As this episode is as close to a free-for-all as the show gets, I'm not going to go nuts with analyzing arranging and performance choices this time around. Not very nuts, anyway. Unfortunately, I watched the live broadcast in a bar in Manhattan whose sound system is set up to blast 20 Hz directly into their patrons' intestines, so I could barely hear the singing in general, much less the alleged pitch and balance issues that people were commenting about instantaneously on Facebook, and even tagging and messaging me to get my thoughts as it was happening, which made me feel scared and useless.
(I felt a little less useless when I later discovered that night that CASA.org has earlier published its exclusive interview with Scott [of Pentatonix], and three of my questions (nos. 4, 5 & 6) made it in verbatim. I'll admit it, I squee'd a little when I read his answers.)
So I watched the finale again through my home speakers, and I heard, at least early on, difficulties finding a tonal center, certain backgrounds out of balance, and muffled bass. But I also heard VP loud and clear, and the opera-box numbers sounded great. I'm watching the whole thing a third time (well, a second time where I can hear it) through, as usual, my trusty Fostex T20RP; let's see how that works out.
[The full episode is here; I'll be dropping in embedded videos here and there for the standout numbers. Unfortunately, none of the throw-to-commercial songs, nor the Smokey Robinson number, are available individually on NBC.com, so to see them you'll have to bear with the numerous commercial messages in the full-episode video.]
The opening number, Michael Jackson's "The Way You Make Me Feel" seemed really… low and drony. Lots of parallel 5ths with the bass, everything seems to hang around middle C and the VP is barely audible. Mykal (of Urban Method), who I love to pieces, is a little breathelss, and those revamped lyrics (which we already heard) are a pale shadow of his verse on "Here I Go Again" (also in 12/8 meter) from episode [?]. (I'd rather he wrote his own lyrics, which I'm sure he could.) Considering what a great song this is, I'm surprised they couldn't find a way to make this groove better. The end sequence is great though, with the dueling solos and the trios and some unexpected chord changes leading to the graduation ceremony. No pitch issues here, but as it's mostly pre-recorded, I wasn't expecting any. (And neither should you! Shame on you people!)
(Wasn't M.J. an odd choice for a tribute for the day before the sentencing? During the whole number I couldn't get Dr. Conrad Murray's glum face out of my head. And when the tempo picked up, it looked like everybody simultaneously developed cramps. Aaaaaand Katie's eyelashes suddenly have that same Venus fly-trap look that we thought the makeup department had given up on by episode 5; why God why?)
I'm quite excited to hear the top 10 groups, particularly those who I thought were felled in their prime, which is… well, pretty much all of them. This was such a strong season it's a little crazy. Not quite the "it's anyone's game" level of the top 36 of season 8 of American Idol, but by the third episode it was a tight race, Pentatonix's growing obsessive fan base notwithstanding. Actually, the show's fan base in general is getting kinda scary.
I'm not going to comment much on the charity packages, as it's unfair to judge the music in these contexts. That said, Pentatonix sound fantastic off-mic, both in that brief trio in the PSA and on that muted-guitar thing they do in the first chorus of "Dog Days".
(I'm also not going to wade into the elephant-in-the-room controversy over Pentatonix's package, which had many folks riled up, although I will happily refer to it in passing, as publicity for this charity, and of course the others, is always good.)
And now to the song that people were messaging me about: Pentatonix performing "Without You" (o/b/p David [?] and Usher). In headphones, it's a little off pitch-wise, particularly in the first half, but it's not the disaster everyone seems to think it was. I think our expectations for both Pentatonix and the pre-recorded audio situation of the show might be unrealistic. I mean, these are the kind of "problems" that are easily forgiven in a live show if it's fixed after the first minute. (And by "live" I mean "performed in front of people in person" and not "being broadcast in real time on TV to millions of strangers.")
I see we'll be getting in-house throws to commercials this time, as opposed to the Christmas-themed segments they did last year. (Or did they do them last year too? I forget.) Vocal Point's "The Way You Look Tonight" is a good reminder of how good they are at using their entire collective vocal range and how big of a sound they're able to create, even if their delivery on jazz standards can be a bit showy. Hmm, I just realized a good analogy: Vocal Point are to Las Vegas as the Aires are to Broadway.
(Uh oh, Super PoliGrip is a sponsor now. Those low numbers in the 18-49 demographic are really taking its toll.)
