The first hour tonight was kinda nuts. Among this first five alone, lots of sure bets went out the window as reliable acts made some shocking mistakes and paid for them. I'm almost nervous sitting down to write about it.
The set for the opening number is much less goofy than last week's, although the beaded curtains everywhere make this look like some sort of love den circa 1973. Wait, 1973 was the year of my birth. Hmmmmmmm. There appear to be singers encased in columns of beaded curtain that rise to the ceiling, giving the illusion that they're cage dancers, which is kinda creepy.
This performance, which is billed as the largest in the show's history (100 voices!), is anchored by a wonderful tasty arrangement, with what definitely sounds like a 100 voices in the right places with lots of auxiliary percussion plugging away in the background during the verse. However, one of my favorite things about the group numbers in general is the difference in tonal palette as they switch from group to group. North Shore, who have a very distinctive sound, seem to be singing in two-part harmony, and up in their box they seem content to just be in proximity to the freakout unfolding below. Although certainly everybody is dressed flashy and there are some great solo moments and the whole thing is a glorious celebration of (mass) humanity, Delilah is the only group that takes command of the stage. Even after the entrance of two high-energy groups, The Collective and Vocal Point (the latter in bright red suits which after two previous appearance makes you wonder if they own any clothing in non-suit form), things seem somehow empty… and that's when you realize that Afro-Blue haven't appeared yet, and good Lord things get even crazier somehow.
Kudos to everyone involved with this. Too bad it's followed by the Theme to Dullsville. *sigh*
The "guilty pleasure" theme seems like yet another excuse to vary up the licensing for the songs, and of course one person's guilty pleasure is another person's legit favorite song (Street Corner Symphony's cover of "C'mon Eileen" and Talk of the Town's "Easy" from last season come to mind).
The Yellowjackets (Univ. of Rochester) make the interesting choice of (Spice Girls) "Wannabe", which is a very feminine song as we know it. They make a good choice of going masculine right out of the gate on the opening guitar hits. But then things get very boy-band-ish, particularly with an affected solo on the opening chorus that verges on self-parody. When the second solo kicks in on the verse (Michael? Matt?), it's much stronger and more authentic, and then Jamal's third solo, though kitchy, is still effective because it's at least a take on the masculine energy of the beginning. When a fourth(?) solo kicks in, it's distractingly affected again, made worse by a grand pause that's not as funny as they probably thought it would be. Thankfully they're partially redeemed by an cascade of interlocking lines into a glorious held-out V13sus under Nick's short but killer improv solo, which leads into a strong unison ending.
Delilah flirted with disaster last time, taking the judges' good will for granted and letting themselves slip into mediocrity. (Can they embarrass Amy any more with the extended crying footage?) So you'd think they'd own "Flashdance", right?
First thing, the opening harmonies are off-kilter. I know there there's no "right" way to arrange or reharmonize a song, but as these are song intentionally chosen for their familiarity with the general public, I feel safe in saying that if the harmonies are less interesting, then it's not a good arrangement. (Again, c.f. Talk of the Town's "Easy".) Second, this doesn't have the sonic drive that, say, "Whadaya Want From Me" had. Something's not quite there with the bass, and the bass and VP don't quite lock in. Similar to the Yellowjackets, they end with a cascade (downward this time) which is quite pretty and makes me wish we'd heard more harmonies like this in the rest of the song. This did sound better overall in headphones than on speakers, but not much. Sara Bareilles notes that the emotion and personality came across, and it did, but it can't make up for sonic emptiness.
(When did Kendall get so tall? Goodness.)
When North Shore's tense video packages finally(!) reveals that "The Power of Love" will be their song, I run some possible musical scenarios through my head: slow doo-wop, mid-tempo swing, hard rock 'n roll. A straight-ahead Huey Lewis imitation seems like such a bad idea that I don't even consider it.
What I didn't consider was a slower Temptations "Papa Was a Rolling Stone" vibe, and I am loving this. The bass takes over my living room, Guy's voice is perfect for this lead, the other three look like they're enjoying themselves, and for 30 blissful seconds, Samantha and I are thrilled that they've found a tasty groove to guarantee themselves a pass to next week.
