HomeBlogsWarren B.'s blog5th Judge: The Sing-Off, Episode 3-10 (Nov. 21): Top 4 (1st Hour)

Greatest episode ever? Arguably. Most heartbreaking elimination ever? Oh yeah. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

I love a good mashup. My first two experiences with mash-ups, back in the heady heyday of Napster, happens to have involved Eminem, but in very different contexts: one was just plain funny, and the other made me wonder how many times the mash-er had to replay these two songs to figure out that they would structurally fit together (and offset by two beats too!). A good mashup, IMO, 1) "works" in the rhythmic and harmonic sense, 2) is creative in its song choice, and 3) makes you appreciate the vision of the masher that "those songs" worked together.

That standard normally applies in my brain to two-song mashups. And Mashup Mastermix Night starts with a mashup of four songs, and it's freakin' brilliant. It's not worth delving into the details of why it works, so I'll just embed it and you can watch it repeatedly so you can appreciate the detail going on here (and watch Mariah and Liz get some well-deserved solo time).

By the way, this posting is the rare instance where I'll be taking the original recording of these songs into account, which is the point of the mashups.

In Pentatonix's video package, we hear Avi's bass live for the first time (that I can recall), and indeed, he's a monster even off-mic.

In the competition, they begin with this very traditional rock-'n-roll feel, and I'm wondering why they've gone so conservative. Then I realize that they're starting with "Forget You", and I realize that this is going to build to something. A problem at the outset is that Kirstie's "been gone” over an IVopen5 (a IVm7[no3] including Kirstie's note) is dissonant [0:21]; her ^3 on "gone" directly collides with Mitch's ^4, and a ma7 chord needs a 3rd in the middle to offset the dissonance of the 7th anyway, but they ran out of voices because Mitch and Avi are singing the same note, i.e. the note that's colliding with Kirstie! Yiiiiiiiiiiiii. Luckily there are no similar issues in Scott's lead on "Forget You", and they're able to slip in one of their patented full-stops on "ain't that some shhhhhhhh*".

The third chunk** is a great trio [0:52], but the less busy texture exposes what's already been happening: the usually-brilliant Kevin is trying way too hard to cram as many notes as possible into a beat. I'd rather hear a solid hi-hit on the 8th-notes then hear this somewhat precise but confusing jumble of 16th (and maybe 32nd?) notes of indistinguishable color. Avi & Kevin's battle [1:09] is a lot of fun, but at first didn't seem do the mashup any service, until a beautiful trio is exposed on "stupid love song", and then Scott and Mitch do an clear-as-a-bell octave [1:26], and I realize the juxtaposition is the whole point of this exercise, in which case it's all awesome and totally fits in. The second "felt that way" [1:39] is a return to the IVma7(no3) that sounded so odd earlier, and takes me out of the moment. The final chords, though, remind us that these guys are not only have great imaginations but also, when the notes are right, really sound good singing together. It's not "seamless" as Shawn Stockman says, but still a lot of fun.

Urban Method's video package gets gloomy real fast, but only because they're having trouble with the obvious. Wait, you mean that same person doesn't have to sing every solo? What a concept! (Oddly, The Aires don't consider this a problem, even though they've got 75 15 voices.)

Love the women on the intro, both in the piano and guitar parts. Then we hit Liz's solo (which is hot!) [0:13], and something's amiss. A mash-up, theoretically, should involves elements of both songs, so changing those elements to fit the other song would violate the spirit of the mashup, no? But that's what they do by changing the harmonies on the parts that are obviously from "Hot In Herre" to fit the less-interesting harmonies of "Fever", and it cheapens the mashup. (Pentatonix did that in a way, but their arrangement was set up as an tailor-made "arrangement" and not imitative "adaptation" like Urban Method's, and they'd just put in wholly new material [like the bass-drum battle] with no intention of mashing it with anything.) The first chorus of "Fever" is more of a mashup, as Katie & Kim are sticking to the Nelly harmonies.

Mykal finally enters late in the game [:48], tears up the place as usual, and the women throw in unison references to "Fever" [0:55 & 1:04].  Once the women are done leaning into each other in a way that makes me feel funny, we go a full 36 seconds without any explicit reference to "Fever". That's more than a quarter of the song! (EDIT: there are changed harmonies that reference "Fever", and the descending ^1-^7-^6-^5 bass line under "I wanna take my clothes off" might also count, but only the latter counts, because they're again changing a very "Hot In Herre" part to fit their needs.)  (Also, Myke said "ass is bodacious" on national prime-time television; the rap-haters' heads must be exploding at this point, while NBC's censors must be kicking back knowing that Whitney is the more likely magnet for charges of inappropriateness. The women singing "I wanna take my clothes off" makes me a bit uncomfortable too, and not in the climb-the-rope-in-gym-class kind of way.)

