HomeBlogsWarren B.'s blog5th Judge: The Sing-Off, Episode 3-3 (Oct. 3): Round 2, Bracket 1 (2nd Hour)

The second hour of episode 3 starts off with an unusually long video package, at first featuring the performers saying various things about the music of the 1960's (some of it genuinely funny) and rehearsing snippets of songs, but then getting back to business, with individuals talking about how the stakes are much higher. Amy from Delilah says "With a '60s tune it's just unfamiliar territory, and as much as [we say] 'Yeah, we just need to be cute,' we still have to make a statement." One guy (name?) from Vocal Point says "This week is a make-or-break week, because we want to show the judges that we can do a lot of different styles."

*right eyebrow arched*

Alright. First of all, EVERY WEEK IS MAKE-OR-BREAK. It's a single-elimination competition! This isn't best 3 out of 5 and then best 4 out of 7! They know this, right? Second of all, all that's really relevant on this show (or American Idol, or any other singing show) is the performance itself; the theme is just an excuse to dig into a certain catalog of songs and provide some semblance of order. The judges (again, on any singing show) never penalize anyone for somehow violating the spirit of a theme by refitting a song to fit a group's strengths. Seriously? We just saw the judges gush over a jazz arrangement of "American Boy", for God's sake. Although I didn't think that performance was the Second Coming like some folks do on the interwebs, it was still a great achievement and proof positive of Musical Economics 101:

Rule No. 3: Do what you're best at, and that will yield the best result.

(Committed's new album contains copious evidence of the inverse of Rule No. 3, unfortunately.)

The last time I heard "Heat Wave" on a competition, Lil Rounds was slogging through it in season 8 of American Idol, so I've already set the bar pretty low for Delilah. I expect them to be very very good, of course, but this is… just kinda weird. The girly movements! The pastel dresses! The Andrews Sisters arpeggio! Yes, their tickets to the next round are already pretty much punched, but for a group that's established themselves as the anti-girly girl group and the loudest of the loud, this would otherwise be a huge risk for them, as it's competent but not superlative. I do appreciate the arrangement; it's tastefully layered with lots of rhythm and close-harmony parts that fill it out quite well. But… it's "Heat Wave". This song is pretty dull as it is; if you perform it "as it is", it'll still be dull no matter how much you straighten your arm downward and fold your hand 90º parallel to the floor as you prance around (and no matter how smokin' hot you all are). Perhaps they know they're playing with house money. All three judges picked up on this, and Ben Folds puts it best: while they've found something new in previous arrangements, this one was static.

Now Sly & the Family Stone's "Dance to the Music" is a song you can sink your teeth into without having to change anything. This should be a gimme for Urban Method, a rhythm-propelled group… and it's damn good. This a great excuse for both ensemble and solo features, and while the guitar solo is sketchy, the horn section is AWESOME. Solo horn imitations are usually corny, but when you've got six voices whining in unison, it's an beautiful noise. The rhythm section holds it together like nobody's business. And the "a cappella" breakdowns (so to speak) are fantastic too.



This wasn't over the top, but this still really kicked my ass. Too bad it didn't have an ending; it just kinda ended.

With jarring expediency, we go right into Vocal Point performing "The Way You Look Tonight", which seems odd considering it won its writers the Academy Award for Best Original Song in… 1936. If they're using Frank Sinatra as the means to pigeonhole this song into the '60s, it's a stretch.

(Jake's resemblance to Will Arnett is uncanny. It's not just me, right?)

Vocal Point ensemble "horn" figures suffer in immediate contrast to Urban Method's; they're better together on text than making brass noises, and the figures aren't locked in rhythmically. Performance-wise they are brilliant, particularly in the variety of movement to match the stylistic changes, including a killer samba. But the transition into the coda-- "never, ever change"-- is all over the place, and they lose the key just as we were building up to a big finish. It does end big, albeit on a I7, which is not how you end a jazz tune that's been so resolutely non-bluesy throughout. (They couldn't at least extend it to a I9 anyway?) Ben said that this was like listening to a big-band, which is true up to a point: what's weird throughout this song is that they can move up and down together on these great crunchy jazz harmonies-- like on the last "I love the way that you look"-- but they can't land on them. Maybe we should get them together with Urban Method!

