HomeBlogsWarren B.'s blog5th Judge: The Sing-Off, episode 3-2 (Sept. 26), 1st hour: round 1, bracket 3

After last week, my hopes are high. Again, I'm assuming the Fannin Family were a giltch in the producers' approach to casting. In the opening video package tonight, we see them finishing their farewell song last week and going into the light at the end of the tunnel, wearing those tall brown boots, faded purple peasant dresses and denim vests, and I swear it's like the freakin' Children of the Corn.

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Linkin Park's "Sing" is a somewhat more interesting choice for an opener than last week's "Perfect", if only because it's faster and has more of a dynamic build built into it (and despite the terribly written chorus). Sonos, about whom I've been hearing impossibly good things for the last few years, is the first group on stage, and they sound very tight, although how much of that tightness is actually live is questionable, as is always the case with the group numbers. Pentatonix looks like a pink version of Sonos, and sounds pretty much the same.

Then the Soul'd Out army barges in from upstage, and we've got some serious tonal palette change, finally! They may look like MIami Dolphins cheerleaders on a cold day*, but they've got a great presence as a group. North Shore, who've been at it for what seems like forever**, come out from upstage as well. I expect them to change the tone as well, this time toward a streetcorner sound, and to my surprise they (excepting the lead) add rhythm parts, albeit on the syllable "shoo-doo-wop", which I suppose I should've seen coming. The DelTones (of the Univ. of Delaware), emerge from various locations upstage. bringing the tone back to a more open choral sound in the channel, which is quite striking.

Messiah's Men are an odd choice for a group to land on the chorus. They don't look like they're a loud bunch, their tone doesn't quite gel, and they look kind of uncomfortable… wedged in that corner upstage right… not moving at all… just like… the Fannin Family last week. That, um, doesn't bode well for them.

The Dartmouth Aires (of Dartmouth College) come in from the house-right tunnel like a collective bat out of hell and bring some much needed testosterone to the proceedings. The Collective emerge from the other tunnel… and something is off. Their lead (Ruby) has a soulful but shaky fragile voice that doesn't quite hold up in this context. Now all eight groups are in, and in headphones it's well-layered and strong into the finish.

(Based on seeing the previous week's two losers exiting into the light, and then soon after seeing two more groups emerge, it appears that the house tunnels are some sort of extra-dimensional event horizons from which only a cappella groups can escape.)

And then the dull-as-dishwater theme song comes on and brings down the proverbial room.

Five seconds into the Aires arrangement of Stevie Wonder's "Higher Ground" and it's already a mess. Tempo is all over the place, and something's off in the voicings. They get it together by halfway through the first verse, but it's a bit of struggle. Thankfully the lead (Michael) is killer, and some interesting layering starts to happen, although there's some overbartioneification going on in the backgrounds, and then it really becomes a problem during the big "wah" of the chorus, where the octave-down doubling sucks the life out of what was probably supposed to a huge roof-raising chord. The two measures leading to the line "'til I reach the higher ground" suddenly sound like a barbershop arrangement, which is jarring and totally squanders whatever soul they were still getting away with. The final sequence is a weird amalgam of power chords and counter-tenor descants. They put on a hell of a show, so that might counteract the musical issue. Sara B. does make a good point about their breath control; there were no dead spots, which is pretty impressive. Ben "liked the swells in the bridge," which I still think were way too middle-heavy.

Five seconds into Pentatonix's video package, and I already love them; the inversion of that chord as they sing their name speaks volumes about their musicality, and it just gets better as they sing with amazing clarity everywhere they go, it would seem.

Katy Perry's "E.T." is an odd choice for them on its face, but they come up with a very interesting trio to start the song. The verse and chorus somehow sound less interesting when the bass and VP come in; the core trio of the group gel so well that when the group goes into vocal band mode, they lose a lot of power. Then as the chorus ends and we go into the bridge, we hear yet another thing that no one's done on the show before: overtones!

That flangy, metallic whistling sound you're hearing is one of them (I'm not sure who, maybe the bass) changing the shape of his/her mouth to allow successive overtones (notes within the note) to come in and out. Impressive stuff under the circumstances. In the last chorus, there's some odd tempo fluctuations that may or may not have been an editing error. Ben later says that he felt the whole thing in general was rushed, and he's right, editing error or not.

