HomeBlogsWarren B.'s blog5th Judge: The Sing-Off, episode 3-4 (Oct. 10): round 2, bracket 2 (1st hour)

As soon as we see the absurd set for the opening number, Samantha says "Remember that episode of Family Guy where Stewie runs away to London because he thinks his favorite TV show is real?"

Who's got the best wife ever?  This guy.

Anyway, absurd happy-shiny set aside, this opening song-- "Rhythm of Love" o/p/b Plain White T's, which I was not remotely familiar with and still didn't like the second time-- is pretty mediocre, even with the pre-recorded backing tracks. (Even the bass sounds froggy.) I guess the point of it is that it's jaunty and pleasant. Using the opera boxes is a great idea and makes me wonder why they hadn't thought of it before. It does build to an impressive wall of sound, and then ends on a vanilla V7 to vanilla I that makes me wish I'd just fast-forwarded the whole thing. (By the way, Sam Tsui gives a less than informative explanation from the inside as to how these numbers are put together. Interesting that there's no mention of the backing tracks.)

As with last week, each of the six(!) groups will perform two(!) songs, leading to one elimination. This makes the one-and-done eliminations in the first two episodes seem so colossally unfair, no?

SPOILER ALERT: I may be referring to things that imply who was eliminated. Or, for that matter, I might flat-out say who got eliminated. Fair warning!

The Deltones (of U. Delaware) needs to keep up a wall of sound to justify their numbers, and Lady Gaga's "Edge of Glory" could be a show-stopper. Good big-group breathy chords and a duet lead to an impressively well-tuned IVadd2. Actually, there's the a lot of add2 going on, which I won't complain about. Even the cadence into the chorus is on a V9sus, and I'm thinking finally, a big group is using its voices for harmonic interest as well as rhythmic interest. About time!

And then the chorus hits with no punch at all, with straight triads and an arrangement that's way too low, and I'm almost angry at being misled. Serious tuning issues, and that's on the easy chords! Then they do a really impressive fast arpeggio, and having seen the video package in which they appear to be constantly changing their arrangement, it makes me wonder if they're micromanaging the hard stuff at the expense of the easy stuff. Screwing up the hard stuff I can deal with, but screwing up the easy stuff? C'mon now. And enough of this trend of ending a song on leads alone. End these songs big!

(There have been complaints on NBC's boards about the questionable language on this prime-time show-- particularly regarding the judges-- and I'm starting to feel the same for this episode already.)

"Your Love is My Drug" is a good call for Pentatonix, because they need to keep the groove moving in order for the audience to forget their smallness and soprano-less-ness. What ensues is like… chamber techno. The falsetto solo aside, this really does move well, particularly the syncopated triads, and Scott's lead is great, and Avi is working overtime on bass-cussion on this.…

…and then they do a group scratch and a full stop. I've seen a lot of live pop a-cappella over the years, and this totally took me by surprise. Oh my Lord. Wow. (It's a 1:15 on the clip below.)

That was crazy, right? But after that, the rest of the arrangement just seems so hollow, like something's missing. I don't which would be worse: not having that full stop, or doing the full stop and having the rest of the arrangement suffer by comparison. Shawn Stockman likes Mitch's counter-tenor sound, calling it "pleasant", which makes no sense here because that "pleasantness" was completely inappropriate in this song.

(A laryngoscope! Awesome and gross and also awesome!)

The Collective was my last-place group during their last appearance (somehow their mediocre rendition of "Rolling in the Deep" didn't put them in the bottom two, which was absurd), so I hope for their for their putting-solo-careers-on-hold selves they bring some sort of group dynamic to their song "Rocketeer". (Hmm, putting solo careers on hold for the sake of singing on this show… didn't quite work for Kinfolk 9 last week, did it?)

Ruby is put on lead again (at least for the intro), and her brittle voice isn't quite up for the task. I like the group chords; even if they're not perfectly blended, they've got an authenticity. The second verse is a lot of understated fun, reminiscent in spots of Afro-Blue's brilliant arrangement of "Put Your Records On" (from episode 1). This moves pretty well, Rachel's laryngitic voice holds up, and they look like a group this time around. This is a good step forward for them.