Urban Method's take on "Stereo Hearts" (o/b/p Gym Class Heroes and Adam Levine) starts with a lazy shuffle that doesn't quite lock at first, both in rhythm and pitch, but gets more fun, although it's nothing groundbreaking. I don't buy the "connection" problem that people have been writing about, but it is interesting that halfway through this number is the first time I've seen Mykal and Kim acknowledging each other's presence. I like the loud cascading chord leading to the coda, even if the baritone didn't quite bottom out right.
"Paradise By The Dashboard Lights" is basically a musical in and of itself, so
the touring company of Jesus Christ Superstar The Dartmouth Aires had better nail this. Meat Loaf, Jim Steinman and Todd Rundgren are quite a trio to live up to-- ambitious songwriting, histrionic singing and layered instrumentation, respectively-- and it's not quite there. Everything is so low here, the VP is buried to the point where the groove is lost and has to be carried by this very choral-sounding block arrangement. They've got an easier job in the hook, it being in half-time, but the brief switch back to double-time loses the groove again. But adding Amy (of Delilah) to any number increases the excitement factor (and all-around hotness) of a song, and she just takes over the place.
The "let me sleep on it" section also raises the excitement factor, with a quasi-Latin feel that leads to some hip-swiveling. Unfortunately, the edited transitions between the sections of this brilliantly structured song are so sudden they're detracting from my enjoyment of it. In particular, the transition leading up to "So now I'm prayin'..." goes from a tonic to… another tonic? What's the point of having
125 15 guys on stage on national television if they can't have an extra two freakin' seconds to set up a V chord to lead into the next section? Argh. The IVadd2 on "break my promise" and the V9sus on the final "dashboard…" are quite gorgeous and hints at what could've been.
Pentatonix and Nick Lachey join up for "Give Me Just One Night (Una Noche)", which apparently was a popular song for a popular group in 2000. (Despite the fact that I worked in recording studios, popular music during the years immediately following grad school are a bit of a blur for me.) Thanks to Nick's extra voice, Pentatonix is able to complete chords without having to resort to aural sleight-of-hand, which is nice for a change, and Nick sounds much better than he did last year.
Let me take a minute to pick myself off of the floor after Kirstie's Spanish breakdown [1:30]. Alright, I'm back and my jaw is now rehinged. And now my jaw fell to the floor again, because they're singing the words faster than I can process it [2:19], like Karmin Music with more microphones (and with Nick dancing like his arms are stuck in the slightly-up position).
It takes the sound guys a couple of seconds to clear things up for "I'm On The Edge", but when they do, The Univ. of Delaware Deltones (haven't written that name in a while!) sound fantastic from top to bottom, including their great soloist (Jessica?) and a great syncopated bass line that totally shouldn't work on paper but locks in well. There's a cascading chord with a note astray near the end (and by the end, I mean, like, 32 seconds in), but I totally know what they were going for, and that's close enough here.
Urban Method and Sara Bareilles: such an odd matchup. So, so odd. But it sounds fantastic. This performance of "Gonna Get Over You" is more appealing to me than the "real" song (i.e. Sara's actual recording)-- it's somehow bouncier, and they throw in lots of extra stuff like the Iadd2 cascade after "well maybe next time" and the flat-VIIadd2 son after. I'm not sure if I like the Pink Ladies thing Liz, Katie and Kim have going on (Purple Laides?) , although it's nice to see the men aren't the only ones who can rock black leather jackets.
And now Afro-Blue, Sing-Off season 3 champions in a nearby alternate universe. Despite some strangeness with Reggie's mic, they nail "Put Your Records On" the way they nailed it ten weeks ago. There's more musicianship in the sharp-IV(7?) leading into "you're gonna find yourself" than most groups have in a whole song.
Ben Folds schools the audience with the help of the Aires. "Not the Same" is suspiciously perfectly in-tune and balanced, which makes me wonder if some tracks were pre-recorded. Whatever, it's gorgeous and it's what this show is all about.
The Univ. of Rochester Yellowjackets (another name I haven't typed in forever) is earnest enough on their signature song "Wavin' Flag", and it sounds like they've taken a lesson from the Aires and Vocal Point on using their full range. They're better than I remember (although I did love their "The Show Goes On", which remains their standout for the season).
The Women of the Sing-Off sing "Natural Woman" (no surprise there), and they're singing the hell out of… a cop-out arrangement. It's a great performance...