Oh, Messiah's Men. What an heartbreaking story. In their video package, they sing on the a riverbank, and that final minor 6 chord is fantastic… and then in church they're out of tune and lose that lustre. (I feel terrible making light of this as their traditional African singing underscores scenes of suffering and violence from the Liberian civil war of the late '80s.) Interestingly, their wheelhouse seems to be American-style streetcorner; in other styles they get very scoopy.

Given that fact, Curtis Mayfield's "People Get Ready" seems like a good choice. Their tuning is in and out, but they get shakiest when landing on, of all things, the tonic chord. This is a very raw group (despite their time together), and although they're dressed in full west African garb as though they're here to send us a message of hope, they don't sell their flourishes (like the tenor harmony duet on "people get ready!"), or their solos for that matter, with much commitment. The bare-bones VP seems unnecessary and distracting, and many of them sound exhausted.

Ben inexplicably compliments the VP as especially interesting and "refreshing". He also inexplicably compliments the unison, which is their weakest facet. Shawn Stockman and Sara B. gush about the emotional resonance of the music in the context of Messiah's Men's founding, but say little about how they actually sounded. I think they're trying to soft-pedal the obvious: that these guys aren't gonna cut it.

I supposed I've let the Mouth Off! boys cloud my pre-conceived notions, but I was expecting an absolute explosion of harmony and energy from Sonos. And… I did not get it. I appreciate what Sonos is doing-- including their occasional crunchy harmonies and reharmonizations (like the bass going to bVI in the chorus)-- but if their strength comes from their dependence on effect pedals, they're going to need to work harder than this to compete against powerhouses we've already seen this season. The lead singer also got quite strained in the final chorus. The coda (i-VII-VI) was actually very effective, with some tight voicings, but that was the highlight of it for me. Ben hits it on the head: Sonos has a wide dynamic range (two men on rhythm, three women singing high) that sounds empty when put in immediate comparison with most of the other groups.

Elimination time! The four groups are lined up on stage, and… oh my goodness! How many guys are in the Aires? It's like a tower of people!

When The Aires and Pentatonix are saved, leaving Messiah's Men and Sonos on stage, I give the edge to Sonos. Neither group sounded excellent, although "Wicked Game" was definitely more interesting than "People Get Ready".

Indeed, Messiah's Men are eliminated. Nick Lachey looks uncomfortable telling them they need to sing their final song, and I don't blame him. How awkward and bizarre is it to tell eight Liberian refugees who managed to stay together despite a cross-Atlantic journey to a new county that they have to leave a competition in a network TV studio after one round? Even though they didn't make it past the first round, this turn of events for them is pretty stunning. Their farewell song-- and uptempo rendition of "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot"-- is a lot of fun, and their bass ends the song on a ridiculously low note that makes you wish they'd taken advantage of him when they were competing.

The reigning champions Committed, they of impossible tight and dense harmonies straight out of the Take 6 playbook, emerge from of the audience and prove why none of the twelve groups so far can hold even the tiniest candle to them. The whole thing is stellar, with entire-group pitch bends and their trademark fast downward arpeggion, which as always is sheer bliss. Go on, listen, and then pick your jaw up off the floor. http://www.hulu.com/the-sing-off

Man, I can't wait for season 9, when they do Sing-Off All-Stars. And Committed wins it, of course.

* Yes, it occasionally gets cold in Miami. I was there for it once. It sucked.

** I recall their jingle for T.J. Maxx in 1992. I believe I may also possess their live album. On cassette.

[To be continued...]

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. Upon returning home to New York, he joined the NYC jazz-pop quintet Doo*Wa*Zoo (Best Jazz Song nominee, 2000 CARAs). Since then he's been musical director and/or bass and/or VP for numerous a-cappella projects in NYC, including Dobsonfly and 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 the Ultimate A Cappella Arranging Service, and was MD, co-arranger and sound tech for Minimum Wage's Blue Code Ringo at the 2002 NYC Fringe Festival, and 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 ICSHA 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