HomeBlogsWarren B.'s blog5th Judge: The Sing-Off, Episode 3-9 (Nov. 14): Top 5 (1st Hour)

I have a confession: I feel like I've been giving some groups short shrift. I fell in love with Afro-Blue early on, and I feel like I've been putting them on a pedestal, putting too much emotional investment into assuming they're the presumptive winners, and dismissing other groups that are objectively excellent (dismissing them in my overall impressions, anyway). And it's coming back to haunt me.

The opening number tonight is, as usual, mostly pre-recorded, but this is still a helluva lot of fun. Michael (of the Aires) is full of fury (also as usual), Mariah (of Afro-Blue) is the perfect candidate for the Michael Jackson solo, and Danielle (also of Afro-Blue), not surprisingly, absolutely tears it up when she takes the Beyoncé lines. This is up there with "Use Somebody" from last season as one of the greatest opening numbers ever. You know what? It's so good, what the heck, I'm going to embed it:



(Insert the usual spoiler disclaimer here. Although if you haven't watch the episode and you're reading this anyway, you're quite the masochist.)

I don't whether the Darmouth Aires' video is over-edited to heighten the tension, but this kind of too-many-cooks issue brings back nerve-wracking memories of my college group. However, I have no idea why they'd be afraid of R. Kelly's "Ignition (Remix)", as they've proven that they're consummate entertainers.

Xavier, known to me up to this point as The Guy Who Kinda Looks Like Reggie Jackson, kills his section of the lead; Michael joins in and the two of them, while not exactly hitting the unison, are hilarious together. The backgrounds aren't particular inventive, but they're full enough to not be distracting… and then two other guys (including the guy who looks like a blond Darren Criss) come in on short solos and they look half-asleep. Buzzkill, man. Clark werks it, joins Xavier on lead and then falls off of "hotel lobby" like he ran out of breath. (Can't blame him; this number looks exhausting.) He redeems himself by taking the high note on an all-too brief trio with Xavier and Michael [1:05] that proves that unlike voices can blend just fine if you put the same commitment into all of them. A gorgeous reverse cascade on a V13sus (which may have started on an ii9, I dunno, the bass is quite high) harkens back to "Club Can't Handle Me", and man their blend is good when they all do commit.



Hmm. That end sequence sounds terribly familiar.

My impression on first viewing, when I had to process all of the disparate solo work, was that they couldn't choose whether to commit to the sexy or call attention to it, and reminded me of the Yellowjackets' performance of "Wannabe" in episode 5, where they took the boys-singing-as-girls joke and beat it into the ground… but upon second viewing I can see the bigger picture. Shawn Stockman makes a very valid point, implying that this wasn't their best number, when he says he expected more "dimensions and levels and layers", which was definitely lacking-- they were kinda coasting on the novelty of it. Very enjoyable, but I am surprised, considering how picky the judges have been, the arrangement wasn't more interesting than it was.

I'm embarrassed to say I don't know Kerry Hilson's "Knock You Down" at all; I like Kanye West and Ne-Yo a lot, but alas, the public indie-rock station we listen to at home isn't big on current hip-hop. Or any hip-hop, come to think of it. Actually, that's not true-- they did play "O.P.P." the day Michael Jackson died, which was awesome and probably confused the hell out of most of their listenership. Anyway, I'll use my naïveté to critique Urban Method's arrangement on its own merits.

Their countoff is twice as fast as the tempo, which makes for a jarring intro. When Myke kicks in with his customary tiger-in-a-cage rap, the backgrounds are essentially Katie and [?] on open fourths, which just can't happen in this context; there's too many people on stage for them to squander this moment. During the sparser moment that follows, Liz's sitar-ish effects are really impressive, and I'm surprised they haven't pulled that out before.

The transition into the chorus involves Katie (who sounds great as usual) suddenly having to come off of the harmony to re-take the lead, resulting in losing a prominent note in the chord, and again I'm wondering why, after the great "flyin' high" moment, why they couldn't find someone else to double that note. (Is "fly off into NASA" an actual line from the song? That doesn't make sense.) The final chord (a minor-11*, which I think is a first this season) is really impressive, but the passage leading up to it involves jarring switches between two- and three-part harmonies in the background (the latter apparently a coincidence of the two-part harmony and the moving part matching up**) that could easily have been remedied if they'd dispensed with the parallel fifth shadowing Tony's bass and used that baritone to fill out upper harmonies; it would've made for a cleaner sound both low and high.