...but if we're to believe that this is based the Aretha Frankin version (as Christie said), where are those tension-building IIImi chords in the channel ("before the day I met you" etc.) which they've inexplicably replaced with plain V chords, or the subtlety of the IImi under "woman", which they're replaced with… oh, c'mon, another V?! And it's not even complete! With 25 women on stage! Argh! At least they get a V9sus under "You make me…" and Imaj9 at the end. And Ruby (of The Collective) finally sings the kind of song she's suited for!
North Shore is so freakin' charming I can't deal.
The Men of the Sing-Off get a far better opportunity to show off than the women. "Born To Run" is pretty much the perfect storm for every all-male college group: a driving song with a super-busy arrangement being sung by 60 guys and a strong roster of soloists to choose from. I do wish there'd been more diversity among the soloists here, maybe some guys we haven't seen featured leads this season, seeing as this is the last song of the season and also there are 60 freakin' guys on stage. The bridge is a little vague, but everything somehow holds together.
Delilah's "Grenade" remains one of the strongest songs of the season, and that was in the first episode! Still kicks my ass. Amy, with that hollerin' of hers, must be single-handedly keeping Vocal-Eze in business. ('Cuz nobody's buying it at Guitar Center, that's for sure.)
Smokey Robinson and Afro-Blue are an interesting match-- they're both part of the African-American musical continuum, but don't share a lot of common interests, so to speak. "You Really Got a Hold On Me" isn't a particularly exciting song, and doesn't play to Afro-Blue's facility with interesting chords and changes. "Tears of a Clown" or "Tracks of My Tears" are arguably Smokey's masterpieces and would've been a far more interesting use of both parties' time (rumor has it this segment was recorded earlier in the day), although obviously it would've been yet another presumably insane and mind-blowing arrangement Afro-Blue would've learned for the sake of reminding us that they're not in the running anymore. I do love that they got their own feature with a guest artist, because I'm pretty sure they made the top 3 on an Earth-Two where the judges don't have to cave in to the producers' fear of a second jazz-R&B group being forced on Sony. That's right, I went there.
The Collective sing "I Will Survive", and like at the beginning of the season, they sound like soloists competing with each other, which might make sense since they may well have not rehearsed with each other in weeks. (Are they gigging as a group? Anybody know?) And this wasn't nearly the strongest song they did this season, either, so... interesting choice.
Urban Method's Go-Into-The-Light Song-- "I'm Coming Home" (o/p/b Michael Bublé) isn't their strongest outing, but I'll forgive them because of the crying, and it reminds us that they've got some of the biggest cojones of any of the groups this season.
For the excruciating final reveal, the bar fell absolutely silent, which is saying a lot for the ground floor of an Irish pub in midtown Manhattan.
And then Nick said "Pen-ta-ton-ix!" and the whole room went nuts (sorry, Dartmouth alumni contingent in the back). I have to say, NBC may have lost its way programmatically, but between The Sing-Off and The Biggest Loser, they know how to stage a lavish confetti-filled final reveal. That was awesome.
Scott is struck speechless in disbelief during the last interview, and Pentatonix's victory song, a reggae take on "Eye of the Tiger", is unsteady, but only because Kirstie looks like she's about to collapse from emotional exhaustion; she survives past the end of the broadcast, thankfully. Also post-broadcast, The Aires perform a very glee-club arrangement of "Somewhere". This is a tremendous departure from what they've done this season (unless you count the tongue-in-cheek choral breakdown of "We're Not Gonna Take It"), and since they don't have to impress anybody, I'd imagine this is meant as a tribute to the storied history of the group and the Dartmouth alumni base that's been in overdrive for them.
I'll be doing one more post for next week's "A Sing-Off Christmas"; it'll probably be one-third gushing over returning acts from past seasons and two-thirds final thoughts for the season. But here's a final thought I've got already:
Scott, Mitch and Kirstie are 19 years old, people. 19 years old. The members of the Aires and Afro-Blue are either in college (18-22) or just graduated. And Urban Method has proven that people of very different vocal styles can make it work. If this is the future of contemporary a-cappella, then the future is very, very bright for us as a genre. And if a collection like Pentatonix, the Aires, Urban Method and Afro-Blue have a share in the future of pop music in general, then the future is very, very bright for us as a culture.
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)
5th Judge: The Sing-Off, Episode 3-10 (Nov. 21): Top 4 (1st Hour)
5th Judge: The Sing-Off, Episode 3-10 (Nov. 21): Top 4 (2nd Hour)