HomeBlogsWarren B.'s blog5th Judge: The Sing-Off, Episode 3-8 (Nov. 7): Top 6 (1st hour)

How the mighty will fall tonight. It's the top 6 of 16, of course, but any elimination still feels like it's too soon. Unless they take the theme too seriously, in which case off with the lot of 'em.

[Some possible kind-of maybe spoilers ahead. Although if you're reading these postings without seeing the show first, I salute your academic curiosity.]

Opening number: The Aires' entrance and Scott's entrance right after that is the only interesting thing that happens. There's a lot of screaming going on, particularly from Amy (of Delilah) and ? (of Urban Method). And that's all that's worth writing about. Easily the least musically interesting opening number this season (and perhaps ever on the show), which is disappointing since they were getting better and better every week. (Incidentally, the song is "Wake Up" by Arcade Fire, so if that piques your interest… have fun tracking down a clip, because NBC won't release it.)

The first hour is dedicated to, um… rock music. Could there be a more generic theme than this? Some possible candidates:

• "Happy songs."
• "Songs in major keys."
• "Songs with titles beginning with the letters A through M."

This theme is wide open, so I'm assuming that nobody is going to stress out or second-guess themselves. And then Scott Hoying of Pentatonix has to say something like this: "I am glad we got the song 'Born to be Wild"… but we're not [a] heavy metal group, so capturing that headbanging rock has been kind of hard for us." After "E.T."? After "Love Lockdown"? After "Toxic"? Really? Are you afraid you're going to lite-rock by accident?

Avi and Kevin as usually get the low end going (sound effects and all), Scott appears like an apparition from behind the steps that look like Lego blocks pointed the wrong way, and soon after Mitch and Kirstie also appear from behind the steps, which is kinda frightening. (This reminds me, even 18 years later, of the enormous steps in the Broadway production of The Will Rogers Follies, from which people seem to appear out of nowhere and in an endless stream of humanity.) It's here that Pentatonix makes their first arranging misstep (no pun intended) of the season, arranging Mitch and Kirstie in contrary motion at times, which sounds less like filling out the harmonies and more like a theory 101 homework. Keeping the voices close is always a better idea! The chorus gets much, much fuller (and rocks harder) thanks to the long-awaited three-part harmony (with a great pedal bass on the tonic), and then they transition using their patented full stop [at 0:53]. God bless them.

Kevin may be biting off more than he chew here with all of this subdividing, and the tempo suffers a little bit. (I also wish he was doing a more forward snare sound, as it'd rock even harder than it already does.) Then they do another full stop that somehow ends on a syncopation [at 1:14], and all is forgiven. The final chorus begins in a dark minor place, and the rest is as raw (and, incidentally, musically tight) as anything else they've done, and there ain't nothin' wrong with that. (I like how Sonos in the audience goes nuts when Shawn Stockman calls out Avi.)

We have yet another mysterious comment in a video package, this time from Jack Merrill of the Dartmouth Aires, who left L.A. shortly before this taping: "We've had some comments about getting our basses and baritones locked in, so definitely with me leaving it might be a little more difficult, but I have complete confidence in these guys." First of all: Hi Jack, nice to finally meet you! (God, that group is enormous.) Second of all: Given that everyone's on their own mic, there's no way the lower singers will be less locked in now. In fact, as I disagree with whichever judge's comment that was, I'm shocked that they've been able to stay as locked as they've been given that they have two basses on their own mics, which is a recipe for acoustical disaster. Off-mic I'm sure it's fine, like a section of double-basses in an orchestra, but more than one bass on mic is like have more than one bass guitar in a band.  Justin Lerman says "We're going to have to figure out how to get the same sound with one bass." I know how: it's called singing into your microphones.

Michael O.-O. takes lead on "We're Not Gonna Take It", per the usual, and is accompanied by Brendan being really nasty (in a good way) on the VP. Really impressive multiple hits on the snare! The whole groups kicks in, and while the arrangement is super busy, it's got a carnival-ride calliope kind of sound, like things are dovetailing a little too well for hair-metal song. Also, the tenors are singing super high together in an exposed way, and I'm constantly being reminded that it's a vocal arrangement in a way I don't want to be reminded. In the second verse, it gets even busier, and now all of these moving notes are clashing with each other to the point where the chord is lost. Plus, the V gets 7th'd which takes us out of rock, and there's some out-of-tune singing going on well below middle C; perhaps this was the baritone locking problem the judges were thinking about. And Dan's bass? It sounds fantastic! Such worrywarts on the show this season. Worry about what you have, not what you don't have!

