That thing I said last week, about how the live finale was as close to a free-for-all as the show gets? I take that back.
Back in the old days, 'round, oh, December 2010 (and 2009), The Sing-Off was a three-week five-episode holiday special. They crammed all ten groups into the first episode (Dec. 6), eliminated two by night's end, eliminated another group over the next three episodes until they had a top four, and then the public voted and saw the results five days later. By the fourth episode (Dec. 15), the winter holiday theme was already in effect. Since the live finale last week (i.e. the episode where the winner was revealed) was non-competitive, I'm not sure what the point of an anti-climactic Christmas special like this is. They could just as easily brought back a ton of past groups last week, had a musical bacchanal like this week's, and be done with it. Did they need to fill in that 8-10 PM time slot for another week until they could find a suitable show to lead to the ratings slaughter?
(By the way, can you believe the ratings situation in that time slot? Is Two and a Half Men such a cultural touchstone that three times as many people are choosing to sit in front of a screen and watch it versus The Sing-Off? At least they didn't have to compete against Dancing With the Stars this week, although they did fall to two other shows anyway-- who knew people still loved Charlie Brown and country music? Still, over four million people is a lot of people watching the instrumentless singing. Pretty mind-boggling.)
As this is another non-competitive episode, I'm going to keep the critiques to a minimum, although that's what I told myself last week and I totally fell off that wagon. And because there are so many numbers crammed into this episode, I'm going to try to limit myself to the standouts, so just because I skip a number this time doesn't mean I didn't like it (although that's also a possibility). [Here's the full episode, if you can deal with the long commercial breaks. It's probably be worth it for the video packages throughout, which are really good.]
Avi has some brief tuning issues in the opening, but after that The Opening Number of Champions magically morphs before our eyes (and ears). All three season champions-- Pentatonix, Committed and Nota-- find a way to put the numbers in their respective wheelhouses. Hearing Committed return to their function-changing six-part harmony [0:47] is such a relief! The transition into the final sequence is literally chords stacked on chords [1:52], and it's seriously glorious. And they finally found a use for the theme song that doesn't give me cavities [2:26].
And speaking of keeping critiques to a minimum… why do they have to cut to the judges (or even just one judge) for commentary after every song? Once the public voted, the judges become as powerless and redundant as the judges on any other reality reveal episode. This was some serious filler.
I loved, loved, loved The Backbeats last year. And I loved, loved, loved Delilah this year. Therefore, not surprisingly, I hexaloved their combined "All I Want For Christmas", which was one of the fullest numbers we've heard this year. So many killer soloists (and now we can add VP maven Courtney Jensen to that list) on one stage, and Kenton Chen looks like he's going to explode with joy right there onstage. This is essentially the "girl power" movement plus the extra bottom fourth that the Backbeats' bass provides, and there's little not to love about that.
Committed + Afro-Blue, by any reasonable measure, should = awesomeness. It does. I watched this four times and heard something new each time; even the somewhat disjointed backgrounds under Christie's first solo [0:36] have a purpose to them. (I like the look of disbelief on Ingrid's face in Delilah's opera box at the end [2:53].) Though damned I can figure out how "Oo Child" is Christmas-related.
The producers know that Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah"-- here performed by Street Corner Symphony-- is about King David having his way with Bathsheba, whose husband he later sent off to the front lines to die, right? And for Christmas? Were no songs about Mary Magdalene available for license?
North Shore makes it official: this may be the most musically diverse television holiday special ever. "Merry Christmas Baby" may not the most complex song ever, and Guy sounds a little nervous, but I could still listen to this all day.
After a hilarious video package, Sara B. and Ben Folds team up with a quintet of gentlemen from various groups for "Baby It's Cold Outside". Unfortunately, Kevin (of Pentatonix) is way too heavy on the drums (is that supposed to be a brushed snare?), and the guys imitating muted brass sound like guys imitating muted brass. I love Ben's piano skills, and after eleven weeks of nothing but vocals, the piano is a welcome kind of jarring, if a bit off-brand. (Why is Reggie so low in the mix? He's the glue of, well, the whole season.)
For the first time, Pentatonix sing a song that I'm not familiar with but that I can immediately predict the chord progression of and ultimately don't enjoy. Let's see… I. V. vi. IV. Wow, didn't see that coming. And from the champions, too!