(There is nothing not to love about Cee Lo's 7-Up commercial. Oh my goodness.)

"I Heard It Through the Grapevine" could be amazing for Afro-Blue, or, given that it's such a fifth-heavy song, it could be a diasater. The first verse ends up somewhere in the middle, which tries too hard to hew to the original harmonies. When they half-time it in the chorus, I suspect something awesome it going to happen, and… it does. The whole "Just about to lose my mind, honey honey yeah" passage is exactly the kind of harmonic touch I've been salivating for since their first appearance.

A modulation portends more great things for a repeat of the chorus… and it's shockingly empty. They're going for some sort of ska feel that doesn't gel at all, and it's such a letdown. All is forgiven when we get to another killer "honey honey yeah" riff-- wow! The ska returns, but this time it's more palatable as a breakdown to the end, where there's this great fast duet in thirds ("everybody was talkin' about youuuuuuuuuuuuu"). This really came together by the end and put them back in the running. Five seconds of them singing in five-part close harmony covers a multitude of sins of mediocrity.



(I love that Ben's compliment on their modulation got applause from the audience. On TV! There's hope for society after all!)

The Yellowjackets are about to sing "Can't Take My Eyes Off of You", and I should've seen this one coming a mile away. (I can totally imagine the showy edition of The Beelzebubs of the first season performing this, for some reason.) And this arrangement is thick! It sounds they're using every voice they've got, with both background pads and rhythm parts chugging away on add2's* and maj9's and great voice leading, with a wood-block sound making the shagadelic Burt Bacharach feel complete.

Good thing the chorus turns out to be the climax, because it's pretty climactic! Everybody's going full throttle, and I don't here any of the baritone-vs.-tenor balance issues I've gotten used to hearing amongst the big male groups. Nice! Aaron's lead across the whole song is fantastic, although his earnestness is perhaps an acquired taste. (Samantha thought his delivery was so über-cheesy she had to leave the room. Good thing Sam missed him kissing Sara B.'s hand, or she might've had to leave the apartment.)

(I know that all of the songs are significantly shortened on this show, but the mere 1:42 we get of this song seems unusually short for some reason, probably because of the chill opening verse. Tip for Danny: When you hold out a single long note on your fake trumpet, your pointer finger shouldn't be moving up and down. Also, tip for Gailen: your fake trombone is really, really good!)

The producers have been milking Kinfolk 9's story of soloists uniting to make it big, so a power ballad like The Beatles's "Let It Be" seems like a likely choice for them. That said, I'm really curious to see if they make an interesting (i.e. layered) arrangement out of this song like they did with "Price Tag". If they go the everyone-on-text or everyone-on-oo-and-ah route, they'll fall way short of what we've heard tonight.

The first eight bars has a very gentle background with Moi singing incongruously over his break at almost-full blast. For the second eight, Moi is a little more reserved, but the backing voicings become really odd, like they suddenly forgot what their roles in the chord are-- the bass inverting up with everybody totally killed the prettiness of their sound. The chorus has a pleasant gospel feel to it, although it's a bit baritone heavy in spots.

And then someone steps on Moi's toes. Or something like that must've happened, because his sudden out-of-nowhere screaming falsetto and yelling way above the break doesn't sound controlled; not being locking into the tempo with the rest of group when they re-enter doesn't help matters. And then there's more baritones singings way too low.

I'm not sure what to make of this. I mean, it's good, and it's passionately sung, and there are moments of great power, but this still feels like a step backward from earlier. Kinfolk 9 are apparently still getting their act together as a group, but simply having your act together isn't good enough at this point. Ben makes a great point that their sound isn't big, and that they're all too "focused", by which I think he means introspective, which is their big hill to climb: put nine working solo artists in a room, and even if they know in their brains that they're working together, in their hearts they're still soloists. I disagree with him, though, when he says this is their best performance; "Price Tag" was far more engaging and interesting and played to their strengths better (or, perhaps, played away from their weaknesses).