The song abruptly shifts to the slow swing of Nancy Sinatra [1:39], and I think this change also violates the spirit of the mashup-- seems like a bit of a cop-out, as we've already settled on "Hot In Herre" as the groove.  And then they change styles again, to a very slow hip-hop feel that neither song has in common, instead of trying to incorporate Nelly into Nancy Sinatra's feel, which is a cop-out of a cop-out.  Liz also has to sing the hook of "Fever" in this new meter, and while I understand that meshing straight-8ths with swing is inherently difficult, whoever chose these songs (them? them producers? some licensing guy?) should've taken that into account. Which is a shame, because these guys really do sound fantastic and it is a mostly excellent arrangement.

Sara B. calls it "sexy" and "a really successful mastermix" and Shawn calls it "the best arrangement [they] have done because it showed so many different characteristics of the group". But we haven't had a theme this specific before; most themes were about genres, which is really more about finding a way to make a song from a certain repertoire work for you, and this theme involves a directive to mix two well-known entities as is, and in that respect I think they missed the mark big-time. Which is not to say it didn't sound great, which is why I'm embedding it above. Also, I originally thought the "saxophone" was supposed to be a kazoo. Sorry!

After the break, Nick introduces Afro-Blue, saying they've "impressed the judges with intelligent arrangements that tap deep emotions." I am so not liking the angle the show is playing with Afro-Blue ever since "Need You Now" (episode 8), which supposedly helped them tap into the touchy-feely side of their music. It's almost like they're being presented a some creature that's been drained of all technical prowess by the judges and now must feed off of raw emotion to survive. Screw emotion! I want six-part harmonies in impossible configurations in quick succession, and want 'em now.

"Fly" (o/b/p Nicki Minaj and Rihanna) starts out with strong add9 and mi7 chords under Christie's strong lead, and Afro-Blue is the only group left in the competition that make a plain I major chord [0:16] sound this full, and then go to even more glorious bVII7 chord-- as a bass, I can share in the joy that Reggie is feeling at this moment as he establishes the root and then does the jumps in 4ths back and forth. The following VImi [0:22] doesn't quite lock and has blend problems, then the IVma7 is gorgeous, and then the bVI(6?) sounds uncoordinated, which is surprising. This group made a name for itself with mind-bending fast progressions, and the slow tempo is ironically bringing out some sloppiness.

For chunk 2, Trent takes the the lead of "I Believe I can Fly" (o/p/b R. Kelly), and he's smooooooooth [0:32], and so is the flawless block backing him up, particularly the descending "yeah" figures that pivot through chords without colliding with the underlying harmonies. Reggie's descent to the lower root [0:44] bodes well for their cohesiveness, but then they fall apart momentarily on the IVmi [0:52] as though someone had to catch their breath, as I'm wondering if not only nerves but less-than-strategic breathing is an issue, as I only notice this problem as chords are ending.

Into the chorus [1:15], we hear some hints of the modern-gospel harmonies (like the III-VI) we've been losing from Afro-Blue in recent weeks. Mariah (who does sound and look suspiciously like Nicki Minaj in the video) spits rhymes somethin' fierce [1:31] (it's up there with The Yellowjackets "The Show Goes On" in episode 6) while everybody else carries on solidly with an interesting soprano/tenor octave moving line just under the surface. The camera does that great pan-right-to-left thing it did for "Killing Me Softly" (episode 3), and the whole thing ends so very, very, very strongly.

This is the best amalgam of their strengths that we've seen in weeks. (Ben says he thought the background under Mariah's rap was too strong, but I thought it was perfect.)

The Dartmouth Aires' video package is quite fascinating from a group dynamics point of view: they've chosen Ethan for the lead on "Express Yourself" "Born This Way" (o/b/p Madonna Lady Gaga) but it isn't working out at all (yikes, he reminds me of me in college, screaming for notes I'm technically producing but shouldn't be singing; the look of dread on Clark's face is priceless), and they have to replace him with Michael O.-O. ("the safe choice"). Regretful pats of reassurance on Ethan's back ensue. (I've also been noticing that Brendan, who'll be doing a very Andy Bernard take on "Sympathy for the Devil", has been getting scragglier as the season went on, and this package confirms it.)