In the video package for the multi-group rendition of "Sweet Soul Music" (a song I admit I've never heard before), Kevin O. refers to the kind of transcription arranging style that we haven't heard a ton of this season. Not that that's bad, but it means that there won't be a lot of imagination involved, which is a shame considering all of the talents converging onstage for this. The isolated "horn" quartet could be a great layer or an obtrusive disaster, and actually it turns out to be a little of both. It's starts very strong, and I start thinking that this song could be the holy grail of layering parts and using an ensemble's full range properly. But after a minute of the "horns" blaring in the highest reaches of their ranges, Samantha, who was out of the living room but could hear the TV, called out to me wondering if NBC's feed was stuck on a repeating loop. And the "piano" didn't cut through at all like a piano would, either. I bet this number didn't take long to put together, because it's basically the same thing over and over under a series of musician shout-outs, and Jerry Lawson went through all
50 8 of them. Arthur Conley's original, which is very guitar and organ driven, still isn't nearly over the acoustical top like this (although it's certainly super-high-energy in its own way).
(Shawn Stockman: Jerry Lawson's group was The Persuasions. I mean, Lawson isn't exactly a household name, but respect, please! The guy was Frank Zappa's protégé, for goodness sake.)
While "Santa Claus is Comin' to Town" isn't the most imaginative arrangement The Beelzebubs (of Tufts Univ.), On The Rocks (of Univ. of Oregon) or The Dartmouth Aires have done on stage individually, I have to admire the groups (and the producers) for getting this enormous super-super-group together. There were no holes in this performance, probably because even if there were, one of the other 50 guys on stage would cover it up somehow. (Michael O.-O.'s microphone needs a windscreen or something, because everything he says, and sometimes sings, is extra plosive tonight.) I am a little weirded out by the juxtaposition of The Aires, founded 1946; The Beelezebubs, founded 1962; and On The Rocks, founded… 1999. The costuming kind of reflected that, if you pushed those dates back, um, thirty years. The Sing-Off has been telegraphing the whole cardigans-and/or-pointy-collared-jackets-equals-old-school-collegiate thing, but does anyone wear lettermen jackets past high school?)
I've been looking forward to Urban Method's take on "You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch", if only to hear Troy's solo. (Thurl Ravenscroft was a god among men, so, yeah, have fun with that.) Troy pulls it out effectively, but the rest of the performance, at least the mid-tempo kiddy part, kinda feels... not phoned in, but maybe expendable? Urban Method seems to be have going off their usual rails since the Top 4 episode; last week's rock-n-roll number with Sara B. luckily worked, but this one is just too goofy for them, and tuning issue at the beginning don't help things. The salsa section in the middle saves the number, with Mykal rapping the perfectly scanned lyrics of Dr. Seuss, the dopest MC ever.
The Collective, who were never my favorite group in any episode, go the swing-ish route with "Santa Baby", and it works, even if it's not the most compelling number of the night. Ruby has been the de-facto frontwoman for this group, but this is the first time, six episodes after they were eliminated, that she's singing a lead that works for her fragile voice. The percussion is way too triplet-y and filtered for the song, but otherwise the group wisely goes for a straightforward '50s pop arrangement-- block chords, an occasional alto-tenor syncopated blip, two bass notes per measure. I only say "wisely" because I'm still not sure what kind of group they are; I know that Nashville is more than just country music nowadays, but having a style to hang our expectational hats on would be nice.
(Ruby feels the presence of Eartha Kitt and… Madonna? Isn't it a little early for her disembodied soul to be walking the earth?)
Nota and Shawn Stockman NAIL "This Christmas". Nail it. Following a "Bohemian Rhapsody"-esque cascade [0:37], when Nota's chords kick in and start getting twisty [0:50], I was immediately reminded of Committed, and then I remember reading that Nota and Committed are all Seventh-Day Adventists, which would explain the amazing harmonic culture they may have all come from (if Take 6 and Naturally 7 are any indication). And then the salsa breakdown reminds us that they're alums of Antillean Adventist University in Puerto Rico, which makes for a harmonic and rhythmic double-whammy of awesomeness.
(Now we know why Sean dresses way up for each episode: because he dresses down big-time for rehearsals.)
Nick's introduction of Vocal Point, in which he says that they'll be singing in hopes that "they'll get a visit from Old St. Nick" despite the absence of anything Christmas-related in "Let It Snow! Let it Snow! Let it Snow!", makes me weep for the writers who are probably under intense pressure to Santa-ize anything and everything in this episode. (EDIT: A week later, I got the self-serving joke.) The intro is pretty smooth, and these guys can recreate big-band horn stabs like nobody else this season (except maybe Nota tonight). And then OMG OMG OMG they got Nick Lachey!… oh wait, he's on the show already. He sounds good, though; taking last week and this week into account, his voice is definitely better than in his season 1 solo. As a swing number, this is pretty good; no tuning or even blend issues like we're hearing from other groups tonight, which is a pleasure, although the bass is quite muffled for the style.
