HomeBlogsWarren B.'s blog5th Judge - The Sing-Off, episode 2-1 (Dec. 6)

This blog will be simulcast (simulblogged?) at www.5thjudge.com and at www.casa.org. Feel free to comment on either.

Well, here we are again. The Sing Off is miraculously back for a second season. Take a look at my posting regarding the first season for some background as to where I'm coming from in the contemporary a-cappella and music ed departments. It's hard for me to make musical judgments about this show without a twinge of emotion getting in the way-- much as the central wedding in Wedding Crashers is "the Kentucky Derby of weddings,” this show is the Kentucky Derby of contemporary a-cappella. I mean, good Lord, it's a six-episode series of live on-mike a-cappella! On national broadcast television! Musical-directed by the guy who started the Contemporary A Cappella Society out of his dorm room! Mixed by a guy I know who produces pop a-cappella recordings for a living! With ICCA and ICHSA finalists and winners, some of whom I've judged myself, competing together on national television! I mean... I could go on. It's quite a moment for the movement.

Oddly though, although the audition pool was significantly larger this year, they've somehow picked some surprisingly mediocre groups. Last year's crop of eight were all top-notch (if memory serves), and any of them could've gone all the way if they hadn't taken severe missteps. After tonight's results (I saw it before writing this), the inevitable the rumors began to fly on "the boards" about casting, favoritism by the producers, rigged results, etc. (in addition to logistical questions about the nature of the show). Deke Sharon (the musical director and aforementioned CASA founder) nipped some of those concerns in the bud soon after the show ended, so I'm running on the assumption that fix is indeed not in where judging decisions are concerned.

Anyway, on to it. My take on American Idol and The Sing Off has been meant to be from a detailed musical and performance point of view, as a jumping-off point for other educators and performers, and I'm going to try hard to stick to that. However, If I do feel compelled to comment snarkily on something outside that realm, like regarding the gratuitously color-coordinated outfits or raunchy comments from the judges, I'll parenthesize it. Like so:

(The opening montage of news clips was a little self-aggrandizing. And why in the world would you obscure Natalie Morales's face?! I was at the box office at the USTA Center in Flushing last September, trying to get last-minute tickets for the U.S. Open semi-finals, when a limo pulled up and Morales stepped out, dressed to the nines and looking even better in person. Oh my Lord.)

The opening song with everybody performing ("I Got the Music in Me") is pretty killer, although granted most of it is pre-recorded (as are all of the multi-group showcases). The adrenaline is running high in this number, and in retrospect it's interesting to see so many of these groups (and their soloists) wailing when later on their they'll put in some very nervous staring-at-the-floor performances. Half of musical performance is, alas, visual (hence the Performance vs. Music split on the ICCA judging forms), and half of coming across as confident comes from, well, confidence. As the first five rounds are judged by a panel with serious performing and musical chops, sitting at the foot of the stage, the difference between the confident and the full-of-themselves will probably lead to worthy cuts before the nationwide vote starts and the teenyboppers and hausfraus-- you know, the ones who put Taylor Hicks, Kris Allen and Lee DeWyze over the top-- weigh in.

(Um, isn't "streetcorner" one word?)

First up is Eleventh Hour, a high-school group who recently came close to being cut out of their school's budget (per the boys of Mouth Off); I wonder why that fact didn't make it into their video piece! The whole Breakfast-Club vibe of the piece was probably meant to rally the audience behind them, but my experience with high-school a-cappella groups has been overwhelmingly positive. When I judged the ICHSA (high-school) and ICCA (college) finals on consecutive nights in 2006, the ICHSA show was far better, and I attribute that to the "adult in the room" factor. The college groups came off as bratty and short on musical detail, which the high-school groups all had, usually out of administrative necessity, some sort of adult advisor who could keep their egos in check and provide much-needed perspective if not actual musical guidance.

"Baby" is an odd choice for a vocal-group competition, as it's a harmonically dull song. I... vi... IV... V... *snore* Luckily for them, they've got great presence and a great blend, particularly on the add9's. Ben Folds says what I was thinking: that the bass and VP worked together very well, which is especially impressive considering how many college groups of this style I've seen over the years who had no idea that those two things are supposed to work together. (This also indirectly attests to the dramatic increase in sound quality over last year, at least as it's coming in over my bass-friendly system.) Nicole Scherzinger, as seems inevitable, calls them "the real life Glee," which I would personally take as an insult, as that would imply robotic pitch-correction and obvious lip-synching, no? I wish I had more to go on with these guys, although they've got good raw talent.