Groups like North Shore make the other competitors who fret about the judges calling them out for "not being true to the song" sound very, very foolish. Give a group like this-- masters of their particular craft and a tight-knit band of brothers to boot-- any song, and they'll make it work for them, and that's all that matters. Their performance here of Bruno Mars's "Lazy Song"-- awkward dougie attempt and uncomfortable "hand down my pants" and "birthday suit" references aside-- is so in their wheelhouse, they walked off with the wheel. Their up-stroke chords are so criminally well-tuned and well-blended, I was taken back to the first time I heard Rockapella's "Zombie Jamboree" (when I naïvely thought there were 20 guys in the group but there turned out to be only four).

Actually, their V chord into the last verse was a little weak and could've used a little more oomph. Otherwise, this was a fantastic group effort, even if Guy gets all the glory for doing an amazing back-and-forth between lead and whistling.

As with the Deltones, the Dartmouth Aires need to keep up the energy so as not to sound, well, collegiate. (They, like Soul'd Out, also apparently needed to look like hipster Miami Dolphins cheerleaders for some reason.) The opening of Neon Trees' "Animal" is a full major chord that should be a wall of sound but sounds lightweight thanks to tenors singing in falsetto and not full voice. The arrangement in general is quite full as apparently written, but the light quality of voices, and prominent baritones on the 5ths of the chord that drown out the 3rd, is bringing it down. The bridge really comes together, though; the voices are ballsier, and the progression of I6add2 to iii7 to IVma7 is very effective. And as we hit the climax… everybody drops out and leaves the lead to finish by himself, just like the Deltones did. That gimmick is getting tired. But I bet this performance was out of control in person.

(SPOILER ALERT: I'm finishing this critique about 23 hours after first seeing this live on TV, and 22 hours after knowing the night's result, and a-cappella folks on the blogotwittofaceosphere have been having at it all day about Sonos's reception by the judges. Most of the chatter has been about their second song, but this first one is just as problematic for them.)

From watching Sonos's video package, I'm just now realizing that they're not just down a member, and they're not just without their effect pedals (which they need to stop whining about), but they in fact have no bass! What the what?! How does a mixed group compete, or even perform, without a bass?! A bit of an oversight, no? Then their tenor Ben says "I can't give who I am, and be told that who I am isn't good enough. It's gonna kill me. So it's absolutely make or break." This is getting depressing, man. Are you bass-less out of some sort of principle?

I presume they're going to reinvent "Viva La Vida" to fit, and not work against, their odd configuration. Opening with block chords is a good idea to establish a harmonic center, as going baseless can cause mass confusion. And the texture of the first verse is really good, with parts weaving in and out of each other, but Chris's solo is strained and nasal. And then we hit the chorus, which should be their money moment… and it goes nowhere. While I don't believe that a cover needs to remotely mimic an original, there's something to be said for hitting this chorus hard, especially given the need to build some sort of arc in those mere 90-120 seconds they're given. Rachel's duet harmony goes between traditional intervals and rubbing 2nds, which is I'm sure their way of declaring their artsiness but a waste of voices when they desperately need to fill out the chords. The second half of the chorus goes back into block chords, which, of all things, turns out to be their strong suit when their oft-mentioned pedals are taken away.

This whole thing, of course, was sonically empty despite Kathy's impressive attempt at bass. In the video package, Jessica tellingly said "Chris can sing the bass part, but in the full arrangement of the song Chris sings the solo, so that's why Kathy will sing bass." Sara Bareilles, trying to make the best of it, says to them "There's just moments when you're kinda missing another voice up there to really fill out the sound, but I think you did as much as you could with the voices that you've got." Okay, let's take a step back here and see how they could have avoided disaster. They could have done another arrangement! Or, they could have not gone on a network television a-cappella competition without a bass! If the "full arrangement" has no bass part, is it really an arrangement? Or, is this so-called "full arrangement" actually the original arrangement with bass, just minus someone actually singing bass? Was the lead that non-negotiable that Chris had to be on it? I'm so confused as to why they need to sabotage themselves like this, because using this show as a publicity tool and then not sounding their best as a matter of principle seems so absurd. Argh.

(And the awful mascara isn't limited to Delilah, apparently. These awful makeup jobs are turning so many attractive ladies on this show into close-up cringe-inducers.)

What a bummer to end the first hour on. I hope Nick Lachey's '60s suit will be less shiny this time.

[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 (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.

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