Nick asks Vocal Point the question "What is it that draws you to that style of music?", and my answer is: um, the producers' pathological need to pigeonhole groups and telegraph it on the screen, I'm assuming.
The next number is possibly the greatest number not only of the season, but in the history of the show. I felt joy on so many levels. Like, the joy I got from this week's "All I Want For Christmas", this season's "How To Love" or "I Wanna Dance WIth Somebody", or last season's "Love Shack" or "Apologize". (Note that three of those involved The Backbeats or Delilah or both. Hmmm.) What "Sweet Soul Music" could've been but wasn't because it lacked variety and overreached its range, this is. "Good Feelin'" pairs the two most "urban" groups of the season-- Pentatonix and Urban Method, so I'm expecting some serious roof-raising, and oh my Lord is this strong, but not in the way I expected. I presumed there'd be a lot of yelling and anger and what-not, but instead it's both dark and joyous, perhaps the happiest a song in minor can be. This is so thickly arranged right in everybody's comfort zone, giving the whole thing such a rich sound from the bass to the sopranos, and there's so many layers to this! There's the four women(!) on unison, plus a block, plus another whole block on another moving syllable, plus two(?) percussionists (including Kevin's finest work to date in the bridge [3:06]), and plus a guy making croaking noises just for the hell of it. Flo Rida's entrance from the steps [0:42] is just transfixing for some reason; it helps that he has a much better flo(w) than I remembered from his appearance on season 8 of American Idol (which is honestly the last I'd heard of him). And something about all of those people singing the moving "whoa" on the IIIma9 (the second chord of the progression) [like at 0:50] gives me chills, like the chorus of "Life in a Northern Town". (Weird mix of metaphors, right?) LIke Shawn often says, this is a track. Out. Of. Control. Wear good headphones for this one and play it in hi-def, you won't regret it:
They should've left well enough alone and ended it on that outrageous party, but, oh right, this is a Christmas episode. So everyone (and I mean everyone) piles (and I mean piles) onstage for "Happy Xmas (War is Over)". (When Nick says "all fourteen groups", does he count the Talk-Of-The-Town-less Jerry Lawson as a group, or is that why Jerry's sitting in the nursery section of the audience?) The harmonies are a little shaky at the start, and then whoever's singing the apparent bass of the first two bars (assuming we're in 12/8) goes to a moving part on bars 3 & 4, pivoting with the other block singers [0:16]; it's not until the next phrase, when the "real" bass kicks in, that I realized that the "fake" bass was just the baritone part with delusions of grandeur but committing to being the root, which is a distracting arranging misstep. (Sorry guys!) The soloists are pleasant enough, and then Joanna takes it up to a more soulful level that nobody else (even Michael O.-O.) wants to match, except perhaps Guy (of North Shore) when he's straining to hit the high notes (that was a close one!) or Jerry Lawson who just sounds like soul incarnate anyway. The arrangement is beautiful and does the job, certainly; no need to gild the lily on a song dedicated our men & women in uniform when well-placed voicings on the biggest block harmony in the show's history will do.
And even after the VP drops out near the end [3:!2], the soloists finally go into high gear, underneath that suddenly enormous block harmony, and behold, the circle of a-cappella life is complete.
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So, Final Thoughts on the Season.
No. 1: Chemistry matters. Pentatonix, the winners, were a trio of best friends from high school. The college groups-- The Aires, Afro-Blue and Vocal Point, who took 2nd, 4th and 5th place respectively-- are rehearsing constantly and are practically family. Delilah, who took 6th place, sang with each other here and there, including on previous seasons of the show. Kinfolk 9, who took 11th place, were a bunch of random L.A. solo musicians who apparently got together just in time to audition for the show.
No. 1a: Or… chemistry might not matter. Cat's Pajamas play 200 shows a year in the same venue, making them practically family. And the Fannin Family are an actual family.
No. 2: To survive, you need the whole package. I met up with a singing colleague in NYC who auditioned this year with a pickup group, and he said regretted not working the presentation angle as much as the musical angle. Well, yeah, it's a television show. If you can't present yourself well visually, it's going to be hard for the producers to imagine you catching the viewing audience's interest.
No. 2a: Afro-Blue had the whole package and still took only 4th place. Just sayin'. Which leads me to…
No. 3: This was the most producer-influenced season yet. I mean, bless Outlaw Productions, Sony Music and NBC for making this whole impossible show possible for three seasons. But you can see the producers' influence in the backpedalling on Ben Folds's blog, the judges' oddly-edited commentary after some performances, and (IMO) in the survival of the Aires into the finals. My own conspiracy theory may have been disproved, but that only feeds the other conspiracy theories (which I won't go into, since they're just a distraction at this point). Either way, something fishy was afoot. And Flo Rida's involvement in the penultimate number of the final Christmas-themed episode of the season, while it turned out to be fantastic, was really incongruous and obvious cross-promotion.