VP-ist Richard has a nice aw-shucks moment during the judges' comments, and well-deserved; he's been an unsung hero of this group from the start. Ben has another interesting theory on the backing-harmony issue-- "trouble with straight 'ah's" and "some of that simple singing stuff", as he puts it-- suggesting it could be uncoordinated dynamics, which was a problem I hadn't initially noticed and is unfortunately true as well.

Alright, let's get this out of the way. Is a New Jack Swing song from 1988, like Bobby Brown's "Every Little Step", contemporary R&B or classic R&B? It's certainly not classic Motown, but it's definitely not of the post-millennial variety either. As I was in high school when this song hit, it's kinda stuck in the middle for me. As the guys of BYU Vocal Point were in diapers when this song was in the top 10, I'm surprised they're not playing it off as a classic-era tune. And as Shawn made his name perfecting the New Jack Swing sound that Brown pioneered, I'm sure this was an issue that lots of people lost sleep over. Or, probably, just me, and maybe Rolling Stone's reviewer too. Either way, this song is more of a guilty pleasure than some of the songs from Guilty Pleasure Week!

In their video package, Keith says "I don't think we're gonna to try to be Bobby Brown, we're just gonna take Vocal Point's interpretation of his song." Then McKay says "Bobby Brown back in the day used to dance his face off, and one struggle we've had… is putting the choreography and the music together." It ain't easy avoiding being Bobby Brown while, um, intentionally trying to be Bobby Brown. Anyway, hearing them practicing the harmonies "live" made me appreciate the possibilities of this song; I forgot how interesting the suspended harmonies are, giving the illusion we never really land on the tonic.

Even before the lead starts, we're already seeing really impressive choreography, and now I'm a little scared that these sleep-deprived guys going to be physically destroyed after two minutes of this (plus another song!). I'm happily distracted by tonic mi9 that locks in well, leading to the first verse. Keith's earnest and somewhat gruff lead is interesting, turning the whole thing into an accidental tribute to New Kids on the Block, who of course were the unfortunate flip-side of the New Jack era. And now the arrangement is very 9sus heavy, particularly on "it's like that" at the end of the verse, which is just fine with me and makes me wonder if this is not just R&B Night but also 4th/11th Night. Some of the chords aren't quite ringing like they should, and I realize the bass seems muffled. That said, the echo effect on the chorus is brilliant, and again they're proving how good they are at using all of the voices they have. DJ Pauly D's Robert's bass talkabout is a great switchup, and then… Tanner goes nuts. [1:18].



Or, to paraphrase Chris Rock, Tanner goes Tanner. To recite syllables between percussion hits is something I might be able to pull off if I practiced enough for a very long time, but to also hit the kick with such conviction while doing that and, oh, also the Paula-Abdul-style dancing with that quick turn, is certifiably insane. Unfortunately they underscore his solo with dropped notes that expose half-step rubs [1:32], and cap the section with a sloppy run of notes (on a unison?) [1:35] that shouldn't have been so complicated. There's a series of Pentatonix-esque effects [1:47] that totally pull me in, but the last chord is also a little underwhelming, which I'll chalk that up to the fact that they're probably panting for oxygen by then. (I'm reminded of Ben's comment on Urban Method's dynamics issue, although it isn't as drastic here.) At this point I'm hoping Vocal Point continues on just so we can hear more of Tanner's work. Also, this was a helluva performance all around. (For some reason I was underwhelmed at first, but on repeated viewing this gets better and better.)

Afro-Blue, after wowing the judges with a ballad last time, chooses wisely (and/or sells out) and goes ballad again. The vibe in their video package has definitely gotten more desperate, which being in the bottom two twice in a row will probably do to you (and that's even before the Carmina Burana score kicks in). Suddenly Trent's talking about how "[w]e can be more emotional and we can give a lot more of ourselves," which is something we haven't heard from them before. As I've previously relished in their technical proficiency, I hope this isn't a turn away from what they're best at, or at least they've found a way to merge the technical and emotional.

"We Belong Together" (o/p/b Mariah Carey) starts with a nice 9thy chord, and then in the first verse we lose the tonal center, singing chords without discernible roots, which is disconcerting. But when Reggie's bass kicks in, we now know why: they've been singing jazz voicings that assume the root is covered in the bass, so take away the bass and you get lots of extensions with no harmonic context. Oh no, no no no no no. When they do lock in, like on the bVI to bVII (assuming we're in minor) in the first and last verses, they sound super smooth. But the backing underneath "kiss your lips", "right here 'cause baby" and "It's still so hard to believe" don't lock at all. And at the end of the first chorus-- at the title of the song!-- we get, for the first time ever from Afro-Blue… a tuning problem. Oh no, no no no no no no no.