I love the bridge, the choral breakdown is funny, and then they do a three-at-a-time chord add-on (reminiscent of the end of "Club Can't Handle Me") to lead into the last chorus, which has a bIII starting the final cadence that worked really well. And, naturally, it ends a crowd-pleasing (and loud) add2 (Ben Folds calls it a 9, but I'll let it slide.) This whole thing was energetic, but not exciting from an acoustical standpoint. I'd rather hear these guys blend perfectly on a big chord then try to wend my way through a forest of notes.

For Mysterious Video Package Comment no. 3, here's Afro-Blue's Trent Cokley: "The way we're going to avoid going over people's heads this week is, as opposed to trying to almost compose a new song, we're going to try to keep it close to the original… and kinda make it work for Afro-Blue. But we still gotta find that place; it's a struggle." Are you kidding me. Really. Afro-Blue is not a pop group. They're not some musical psuedo-fraternity that thinks "Two Points for Honesty" is a song that still cries out to be covered a-cappella, or that "rearrrrrr" is the foundation of a great guitar imitation. They keep misinterpreting the judges' comments, this time about "going over people's head", and it's not about what they do (which is in principle always awesome), but how much they try to cram in. I loved each individual component of the Janet Jackson medley, but it took me four viewings to realize when "When I Think of You" actually started.

So, we've gone from "American Boy" to "American Girl". We can only hope the latter is a good as the former, and… it's not. The beginning starts out with a jarringly collegiate series of whole-note chords, and the third one really takes over my headphones with Reggie landing on the bass spot-on as usual. The verse is, again, jarringly collegiate (for them, although granted they are technically a college group) instrumental textures that we've never heard from them before, which aren't bad, actually. Then the transition begins, and while I don't know the original song (by Tom Petty) so I can't speak to how "accurate" this is, there are a lot of harmonies that aren't quite there, and there's a V9(13) that's more lounge than R&B and held out for what feels like forever. You can see the fear in their movement in the chorus, and what used be a ten-voice powerhouse is now slogging though three-part harmonies, like they forgot who they were.

They go into a non-sequitur bridge that may be a reference (iv to v to i) to "He's the Greatest Dancer" (or its torchbearer "Gettin' Jiggy Wit It"), which ends abruptly like it took them by surprise. A bizarre cut to an otherwise pretty arrangement of "The Star-Spangled Banner" leads to more instrumental emptiness, which finally leads to an ending that isn't coordinated. This might be the first flat-out bad-sounding thing Afro-Blue has done this season (and presumably ever). Ben says he's glad they don't dumb down their music… but they kinda did here. Afro-Blue was my pick to win it all, and I'm really let down by this. (This is the first time I haven't embedded an Afro-Blue clip in a posting. Sadness.)

Delilah's video package makes the most sense of the four we've seen so far; instead of going on about what they're worried about and psyching themselves out, they basically say "We're really exhausted, and we need to practice." Looks like Hannah will be playing the Token Crying Girl Caught On Camera part that Amy played last week.

The opening of "Dream On" is very Mellotron-ish, with dead-on voicings, Geena makes her case for best VP of the season with an impressive solid snare, and Amy (on lead) stares through the camera like she's on a mission. The chorus is pretty low key, but then transition into the coda is full and loud, with a slide up to a tightly-voiced V7 that grabs you. The coda itself is high-energy, although the unison into the second half falls off at the end. And you know what's coming next [at 1:24]: Amy screams "dream on" at the top of her range (and lungs) and nails it.

The closing chord is disappointingly low in the group's range, especially considering that Amy's singing the highest note in the chord, a super-high tonic. Still, this was a killer performance. If this is them exhausted, then I'd hate to go against them after a long nap. Sara B., ominously, says this wasn't her favorite performance of theirs, and that she wan't "in it", which frankly sounds like the producers' random way of opening a logistical door for Delilah's possible exit.

Interesting. Most groups in their video packages express terror at having to fit the imagined mold of the theme, or being able to pull their own weight. But in Urban Method's, Kim, [?] and Myke all casually mention that they're going to be changing the song up completely and pretty much not following the theme. Good for them! Maybe they've got some extra cojones they can loan to the other groups.

The slow, sparse opening of "Here I Go Again" is generic close harmony (with [?] on a subtle lead) with no harmonic surprises, but you know they're going to explode at any moment, so it's alright. And they do, because Myke will do no less than take over the stage every time. Funny, the tempo doesn't change (unless you consider this a fast 12/8 as opposed to a slow 24/16), but the energy is totally different on the other side of the transition. Myke's structural and rhythmic reimagining of the lyrics (which hew very close to the original) is brilliant, and they play the less-is-more card by keeping the backgrounds rhythmically simple-- a quartet, I think-- over Tony and Richard's thick, propulsive rhythm section.

The second chorus [at 0:59] is not weaker in energy, but the double-timing takes the wind out of the intense groove they'd already established. I love the dueling trio texture, even though the balance on the melody trio (quartet?) is baritone-heavy, which combined with the country-style parallel movement of the voices up and down gives it a Fleetwood Mac vocal sound*. When the two trio come together at the end of the chorus, it's quite thrilling. And bookending with the half-time verse was a very, very good call.