No. 4: This may be the cultural zenith of contemporary a-cappella. As a style, contemporary a-cap will certainly continue to grow thanks to the reach of this show, in conjunction with the touring of various groups with cult followings and the already relentless growth of the ICCA. In terms of public reaching-into-households visibility of contemporary (or even jazz) a-cappella, this show is it, relatively low ratings and all. It seems like every decade there's an outcry within the a-cappella community over whether contemporary a-cappella is commercially viable, or why the public hasn't latched onto it (aside from flukes like Bobby McFerrin or Straight No Chaser), or whether an a-cappella recording sounds too commercial. The recording side of contemporary a-cappella is unreal nowadays, but there needs to be faces for people to, er, hold onto. It's interesting that the pro iteration of Straight No Chaser, a fantastic group live, releases surprisingly underproduced recordings and yet burn up Billboard charts. I think the Flo Rida number of tonight's show was the most commercially viable yet still artistically pure live a-cappella performance ever-- you know, the one that the a-cappellla geeks has been waiting for to show their friends what the big freakin' deal is-- and it was seen by an estimated 4,180,000 people across every TV market in America. We've gotta milk that for all its worth.
No. 4a: …unless NBC steps up its promotional and programmatic game. Unfortunately, for most weeks, a big chunk of NBC's potential audience for this show was watching ABC's Dancing With the Stars instead-- an audience who might've been equally interested in The Sing-Off if it weren't for the fact that NBC promotes its shows on, um, NBC. (We're not even going to pretend that the audience of Two and a Half Men would be interested. And Gossip Girls at least has the excuse that The CW doesn't broadcast in every market.) NBC simply needs to find a better way to market and program this show. That said, I doubt this show will disappear-- this is a cheap show as TV shows go (I'm sure the grand total of the performers' per-diems for the first two episodes barely match the single-episode rate for some lead actors) and it has a loyal following-- so perhaps it'll be shrunk back into a holiday special series where it can quietly compete in a time slot where at least they can get some viewers for NBC as opposed to just broadcasting a test pattern for two hours.
No. 4b: …and unless Outlaw (or whoever's job it is) steps up its logistical game. All that said, keeping those eyeballs glued to NBC is going to be difficult when the season "opener" has to be split into two episodes of two hours each with a week between them. I've been waiting all year for this show, and even I was getting bleary-eyed over the whole affair. If you're going television-ize this thing, and you're trying to make a connection between the groups and the audience (which is the meat and potatoes of reality TV), spreading 16 groups into four brackets over two nights seems like the least likely way to do that. And each group got around 2 minutes to sing, plus another 45-60 seconds of commentary from each judge, so we really only saw around 16 minutes of singing but around 20 minutes of commentary in a 45-minute episode, plus (I think) 10 minutes worth of video packages and interminable eliminations. I'd say shrink the whole thing down to twelve groups, and do two brackets of six per hour the first week, putting groups back-to-back like they did in later episodes. If they need to make the first two rounds more meaningful and worth the audience's time, and they of course have to keep the video packages and commentary from the judges, should they keep the long dragged-out eliminations and the one-song-for-every-commerical-break format, or cram two more songs in per half-hour and let the audience see all of the competitors in one place so we can pick our favorites from the beginning, and also make the eliminations less arbitrary? I think the latter is the obvious win-win choice (unless they literally can't cram six groups onstage at the same time).
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And so it ends. Hope you've enjoyed my 21-posting (!) take on this odd bird of television reality competition programming. (Feel free to subscribe to my real blog, although whatever's there will feed to CASA.org anyway, and I'm not exactly a wellspring of content anyway.)
Maybe it's because the season was longer, or maybe it's because the acts connected with me more this season, or maybe it's because I know more people involved with the show this season, or maybe it's just because I watch every episode three or four times, or maybe its because the groups on the whole were so damn good (and many smokin' hot) this year, but I started to really get sucked into this season, like when I got sucked into the geekery of Who Wants To Be a Millionaire in 1999, or the spelling bee in A Boy Named Charlie Brown when I was in third grade, thinking "Damn, I want to be a part of this." But by singing or otherwise being involved with this community, you are a part of it, even if people aren't posting videos of you as a child or making fan art of you. Is The Sing-Off part of the "community", as the Mouth Off! guys asked [at 38:04]? Yes, yes, and yes. People may have seen this for the first time on TV, and now they can get up, get into it, and get involved.
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.
Previous season 3 postings:
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)
5th Judge: The Sing-Off, Episode 3-11 (Nov. 28): live finale!