps! I've enjoyed reading your analysis for the last two seasons and it's been great to be able to share the show and these posts with friends.

I definitely agree that the condensed schedule caused the show to lose some emotional weight and that the finale was somewhat unsatisfying and anticlimactic -- part of which came from the format, and part from the possibly unrealistically high bar set last season (the last competition episode of season 3 was crazy good).

I'll be looking forward to next year!