Then, disaster strikes: unfortunately, they considered the Huey Lewis imitation, and doubly unfortunately they perform it. "bop, bop! dooo, bop, bop!" is a terrible figure for them to attempt, the tempo is all over the place, their signature blend is useless in the face of all of these staccato syllables, the arrangement is far less harmonically interesting than the original, and they end on a poor unison. Somehow, the untouchable North Shore has delivered one of the least polished numbers of the season, and that makes me sad. Shawn Stockman says he wanted more emotional connection, but I think he's sugarcoating the musical issues.
(By the way, is "Bop, what they do, ugh!" supposed to be an in-joke for Rockapella fans?)
As we've whittled away six groups over the bast four episodes, groups with defined sounds have emerged, and it seems The Collective's strength is in… chill rock, I guess. After last episode's "Price Tag", I could seen them doing Afro-Blue's arrangement of "Put Your Records On" too. They'd better do something interesting with "I Will Survive", or this could be a collapse of NorthShorian proportions.
Although I'm not a fan of Ruby's voice, it's a good choice to open the song on the lines "First I was afraid, I was petrified," provided someone else eventually takes over. Their choice to major the iv chord (chord #2) and triad-ify the IIIma7 (chord #4) in such an iconic progression is a bad sign. But the switch to a dubstep-ish half-time kind of works, and the duet with Rachel is killer. I should be on board by now, but the guys in the back are singing "I'll stay alive" on a straight triad and it sucks the soul out of the song. The disco breakdown grooves well, but things still seem dark somehow, and as the camera reveals the circle of men around the duet, for some reason I'm noticing for the very first time that The Collective is seven men and two women; the darkness of the backing vocals reveals that perhaps all four backing men are baritones, which would be… a bad way to construct a group. That must be why I've never been taken with them.
There are so many enormous college groups on this show, they're starting to blend together in my head until I'm reminded of what they've sung, and The Dartmouth Aires or course stole the show last week, so I'm looking forward to "Jessie's Girl" as they're masters of the Big Sound, and the chorus and bridge call for that Big Sound big-time. I hope they choose a vibe and stick to it, unlike the Yellowjackets earlier. It opens with a great texture under the lead (with impressive subtle movement), and then when the duet kicks in the channel, it's another reharmonization disaster (third one tonight!). The bass stays on a tonic as the backing flange on a chord of uncertain center, while the duet continues as normal and collides with the backgrounds.
And even with the energy we're seeing on stage, what should've been a strong build acoustically into the chorus is a whimper; if I didn't know the song, I might not know this was the chorus. There's no texturing at all in the background; it sounds like a triad (for nine people?!) with a single high note suspended above. And then they add to their similarity to the Yellowjackets with an interruption that isn't effective, and sounds like a mistake anyway; "woman" is practically whispered, and the backing is holding out a plain-old I chord, which is the chord they're already coming from! At least Rick Springfield (or his producer) had the sense to continue the chord progression there. Yikes.
Rule No. 1: Every chord counts.
The bridge, thankfully, is really good. '80s pop song bridges are always great, as it was usually the writer's excuse to go "out there" harmonically before returning to the spoon-feeding of traditional chord progressions. The cascade at the beginning of the last chorus is really good and makes me wish they thought about every harmony the same way. (I don't get Clark's ballet moment.)
As Ben chides the Aires' lack of middle-range coordination by suggesting that the "get that record-making stuff down below," I now count three comments about "record-making" from the judges tonight, which would lead one to wonder if Sony is pushing the judges to remind the audience what the ultimate prize is, and perhaps to justify some choices that need to be made, as many of these groups (particularly the large college ones) won't jibe well with a traditional recording contract.
And after the break, we're at the first-half elimination. I can't believe I'm thinking this, but the Aires and the Yellowjackets are my top two, with The Collective in the middle, which speaks volumes about how far the mighty have fallen. Sadly, Delilah and North Shore are a deserved (for tonight) bottom two. When Delilah is saved, I'm hearing some sort of booing in the audience, and I understand the frustration in the abstract, but tonight was not North Shore's.
And as soon as Vinny starts with "It's 3 o'clock… in the mornin'…" I almost start crying, this is such a sad moment. If only eliminations were truly based on past performance, but alas, we're left with North Shore kicking our asses one more time, and "Goodnight Sweetheart" is finally a farewell song that makes us sorry to see them go.
(More shots of Amy crying! Yikes.)
[Nick unexpectedly segues directly from the crying and booing into Afro-Blue's video package, but I'll take a breather now. 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.
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)