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.
About the writer:
WARREN BLOOM was a founding member of Spur Of The Moment at Brandeis Univ., sang with Jazz Vocal 2 at the Univ. of Miami Frost School of Music, and MD'd the summer pro group The Hyannis Sound. Since returning to New York City in 1997, he's been MD and/or bass and/or VP for numerous a-cappella projects, including Doo*Wa*Zoo (Best Jazz Song nominee, 2000 CARAs), Dobsonfly (heard in the film The Rules of Attraction), Minimum Wage (2002 NYC Fringe Festival and off-Broadway runs) and Invisible Men (numerous New York and Boston Harmony Sweepstakes awards), and was a staff arranger for 10fm and the Ultimate A Cappella Arranging Service (now Total Vocal). He's also been a regular ICCA/ICHSA judge since 2002 (including both 2006 finals). He's been teaching musical theater (middle & high school) at the Usdan Center for the Arts on L.I. most summers since 1998, and also spent a year as a composer/lyricist in the BMI Lehman Engel Musical Theater Workshop. He was band & orchestra director at Talent Unlimited High School in Manhattan for three years, and now teaches general music (K-5) at P.S. 8 in Brooklyn Heights. He's also a freelance voiceover artist, live sound tech (for numerous vocal groups including Naturally 7, Ball in the House and Six13), and music copyist. He holds music degrees from Brandeis, U. Miami, and CUNY Hunter College.