I don't usually dwell much on the visual aspects, but Brendan's squinting is out of control; he's not emoting, he's putting on an affectation, and it's not working. Past the first few bars, which are innocuous enough, I'm also not liking the arrangement or the tone of the group in general; the "oh"s are very round, there are tuning issues (particularly on the 3rds!), and when their fake-choral blend kicks in it's like "Midnight Train to Georgia" all over again. So… there's affectation both aurally and visually. Bummer. And adding 7ths to so many of the V's [like at 0:45] only blues and/or baroques it up.

I like the arrangement more when "Sympathy" starts [:59]; it's got more layers and it's keeping more guys too busy to have to share parts, which was a tuning problem earlier.  Plus, a minute goes by before introducing the second song?  Not much of mashup then; good thing they go extra long on this one so they can some sort of arc.  I also like the transition leading to the climax [starting at 1:30]; they're doubling on block parts again, but their blend is so much better when they're loud! The full group stop before the next chunk [1:42] is pretty impressive, and the immediate reentry is one of the most visually arresting moments of the season.

The final chunk [1:56], with its half-time switch-up, is finally what we've been waiting for ("Ignition", anyone?), and this kind of aggressive layering is what the Aires are best at, so good thing there's two songs to keep them busy now.

Ben Folds says he feels bad for the bass [?] whose tuning issue (which I didn't hear) may be due to the fact that he's "the only bass in the middle of a lot of people", which doesn't make sense because two basses is a far riskier proposition.

Back to the staging: When Brendan and Michael go back-and-forth [1:30], it hits home that we're watching some kind of battle (or at least a very fierce negotiation) for souls, and it's both disturbing and confusing. I'm not certain if this is a conservative-inspired battle between Satan and GaGa over people who were "born this way" (i.e. LGBTQs), or a liberal-inspired ridiculing of the notion that Satan is behind the existence of LGBTQs (i.e. a less vulgar version of this [not safe for work!]), or if Satan is tempting Gaga to join his side, or if it's just a juxtaposition of Satan and GaGa for the heck of it. Shawn refers to it as a "battle between good and evil", but the definitions of "good" and "evil" here depend on your worldview, and perhaps that's the genius of this staging: it's all things to all people! (Still, clarification please!)

* Shit.

** It's going to get tricky dealing with the conventions of verse, chorus, bridge, etc. in these mashups mastermixes, so sometimes I'll just be calling the sections chunks. I'm lazy like that.

[Continued in the next posting. Meanwhile, the voting page is the place to be until Sunday night. Vote early, vote often, and vote using many different email addresses.]


About the author:
WARREN BLOOM is a vegetarian libertarian feminist capitalist musician educator. He was a founding member of mixed pop group Spur Of The Moment at Brandeis Univ., sang with Jazz Vocal 2 at the Univ. of Miami (Best College Jazz Choir runner-up, 1997 DownBeat awards), and musical-directed the summer pro group The Hyannis Sound. Since returning home to New York, he's been musical director and/or bass and/or VP for numerous a-cappella projects in NYC, including pop/jazz quintet Doo*Wa*Zoo (Best Jazz Song nominee, 2000 CARAs), pop/rock sextet Dobsonfly (heard in the film The Rules of Attraction) and rock/R&B septet Invisible Men (Audience Favorite, 2005 New York Harmony Sweepstakes; 4 out of 5 on RARB). He served as a staff arranger for an early incarnation of Total Vocal, and was MD, co-arranger and sound tech for Minimum Wage's Blue Code Ringo at the 2002 NYC Fringe Festival (Best Musical Comedy Act, 2002 Time Out New York year-end awards), and co-arranger for their 2007 off-Broadway production. He spent a year as a composer/lyricist in the BMI Lehman Engel Musical Theater Workshop, but left to be director of instrumental music at Talent Unlimited High School in Manhattan. He currently teaches general music (K-5) at the Robert Fulton School (P.S. 8) in Brooklyn Heights, and has spent nine summers teaching musical theater (middle & high school) at the Usdan Center for the Arts in Huntington, L.I. "On the side" he's judged 17 ICCA and ICHSA shows since 2002 (including both 2006 finals), and is a freelance voiceover artist, live sound tech and music copyist. He holds music degrees from Brandeis Univ., the Univ. of Miami and CUNY Hunter College. He's from the beigest place in the world, and currently resides with his cutie and her cat in the Ditmas Park neighborhood of Brooklyn.