On The Rocks (of Univ. of Oregon)'s video piece is odd; first they're leaping like a latter-day West Side Story, then they're singing in togas in front of what appears to be a beirut table.* (Nice family-friendly show we've got here.) Anyway, I haven't seen their viral hit video of "Bad Romance", so I'm looking forward to seeing them perform it without prejudgment. "We're going out bring everything we have to the audience," says one of them, and I'd say they do. It's a hell of a performance, with a full arrangement that doesn't make me cringe in frustration that they'd squandered their numerous voices, as often happens with groups like this. I didn't hear the pitch issues that Folds did, although there were moments during the bridge that were "fuzzy", i.e. a wall of sound as opposed to be solidified chords. But it was good enough for me to consider them worthy (so far) of advancing. This is probably the closest we have this season to The Beelzebubs (from last season), i.e. a ton of guys on stage having the freakin' time of their lives.

What a pleasure to finally see a jazz group on this show!  Groove for Thought seems to have some serious chops in the opening video! But then the chords in the first verse of "I Wish" are mushy, and the tuning following the first chorus is way off, which is a shame because the ending passage, with the group unison leading into seven parts, is awesome and worthy of its own arrangement. I rewound the DVR to hear that part again, it's that good. Alas, everything before it was iffy, and a performance of an R&B standard that keeps the bass line intact while taking out the percussion makes the whole thing shockingly hollow. Shawn Stockman's comparison to Take 6-- crunchy jazz harmonies in an R&B style-- is not totally on, but certainly understandable.

I've been hearing about Pitch Slapped (from the Berklee College of Music) for a long time, so I was looking forward to seeing them here. Then the video cuts to a live set with the ladies singing "jim-a-nit meh-now", and suddenly they're just another stereotypical unmiked college group doing pop covers. If I were one of the bad-ass jazz majors standing in that audience, I'd have a puzzled look on my face, thinking "Really? Berklee isn't above this kind of thing anymore?" (I tried to put something like this together at the Univ. of Miami, and it was kinda lame in retrospect considering how killer the music school's jazz vocal ensembles, who had better things to do than imitate pop recordings, were compared to us. Oh, wait, I spoke too soon; there's an independent pop group at Miami competing in the ICCA this year, featuring, of all people, Alexander Wagner-Trugman, the Chris Griffin of American Idol season 8.)

On stage, the boosted bass definitely serves them well. The breakdown itself is certainly well-yelled. I'm on the fence about this group; if these two soloists are the best they can do, they may not have the depth to get very far. Considering how many guys are on stage (7 men to 5 women), there's not a lot of depth in the backgrounds either; it felt very female-heavy, which is not good if, even after you've got one guy on solo and two more tied to bass and VP, you still can't hear baritones, leaving a big sonic hole in the performance. (Stockman essentially says the same thing.) It's doesn't help that this seems to be a very open-fifth-heavy song, which kind of ruins the whole point of group harmony.

When they segue to Jerry Lawson & Talk of the Town's video, they're in the middle of a tight performance of "Dock of the Bay", which bodes very very well for them-- when doo-wop (or doo-wop-style rock 'n roll, anyway) is done badly, it can be really bad, and when it's done right it'll send chills up your spine. Lawson, of course, has a heartbreaking growling baritone, and is no stranger to performing (dig that clip from the '70s!), so that's another good sign…

...and then they sing "Save the Last Dance" live. The very first entrance of the backgrounds is a mess, the chords in the opening section never lock, and they seem to change key (not in a good way) during the hook. Solid ringing I, IV and V7 chords, sans the extra notes you'd throw in for jazz or R&B, are the bread and butter of doo-wop, which makes these intonation problems all the more bewildering. And that ii chord on "save" is... oh boy. On a show like this we should expect some attention to detail, and we're not getting it here. It's great to see Lawson get a national audience again, but it shouldn't be like this. I can't believe the genuflecting from the often brutally-honest judges after that performance.

It's first cut time. On The Rocks is the best so far in my opinion, and Talk of the Town, for all of its inspirational vibe, is at the bottom for me. Lawson's group somehow advances; I suppose Pitch Slapped, after their Gregorian pop performance, kind of set themselves up for elimination by making Talk of the Town's harmonies seem rich by comparison. (Deke Sharon says that reason the cuts are made after only five groups, while appearing arbitrary, is actually pretty obvious: they can't fit ten groups across on the stage.)