Vocal Point have a legit complaint: they're back at school when this is taping, which means they're shuttling back and forth between Los Angeles and Provo, which seriously sounds exhausting and could be brutal on their cohesion. Nick introduces them by putting them in the position of "showing the world that BYU knows how to rock." Does he not remember Donny Osmond's solo career?

Based on what we know of Vocal Point, "You Really Got Me" could be a good way for them to rein in their inherent cheese factor and keep them within the confines of a straight 4/4. They've certainly got the energy, but do they have the authenticity? The opening octaves are, well, in octaves, and when Tanner** kicks in with the, well, kicks, it's a good build. (Love the drum riser!) The speed-up and stacking of harmonies leading into the second refrain has the sound they're known for: a loud, focused sound that reminds me of the last time they awed me in person (albeit with a different lineup that's since graduated). The guitar chords after the transition are well balanced, the unison fills are tight, and things are refreshingly cheese-free… until they do the chromatic down-and-up, and it feel inauthentic for some reason, like it's an outtake from last week's "Jailhouse Rock". Luckily they go right back to the rock (as opposed to rock-'n-roll) groove, it cooks, and then they nail this super-crunchy IV of the new key [at 1:03] and I can't for the life of me identify the quality of the chord by ear***, but happily they repeat it five more times in triplets.

Whatever it is, it's jarring (in a good way) and sounds really hard to leap to from where they were. And then all hell breaks loose, which is weird to say about a bunch of guys who wear their Christianity on their sleeve, but damn, this is really good. They go half-time on us, it gets even crunchier and somehow darker, Ross's solo is suddenly stronger and more sinister, and then there's another shimmering chord I can't identify but I really like [at 1:16], and for the first time in this season, I think assuredly to myself "Vocal Point is safe." And how. Wow. Going back to the regular meter, while high energy, is a bit anti-climactic, but the penultimate IV9sus is almost like Vocal Point taking a 9sus that Afro-Blue forgot to sing tonight and holding it up like a trophy. Fantastic. Oddly, Sara B. cals this "adorable", and Ben calls this "Vegas" and "not one of [their] performances [he] would want to hear on a record," which are all a disservice to what we've just heard. Kinfolk 9's ecstatic reaction from the audience is the only critique they need anyway.

By the way, the Video Package Concern Survey tonight was as follows: 3 for paranoia; 2 for legit problems; and 1 for Going For Broke. I'm going with the minority.

Knowing how the episode turns out, I'm nervous to recap the next hour of country music, knowing that fortunes are going to reverse sharply.

[Continued in next posting.]

* I was thinking "Book Of Love" for some reason, but I'm not sure why. Alternate Fleetwood Mac options requested in the comments section below. Or, you can just enjoy a Mario Paint Composer version. God bless the Intertubes.

** As I searched for the 2006 ICCA results page, I just now discovered that Tanner took Outstanding VP at the 2011 finals. Nice!

*** Little help? Make a comment if you know what it is. Or, perchance, if you arranged it.


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. Since returning home to New York, he's been musical director and/or bass and/or VP for numerous a-cappella projects in NYC, including pop/jazz quintet Doo*Wa*Zoo (Best Jazz Song nominee, 2000 CARAs), pop/rock sextet Dobsonfly (heard in the film The Rules of Attraction) and rock/R&B septet 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 Total Vocal, and was MD, co-arranger and sound tech for Minimum Wage's Blue Code Ringo at the 2002 NYC Fringe Festival, and co-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)

5th Judge: The Sing-Off, Episode 3-5 (Oct. 17): Top 10 (1st hour)

5th Judge: The Sing-Off, Episode 3-5 (Oct. 17): Top 10 (2nd hour)

5th Judge: The Sing-Off, episode 3-6 (Oct. 24): Top 8 (1st hour)

5th Judge: The Sing-Off, Episode 3-6 (Oct. 24): Top 8 (2nd Hour)

5th Judge: The Sing-Off, Episode 3-7 (Oct. 31): Top 7


crunchy chords

1:03 - I'm hearing Ebm7/Ab... or Ab9sus as you're probably more likely to call it.
1:16 - bass Bb, skip an octave, then Db, Eb, F, Gb, Ab, and I think the highest note is another Db, but it's hard to tell, it could be a C.

oh gosh this makes me want to transcribe these arrangements...

as a side note on what you've mentioned a couple times about 2 vs. 9: I've heard different reasonings for 2 vs. 9 (was at a jazz workshop where the guy said 9 means there's a 3, 2 means there isn't), and I've certainly witnessed different conventions in reading music. Is there actually an official way? Because that certainly isn't the only type of chord I've seen called different things.

