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

At the top of the second hour of this episode that was taped back in July, long before any of the new fall shows premiered, Nick Lachey cross-promotes by saying he's wearing a "swanky suit [he] borrowed from NBC's show The Playboy Club”. Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha!

The '60s hour starts with Pentatonix slow-jamming Janis Joplin's "Piece of my Heart". This isn't their finest moment, but it's pretty good, making great use of their limited voices (VP, bass, lead and two backs). I think I'm hearing two female voices, and then I realize it's Mitch playing to his counter-tenor strengths. The arrangement is quite clever, but I can't tell what kind of feel they're trying to get-- there's a little bit of reggae but also a little bit of old-school hip-hop in Kevin's splatty VP. Kevin's trumpet solo is just weird, though, both in sound and in context; there's so little time they're given, so why don't they use that time creating an arc for the song? Or better yet, singing? They go back to singing (finally) their clever arrangement, with Avi's great bass licks holding up the fort, but it ends on an awkward slow-down that doesn't gel at all, and finally lands on… an open 5th? Seriously? After all that? Ugh.

"You Can't Hurry Love" is a wall-of-sound classic (both in its Supremes form and the nearly identical Phil Collins cover) that could be right up The Deltones's alley. And wouldn't you know it, I love this arrangement. Their VP has some great endurance, keeping up the high-pitched "bpf" snare, and everything else gels from there. The women most on block, with the guys on the rhythmic part, and a lead singing right in the meat of her range… what a great use of all of the voices in this group! There are some odd reharmonizations (ii instead of IV, e.g.), but they don't detract much from the overall quality.

"Let me live a-gain, hoo…" on the bridge is particularly tasty, and the reharm on the cadence (leading into what should've been the last verse), with the various chords over the pedal V in the bass (ending in some sort of V7sus), are exactly what a big groups should be doing all the time. How, tell me, how will they finish this? …oh no. Not the "everybody hold out the I chord while the lead improvs for no particular reason" gimmick. Again, ugh.

Sara B. calls them out for pitch issues which, in my headphones, did not exist. Alas, Ben Folds's comment is particularly inscrutable and I have no idea why he's going on about what he's going on about. Shawn also refers to the non-existent pitch issues, attributing it to a non-existent lack of "mid range", and I can only assume that something was off in the house mix. Or something was really on in the TV mix. Either way, I'm feeling cheated.

If doo-wop kings North Shore and their ace Guy can't hit "Unchained Melody" out of the park, it would be the collapse of the century. And they hit it out of the park. As always, their tireless blend gives the illusion of a dozen people singing, and even a simple V7, which would sound cheesy from any of the other groups, sounds cathartic in their hands. And if their V7 is jazzy, then their iii7 (on the second "need your love" is ) is a cool breeze, and their final Ima9 (with the bass dropping down to the low C) is like a vision from the golf-shirted gods.

This is why doo-wop and vocal-oriented rock-'n-roll recordings from the '50s and '60s never clicked with me: because nobody ever really captured on vinyl what this is supposed to sound like live. I never thought I'd say this but: thank God for television. But then Ben refers to a non-existent pitch issue on the vi chord, and again I'm wondering if there are two different television shows going on. (Ben actually called the vi chord the "relative minor", and my immediate reaction was that it was a highfalutin' thing to say that would go over the non-musical audience's head… and then I wondered if the roman number VI would be any less inscrutable.)

The Collective starts a pretty straightforward arrangement of "Hold On I'm Comin'", with a "horn" section that isn't as strong (horny?) as I'd hoped. Isaac gets some solid face-time, but Ruby also keeps getting these solos for some reason, and her fragile voice is killing the vibe on this uptempo and (presumably) loud song. I do like the backing parts on the verse, which grooves in an off-kilter way with the VP, who's got some sort of funk pattern going on. The chorus, traditionally the part that kicks your butt, is quite underwhelming, thanks to the aforementioned backs staying in the same range and not going into some higher, stronger parts of their voices. The verse grooves again the second time, and there's a great build-up happening, with screaming voices and a VP & bass fill, and then…

…bleh. The backs inexplicably return to the lower voicings, and I'm also shocked to hear a serious rookie mistake that may explain why the groove is collapsing: the bass is singing along with the upper backgrounds like it's one solid block! Yikes! In this genre, a bass is a bass is a bass, and if you can't count on a bass to set the groove, what do you have left? (Well, you have Sonos, I guess.) The return to the chorus, which was probably meant as a breakdown of sorts, is harmonically nebulous, stripping the cake out from underneath the tasteless icing.