And now The Whiffenpoofs (of Yale Univ.). Oh boy. In their intro video, musical director Stefan Weijola sets the Whiffs up to be the villains of the show with this instant classic line: "We are the first a cappella group in history. We invented it." The Whiffs invented… singing without other accompaniment? Were they founded shortly after the formation of the Catholic Church? Hmm, maybe "villains" is too strong of a word; "irritants" might be more appropriate. They've got all of this distortion in the music bed, with quotes about "feeling inordinately powerful" in a tux, followed by... vibrato-heavy choral singing in a fancy restaurant. Something's amiss here, guys.

Imagine my surprise when the intro of "Grace Kelly" is very lush, particularly when they slide into that bVII9 like they own it (kudos to the basses). Aaaaaaaaaand then the fake pop begins. I just heard the Mika original, and the Whiffs, while not obligated to hew exactly with to original, are throwing too many bluesy flat-sevenths into their I chords at the beginning, making the bVII chords in the same phrase that work on guitar jarring in a choral context... or it could be a tuning issue too. And that's the kind of arranging that takes the authenticity out of an a-cappella performance. (And that's even though Brendan, the countertenor soloist, is killer! Usually it's the other way around.) The rest of it works… kind of. Their collective vocal tone isn't suited to pop-- no big surprise-- but they use their "bigness" to fill out their generally triad-based sound. Probably the biggest advantage in being a primarily choral group is their attention to dynamics, which the pop groups could use a lot more of.

Ah, Men of Note. (Of Cherry Hill [N.J.] West High School.) I had the pleasure of judging them at a home-field ICHSA semifinal in March 2008, which they won by a landslide (on their way to a third consecutive title). Their collective stage presence was shocking mature for high-schoolers; I clearly recall writing "You guys look like you're moving even when you're standing still. That's some fast standing." Their blend and power were also killer, thanks to the "adult in the room," choral director Christine Bass. So they're announced in the Sing Off lineup, and what's more it'll be mostly alumni, and I'm thinking that they could be serious contenders. (And sure enough, there's Bass in the opening video!)  Then… it turns out they'll be doing "For The Longest Time", which could be either a showcase for the killer blend and expressiveness I knew they could pull off, or it could lapse into cliché.

And sure enough, by the fourth (IV) chord, they're already out of tune, the baritones are way too loud, and, oh yeah, it's BLAZING FAST. The lead (Richard) is strong, but it's hard to concentrate on him with these meter shifts (cut time to 4/4 and back) and random snapping, and then the completely out-of-place group staccato "doo, doo, doo doo" on a low chord puts the nail in the coffin for me. Why would you shift from group harmony (which, alas, had nowhere to go but up) to a low "guitar" strumming (or whatever it was supposed to be)? Another loss of authenticity in what could have been a salvageable performance. When we get to the bridge, the rhythms (while still a hair fast) are in time, but feel so heavy, which is kinda surprising for a group of 18-year-olds. Kudos to the basses, though! Damn. They're worst crime, though, is that "more than I hoped for" is squandered passing-chord opportunity; it's rushed, and the "for" in particular is a bit of mess. This calls for a new set of cardinal rules, which can apply equally to a coffeehouse jam and a nationally-televised competition.

Rule No. 1: Every chord counts.

You can't have a V chord on top with the bass landing on ^6 on the beat and walking up to ^7. I know, that's how Billy Joel did it, but he also had a bass player underneath, so the V was there in the bass (if I recall correctly) while the bass singer could afford to walk up. When Men of Note get to "for", the chord doesn't land because the ^6 in the bass collides with the V7. As we learn later with Committed, it's all about the harmonies, not the busy-ness. Every. Chord. Counts.

The lead is still killing it, which is impressive, and the merry-go-round choreography into action, which is fun to look at. The closing chord is strong and much lighter than the rest of the song, but ends on a sudden VP hit that sounds like a rock being thrown into a pond. Why even bother?

Rule No. 2: Choose a style for an arrangement and stick with it.

Not that you can't throw something in for comic effect, but don't start a jazz song and then sing straight V chords, or commit to keeping the groove by snapping and then throw in a vocal drum fill. Part of the fun of sing unaccompanied is singing so well that the audience forgets what's missing, like how a solid rendition of "Coney Island Baby" or "Milky-White Way" will never seems rhythmically bare-- unless you throw in a random VP fill and burst the bubble. The sudden VP hit here in particular wasn't that jarring, but it was distracting. Stockman is right that they're stiff (at least at the beginning); Folds, surprisingly, thinks that there are too many tenors, which seems the opposite of what I heard, but also rightly notes that their rushing stifles the harmonies.