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 :-( :-(

Re: crunchy chords

The 1:03 chord is a 9sus?  I gotta listen to it again; I shoulda known that.

Re: numbering conventions...

3 and 5 we rarely see numerically, but those, as well as the common 7, are "less than 8" because they're "supposed to be there" as foundations of the chord.

Substitutions, i.e. notes (usually in jazz and R&B) that replace the root and 5th but aren't expected to resolve, like -9, 9 or +9 for the root, or +11, -13 or 13 (or rarely 11) for the 5th, are "more than 8" to indicate that they're substitutions and not suspensions or adds.

Suspended 4 (sus4) or 2 (sus2) are "expected" to resolve to the 3rd before moving on to the next chord (in Baroque they always do, though in jazz and rock they often don't), so they stay "less than 8" and close to the 3rd, because they're only a step away from resolving.  The 3rd can't technically be "subsituted" for, because it officially determines the quality of the chord (major or minor), even if the suspension never resolves.  (That's why a sus2 or sus4 that never resolves is so mysterious sounding: we never find out if it's major or minor!)

The 7th also can't be substituted for, but in pop and rock you can just pretend it doesn't exist (c.f. add2).

Added notes can go either way, I guess, because they're not really "supposed" to be there.  I prefer staying "less than 3" because it's clearer that the rubs are gratutious and not badly-executed substitutions.  "add2" to me shows that the 2nd is meant to rub with the root and 3rd.  "add9" is ambiguous to me, because "9" implies both a 7th and that the root only appears in the bass, making the chord less shimmery.  (add2 is very much a pop chord, and the 7th [major or dominant] would ruin it.)

Re: crunchy chords

I should've added that the 7th [major or dominant] is sometimes replaced [not substituted] by the 6th, e.g. G6 or Cmi6, particularly in tonic (I) chords where the melody is on the tonic note.  If you throw a 7th in, the 6th turns into a 13th, and the 5th has to disappear (in proper jazz, anyway).

The Relatively Easygoing First Half

Loving your cattiness this week, but I'm surprised you seem to like Urban Method. I thought their blending was dismal as usual and the females pretty incompetent D:

Also, I think the group that was in the audience was not The Collective but Kinfolk 9 (remember Moi the lead singer?) (:

Loved Urban Method this week.

Loved Urban Method this week.  I thought the women pulled their weight, the arrangement was brilliant, and Myke was Myke.

(Kinfolk 9 corrected; that's what I meant, of course.  Saw Moi in the audience and thought, if only they'd gotten their act together...)

I agree that the arrangement

I agree that the arrangement was better than previous weeks, and Myke is always great, but Katie was just unnecessarily nasal and screamed too much. Her tone of voice just isn't pleasant after a while. Honestly I don't even remember what they did now.

They should have gone home weeks ago; yes perhaps these groups that show improvement on the show should be lauded for their efforts, but they should not be judged solely on this improvement. How about their previous performances that were mediocre? None of those were any good. Delilah, on the other hand, had superior blending, solo presentation and were very emotive. After listening to How to Love and Grenade again, I am simply floored by their arrangement choices and dynamics - they know how to arrange for their sound and for a cappella, while UM has fallen short one time too many.

singing into your microphones

    " I know how: it's called singing into your microphones."

Love this.

Pentatonix has a big lead at this point (after the Country Song, anyways), but overall the groups are just great and the judges keep picking the right one to send home.

I think Afro Blue out-thinks themselves. My guess is that they get into the tactics of arranging too soon, when they really need to be figuring out the "strategy" of how to make the song into something that they can personally relate to and deliver.

Urban Method has been growing on me, and if they keep their "go for it" attitude they might pull through to the end, since they would seem to have legitmate "upside" in a record deal.

Both the college groups are amazing. The BYU boys in particular have absolutely won me over. I think the Dartmouth kids are SO visually engaging that it might work against them, because ultimately its about making a record, not a TV show.

Charlie, you're a bass-- can

Charlie, you're a bass-- can you imagine more than one bass on-mic in a rock context?  Sounds like a tuning nightmare waiting to happen.  I can't believe they got away with for this long.

Double basses

Yeah, its a scary thought. The possibility for rhythmic mush is in some ways more worrisome than the tuning. And little improvisations or choices of nonsense syllables are such a big part of the form, too, so to keep it together you're going to make the part more stilted.

For slower tempo things it can work OK. I sang My Home last year with Barry Carl and it came off, and there are some tracks on The Wedding Weekend movie that are both Kevin Weist and I that blend nicely.

To be honest, I haven't listened closely to the tracks of the big groups on headphones, and as it comes out of my TV, the bass line is always really scaled back from what it would be "live", but overall its sounds pretty solid.

The engineers who work The Sing Off are pretty much miracle workers, in my opinion.

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