And then finally, they go into a cut-time jam that takes us to church, which was finally the outlet for the power we know they have. Oh, and Caleb's mind-boggling falsetto scream: That is out of control. Unfortunately, as all three judges later point out, that 30-second freakout is what they should've been spending the previous 65 seconds doing.

And speaking of wasted opportunities, we now present Sonos. In the 24 hours following the east-coast broadcast, all manner of a-cappella geekdom logged onto the intarwebs to have their say about this performance (and the result it led to). I think I broke down the Sonos's issues pretty well in my last posting, but I'll reserve further commentary-- as well as links to other great commentary and debates-- for the end of the posting.

My main prior experience with Sonos is their recording of "I Want You Back", which Mouth Off! broke down brilliantly: this take on the song is not from the POV of an heartsick ex who didn't know what he had 'til it was gone, but of a jealous ex who was dumped and didn't get the hint and is now a crazy stalker. Chilling stuff, right? In an effect-free abridged version, will that vibe translate to the Sing-Off stage? Short answer: kinda. I'm going to critique this as though I didn't otherwise (sonically) know what to expect, which is only fair, because the 99.99% of the world who have never heard of these guys because they're not geeks about this kind of thing wouldn't know what to expect either.

Unlike in the first hour, the four of them (other than VP) are singing in their right ranges, so that's a good sign. The combination of the slow tempo, the minor key and the dissonant progression makes for a jarring (in a good way, I think) contrast to the audience's expectations. Jessica is a very strong lead, and Ben's VP may be the most consistently good (yet restrained) VP we've heard in the whole season so far. Unfortunately, the group harmony on "I was blind to let you go" in the middle of the song was the first really harmonically interesting thing to happen. There's a lot of what sounds like the other two women singing the rhythm backing in a 2-bar loop, occasionally making jarring (in a bad way) dissonances with Chris's otherwise great bass groove. The breakdown, in round form, is made up of three great melodies, but the whole thing would have been more interesting if it went anywhere harmonically, which is half the fun of a breakdown, and it seems to be dissonant for dissonance's sake. I know they're being cute with the minor modality of it, playing flat-6 and natural-7 against each other as a good excuse to create a V7(-9), but even that chord goes back to i (the minor tonic) in what sounds like a wrong place in the measure. (Bass singing the ^5 of the i? How un-final can you possibly make a tonic chord, and why?)

Ben (Folds) says something that can pretty much apply to any a-cappella group who are unsure of themselves, or who should be unsure of themselves but don't realize it: "Pretty soon, you've gotta do a performance that's not gonna make us ever worry." I'm looking at you, enormous college groups, because that's pretty much my biggest peeve when I judge ICCA shows: am I worrying about how a group might sound or can I just freakin' listen to them? (The distraction factor is, in a way, part of the criteria.) My initial reaction to Shawn's comments-- about them not hewing close enough to the original-- was that it seemed hypocritical given the judges' general approval of creative re-arrangements of known songs, but I see where he's coming from: for him, that opening bass figure he quotes is an inextricable part of the song and not just window-dressing. Not my opinion, but a valid one. Sara B., sadly, has nothing positive to say, making this is easily the worst dressing-down the judges have given a group (an obviously competent group, that is) all season. Can't say it wasn't earned, though.

These two-hour shows are killing me, so I hope the Aires can lull me out of my Whitney-promo-induced stupor. "PInball Wizard" was a big hit for one of my old groups, and is a great choice for a big group that needs to brings its game. The opening few bars are an innovative way to suggest the fast strumming of the original, using interlocking melodic parts rather than a literal super-fast ostinato on a block chord. Michael takes the lead and struts upstage like he owns the place, which he kinda does. Then at the end the verse, at what should've been a climactic series of whole-group stabs after "sure plays a mean pinball!", they hit the first stab and then drop down an inversion, draining the power away. Under the chorus, the lead trio is kicking butt, but the backgrounds sound like Gregorian monks, sings a long "oh" in fifths way down below middle C. And "what makes him so good?" feels like a wasted opportunity, with a static triad suspending in and out with nothing rhythmically interesting underneath, save for a barely audible drum fill of some kind.