(When we return from commercial, the groups are lined up across the stage. I love how The Yellowjackets are so enormous that they shift the other groups to their right way off center.)

Man, this is going to be a tough choice! I think Afro-Blue (despite, or perhaps because of, ambitious yet scattered arrangements) and Delilah (despite "Heat Wave") are still the ones to beat. Speaking personally (i.e. not taking the judges' vibes into consideration), among the rest it's mostly a toss-up, although Kinfolk 9 seem most likely get sent home, seeing as "Let It Be" was so underwhelming (which would be convenient for them since they live in L.A.), followed by Vocal Point, who have been solid before but were brought down by a Beiber song and by their inability to land on a jazz chord.

The judges did seem to have a thing for Vocal Point, so I shouldn't be surprised that they're saved first (although I reserve to right to be slightly annoyed), along with Urban Method, who redeemed themselves in the second hour. Afro-Blue and The Yellowjackets, who also both redeemed themselves (to me, anyway) in the second hour, are next to be saved, leaving…

…wait a minute. Are we expected to believe that the surreal pairing of Delilah and Kinfolk 9 is supposed to be a "bottom two"? Nick Lachey's voiceover during the intro to the show (IIRC) mentions a "bottom two", but this isn't possible (at first glance). Delilah are the monsters of this competition, which means Kinfolk 9 must go home for all to be right in the universe. Right before the final cut, Nick says that the judges wanted to make clear that this was a particularly difficult decision (Shawn Stockman looks almost upset with his head down!), implying that this is a true bottom two, so perhaps putting Delilah there was meant to be a wake-up call for them.

Thankfully, Kinfolk 9 are the group cut from the show; no offense meant to Kinfolk 9, but in a forced choice between you guys and Delilah, the choice is a little obvious. But man, can those girls in Delilah cry! Even Nick seems shaken by the loss of Kinfolk 9.

And then Kinfolk 9 makes the same mistake that the Fannin Family made: they perform a farewell song that doesn't make us regret that they're leaving. Moi is on lead (again) alternating between lackluster rapping and screaming, the tonal center goes into weird places, and… "Loser"? Really? "I'm a loser baby, so why don't you kill me?" Call me old-fashioned, but I prefer my gratuitous violence on NBC in police procedural form.

I assume that the six groups in the other bracket were sitting in the audience taking notes, because obviously the judges are taking everything into consideration when crafting a bottom two. Looking forward to next week. This is getting good.

* add2 is often also called "add9" (as in the often-heard sentence among arrangers "Aren't you sick of all of those f-cking add9 chords?" or "Sounds like crap? Throw in an add9!"), but I stick with the number 2 because the added ^2 is neither an extension nor a substitution for any part of the chord, so the number stays below 8, as opposed to the same note in a maj9, which we call ^9 because it substitutes for the root in the upper parts, hence the number above 8. Still, as it's the same pitch, and maj9 chords predate add2 chords, "add9" is still okay in my book. Some conversation for your ass, as Ben Folds channeling Dr. Dre once said.

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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 (heard in the film The Rules of Attraction) 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 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
http://www.casa.org/content/sing-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
http://www.casa.org/content/sing-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:
http://www.casa.org/content/5th-judge-sing-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
http://www.casa.org/content/5th-judge-sing-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
http://www.casa.org/content/5th-judge-sing-episode-3-3-oct-3-round-2-bracket-1-1st-hour

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Comments

bottom 2

I thought I had heard something about the producers picking the order groups are saved... but maybe that's only for the non-bottom 2...

C.J. Smith Hempfield HS R# founder/director 03-05 U. of Hartford Hawkapella 05-09 Currently doing many musical things that do not include a cappella groups :-( :-(

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