Street Corner Symphony (seriously, isn't the noun "streetcorner" one word?!) seems like a genuine grassroots (bluegrassroots?) vocal group, and after the southern-fried vibe in the video, I'm really looking forward to their song… which oddly is "Everybody Wants to Rule the World", which doesn't seem to fit into that vibe. This is their "signature" song? Really? The lead (Jeremy), alas, is thin at the beginning, and the arrangement is pretty much a transcription of the triads of the original, although the bass and VP are really solid here. The middle of verse 2 suddenly gets crunchy with an add9 on "decide", and Jeremy's lead get the stronger, which suddenly reminds us how milquetoast the previous verse was. This is a competition where everybody gets 90 seconds to showcase themselves; why not bring the crunch earlier? The second lead sounds out of breath, the bridge is rushed with some awkward voice leading to boot (although I dig the half-time shift). They do a slowdown at the end of verse 3, which I suppose is meant to showcase their blend but backfires when their tenors aren't up to the task. (See Committed, who, well, are up to the task later.) There's little to recommend them in this set, alas, at least compared to what's come before them.

I'm sure there are dozens of group who formed for the express purpose of auditioning for this show (as they do for the National Harmony Sweepstakes), and The Backbeats seem like a particularly solid bunch-- jazz vocal majors, talent from last season, etc. I'm a little skittish when I see the "a-cappella bounce" in their opening video-- you know, that awkward up-and-down that singers without microphones feel they need to do to to make up for the lack of holding something. They start out "If I Were a Boy" with beautiful arpeggios melting into solid group harmonies, exploding into a loud chorus and finally melting back into a gorgeous closing passage, all supporting a killer alto lead (Joanna); altogether this is the fullest sound we've heard yet. I really have nothing to criticize here; it's shockingly solid for a pick-up group, and this arrangement (with addition of more sections) will be certainly be in heavy demand during the next ICCA season. Wow. "Off the chain," as Stockton says with more authenticity than I ever could.

(Nick Lachey refers to their elimination reveals as "heart-stopping", which is accurate in the sense that they suck the life out of the show.)

In their opening video we see Committed walking into their church, and immediately I'm thinking they're going to go all Take 6 on us. AND THEY DO. They do more in their video than most previous groups did on stage (maj7#11 chords and all), which bodes very, very, very well for them… until one of them says "We're a gospel group; we haven't been singing Top 40 pop music long, and this is a completely new experience for us," "We are a little nervous; pop music isn't our bread and butter," and so on, and the bells go off in my head. For licensing and promotional reasons (this is a Sony Pictures show on NBC that leads to a Sony Music contract, after all), the show is going to be pushing mainstream popular music, but I'm hoping it's not going to hamstring the group and they'll put a jazz-gospel spin on it (unlike Maxx Factor, the barbershop group from season 1 who went the pop-arrangement route to their detriment).

And the opening chords of "This Love" do not disappoint. Remember how every chord counts? They remember. Good Lord do they. They probably could've coasted on a whole song of that, but then they go into a more pop a-cappella arrangement for the rest of the first verse, and it feels like a sellout somehow-- a jazz-gospel group imitating keyboards? Does that really need to happen? And then the verse, shockingly and frustratingly, is very generic. Triads? TRIADS? After the six-part nirvana in the intro video? What a disappointment. They salvage it in the transition after the verse, when the chords arpeggiate and their blend kicks back in, and then we're back to their strength in the bridge, where the suspensions are lusciously suspended and we get a parallel major iiº-V9-Ima7 that's like the sky opening up. The bawdiness of the lyrics in the lead seems weird for them, but who gives a crap when the chords are locking like this. The last chorus goes from generic bass-and-VP pop to a gorgeous breakdown halfway through and back to the generic, which is soooooooo frustrating. Thankfully they end on a stunning series of chords that makes the final unison worthwhile. (As my arranging professor at Miami said, you need enough cake to justify the icing, but also vice-versa.) This groups has depth too; all solid, as far as I can tell.

Committed and The Backbeats are the groups to beat, as I see it. Men of Note gets cut, which is not a travesty, but two other groups could've been cut based on what we've seen tonight. Men of Note's goodbye song** ("Take a Bow"), for some reason, is better than their competition song. Actually, all of the groups' songs we hear from the "opera boxes" in the closing sequence is better than than what we heard in the competition (except for Committed's, oddly). Hmmmmmmmmm. Could be the pressure of competing.

(Next time, if the closing-credits teaser is correct, we will see Nicole Scherzinger's "musical climax". I... would like to see that, I'm not gonna lie to you.)

* In confirming the name "beirut," I just spent some quality time reading the Wikipedia article on beer pong. That's five minutes of my life I'd like back.

** I refuse to call it their "swan song," just on principle out of my annoyance with Nick Lachey. Oh, and it's corny.