The return to the verse (with the entertaining choreographed pinball routine) is actually quite arresting-- something about the texture of the voicings here combined with the sudden quiet. The arrangement is really interesting here, with the layers of rhythmic parts and someone doing a high flangey whine, and then high energy at the end of these. But coming back into the chorus there's the odd choice of a IV7 (when Michael yells), which briefly puts us in barbershop land. And the voices on the verse (with everyone on text) reminds us that their a college group, with a slight imbalance of baritones putting us in glee-club land. (And the real kind of glee club, not the imaginary kind of glee club.) The final key change (of sorts) is a pitchy* mess, as flat-VI turns to an out-of-tune flat-VII, which in turn turns into an very unsteady new tonic chord (sounds like someone lost their breath), but fortunately it finally gels into higher inversion that blows the roof off the place. Even after nitpicking, this was really, really good, and they are most definitely not going home. Shawn nitpitcks too regarding supposed pitch issues in the aforementioned strumming guitar part, but I didn't catch it. (I think Ben Folds's comment about Jesus Christ Superstar was inspired less by the Aires's sound, and more by their outrageous tassles-and-bell-bottoms wardrobe. Also, do you think Sara B.'s joke "It was better than Cats" was an NBC cross-promotion for Saturday Night Live? Well, unless the writers are like me and they remember 1985 like it was yesterday, probably not.)

On the other side of the commercial break, the stage is crammed with the six groups. Look at the sheer size of the Deltones and the Aires, and then look how tiny North Shore is, tucked away stage right! Also, kudos to whoever created the design ethic for the chyrons, with the animated stage lights; I never noticed that detail until the second viewing of this episode.

North Shore and the Aires are saved first, which was no-brainer. Pentatonix is also a no-brainer save, as they've become a dark horse. The Deltones weren't entirely on their game this episode, but I can live with them being saved too, since there was a clear bottom two tonight: The Collective, who are trying so hard to fit into this style that they took their eyes off of the big picture, and Sonos, who are already steeped in this style (and scene) and coming off as cocky for defying common sense.

(Ack! Mascara attack again! Who's offering the grand prize, Sony or Maybelline?)

And Sonos is eliminated. (Nick seems genuinely sad when he introduces them for the farewell song, looking down as he says their name, as he does with all of the eliminations.) The farewell song, as wielded to great effect last season, is a group's opportunity to take a parting shot at the judges and audience and make us regret that they're leaving. Sonos's attempt at "It's So Hard to Say Goodbye to Yesterday" is… not that. So many dissonances that just don't make sense here (though "good times that made us laugh" was a break in the discomfort), and they don't even sound like five people. And I'm sure they're singing these strange voicings exactly as it's written, and it sounds quite difficult to pull off, but just because some is difficult doesn't make it good-- you don't get points for difficulty unless you pull it off (c.f. Afro-Blue). Singing this weirdness, wrong words and all, in front of a member of Boyz II Men, adds a meta awkwardness to this; Shawn puts his hand over his face presumably to hide his sadness over seeing a group go Into The Light, but my initial reaction was that it his way of silently saying "Not my idea, folks, I swear."

As I mentioned before, there's been some lively discussion on the 'net about Sonos's exit. As far as public links go, the webmaster of the a-cappella social network SINNNG wrote a great analysis of why Sonos was eliminated, there's an interview with Chris from Sonos himself, and yet another interview with Chris. CASA's Facebook group has also been hopping, and of course my own Facebook page is a hotbed for back-and-forth when I post about new blog entries.

The Collective made it through by the skin of their teeth this time. If two groups out of ten are going home next week, my money's on them making a swift exit. 'Til then!

* That's right, I said "pitchy". I may not watch American Idol anymore, but Randy Jackson is still my hero.


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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