The Sing-Off, episode 3-1 (Sept. 19), 1st hour: round 1, bracket 1

The Sing-Off, episode 3-1 (Sept. 19), 2nd hour: round 1, bracket 2

The Sing-Off, episode 3-2 (Sept. 26), 1st hour: round 1, bracket 3:

5th Judge: The Sing-Off, Episode 3-2 (Sept. 26), 2nd Hour: Round 1, Bracket 4

5th Judge: The Sing-Off, episode 3-3 (Oct. 3): round 2, bracket 1 (1st hour)

5th Judge: The Sing-Off, Episode 3-3 (Oct. 3): Round 2, Bracket 1 (2nd Hour)

5th Judge: The Sing-Off, episode 3-4 (Oct. 10): round 2, bracket 2 (1st hour)

5th Judge: The Sing-Off, Episode 3-4 (Oct. 10): round 2, bracket 2 (2nd hour)

5th Judge: The Sing-Off, Episode 3-5 (Oct. 17): Top 10 (1st hour)

5th Judge: The Sing-Off, Episode 3-5 (Oct. 17): Top 10 (2nd hour)

5th Judge: The Sing-Off, episode 3-6 (Oct. 24): Top 8 (1st hour)

5th Judge: The Sing-Off, Episode 3-6 (Oct. 24): Top 8 (2nd Hour)

5th Judge: The Sing-Off, Episode 3-7 (Oct. 31): Top 7

5th Judge: The Sing-Off, Episode 3-8 (Nov. 7): Top 6 (1st hour)

5th Judge: The Sing-Off, Episode 3-8 (Nov. 7): Top 6 (2nd Hour)

5th Judge: The Sing-Off, Episode 3-9 (Nov. 14): Top 5 (1st Hour)

5th Judge: The Sing-Off, Episode 3-9 (Nov. 14): Top 5 (2nd Hour)


I'm a big fan of the show,

I'm a big fan of the show, and even though I don't know what you're talking about half the time (I have no background in music or music theory of any kind) I always enjoy reading your breakdown of the performances. 

I'm wondering, since you found Urban Method's arrangement lacking as a mashup, why you didn't think the same of Afro-Blue's? Granted, they had the only song of the mashups I'm not familiar with (Fly) so maybe that's why I didn't hear it, but it seemed like they just went back and forth from from one song to the other, not trying to blend them together. At one point they're singing both lead vocals at once, but that's really the only indication I got that there were two songs involved, here. The Nicki Minaj rap part was really cool, but seemed sort of random and didn't go with the rest of the song. I wish they'd tried to mash that sound up with all the rest more than they did. Anyway, I'm interested to know what you heard.

I thought the "sax" sounded like a kazoo, too!

Also, "Shit" as an asterixed footnote made me laugh way harder than is probably a good indication of my mental health. 

Looking forward to reading about hour two!

me too

I too laughed at that footnote and many others. Good thing, since I have to read and edit all of these!

Amy Malkoff http://www.amymalkoff.com/harmony CASA (Contemporary A Cappella Society) Program Manager + Director of Web Content - http://www.casa.org Judge - ICCA, ICHSA, Harmony Sweepstakes, etc.

Love the women on the intro,

Love the women on the intro, both in the piano and guitar parts. Then we handcuffs Liz's solo (which is hot!) [0:13], and something's amiss. Valentine's Day Quotes A mash-up, theoretically, should involves elements of both songs, so changing those elements to raffle the other song would violate the hearts of the mashup,

Thank you, I take pride in my

Thank you, I take pride in my footnotes.  They're like ironic hashtags for the pre-Twitter generation.

I'll take a listen again to remind myself why Afro-Blue's mashup met the challenge better, but from what I recall, Urban Method's was very much an imitative arrangement, which opens them up to being obvious where they've tweaked one "sample" to fit the other, while Afro-Blue's was a more general block arrangement.  I guess based on my own stupid criteria, Afro-Blue should've been more imitative too, but ballads are trickier to "sample" than up-tempo recordings with distinct moving parts.

(I don't mean "imitative" pejoratively, it's just an arranging style.)

However, the rap really is the meat of "Fly" more than the Rihanna-sung chorus is (check the link); once I became familiar with the original, I didn't find it out of place.  But you're right, they should've done more of the "Fly" verses with "I Believe I Can Fly" so it didn't seem like such a random novelty.




Actually, in the very first episode, I think we heard Avi order a caramel macchiato off mike.  


Love your commentary - can't wait to hear what you have to say about the second hour and the elimination.

Re: Avi

"Actually, in the very first episode, I think we heard Avi order a caramel macchiato off mike."

LOL!  I think you're right!  It's been a long journey since they were singing in a candy store.

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