Reggie's bass acrobatics in the bridge are great as usual, but his appearance on the screen reminds me that he's the mastermind MD of the group (and perhaps the best in-group MD on the show), and I'm surprised so many of these issues slipped by him on the way to performing this (unless nerves are fraying on-stage). The group recovers a bit on the bridge, blending a little better, but considering how dull of a song this is and how much more they could have done with it, it's small consolation. The transition into the last chorus is well coordinated, with the cascade of sorts leading into Reggie and Brian (on VP) nailing the downbeat, but there's that non-harmony on the title of the song again. The end sequence (starting on the minor tonic to i9sus) is a little fuller-- there are thicker harmonies somehow, perhaps because of the weaving parts, and Christie's riffs on the lead are practically telegraphing "We're being more emotional now, see?"-- but the harmonic nebulousness is still there in spots, and the last chord (a bVIma7) starts out promising but ends like they forgot how long the note was supposed to be held out, and the momentum is wasted.

Fortunately for them, the judges don't seem to care about any of this. The judges are certainly in their corner, and why not-- up until two weeks ago they were the group to beat. Shawn makes the surprising (to me) comment "I think you guys are starting to understand the method behind arranging. Sometimes you don't have to do a lot to be effective. A lot of times it's just lockin' in, and letting everybody in the room enjoy the ride." But-- and it kills me to say this about the arguably greatest group in the history of the show-- they didn't always lock in here. True, you don't have to do a lot to be effective-- North Shore's major triads rang like a more complicated chord-- but you do need to not ignore the technical aspects that made you the odds-on winner of the show six episodes ago, at the expense of this new-found emotion-feeling thing.

Speaking of less is more: enter Pentatonix. Usher's "OMG" is a great choice, given their proclivities toward impossibly well-coordinated stuttering figures. (I'm not a huge fan of the original recording, but I appreciate the components that these guys can work with.) Looking past the oddly innocent "gosh", the opening is really good and dark; the usual strong bass and perc supports Mitch & Kirstie's thirds that meet at the intersection of their ranges. The trio on the chorus (I guess that's what we'd call the part where the words "oh my God" come in) is tight, but when they get to the, um, other part of the chorus (i.e. the part that goes "oh, oh, oh oh, oh oh, oh, oh oh"), the notes are little off kilter, with Kirstie going out of sync with Mitch. While it's obviously a playful moment, breaking that sync after a verse of being in sync feels weird.

In the second verse when the beat goes into a reggaeton feel [0:41], Scott's lead is as always commanding, and Kevin's variety of sounds is amazing, with an effortless switch between kick and rimshot(!) over and over that sounds impossible. Kirstie & Mitch are now in sixths, and the tuning suffers a bit for it, although they are singing a flangey dipthong "oh" so there's the effect to cover up the wide interval. Still, I don't think placing themselves further apart than a fourth (if avoidable) does an arrangement like this any favors. There's a great trio transition, and then Kirstie & Mitch go back into thirds for "she got it all" (although that's more of a fill than a background), and trio for the end of the verse is strong. Into the next section (is 1:11 another verse? I don't how to refer to these chunks of song) there's a three-way unison for one line, then a trio on the next line, and… hmm, mathematically this should lead a quintet, but no, they wouldn't do that, would they? Would they do what Vocal Point did last week and pull an Afro-Blue chord out? Oh wait, they do [at 1:19], and it's a whole sequence of them. And it's yummy.



They go back to the chorus-ish chunk, with "oh my God" on the trio and then a two-part "oo" in background, and something doesn't seem right. And I'm realizing that for the first time, Pentatonix's novelty might wearing a little thin for me. Don't get me wrong, these are five phenomenally talented individuals who gel incredibly well, their energy is infectious, their work ethic is astounding, and I would pay good money to them. But the pass to the final four I've been willing to give them because of their small size-- mainly being okay with two-part backgrounds-- isn't as compelling now that they're entirely surrounded by larger groups that can complete triads behind a soloist without leaving anything to the audience's harmonic imagination and still have at least four people left over.

Regardless, I still find the "oh oh oh oh" part equally odd the second time around, and when they suddenly end [1:39], I think "Ugh, what a clichéd ending." And the joke's on us, because then they explode into a jam that's almost the opposite of synchronized but works great for them-- I'd rather hear individual parts working "against" each other (c.f. when season 1 winners Nota jam on a samba) than two-part harmonies that say "we're trying to complete the chord but we're not exactly there." And that makes the trio-plus-bass at the end that much more rewarding.

(So, Kevin has a morality problem with his bandmates singing the word "God" regarding general risquéness, but Kirstie shimmying in next-to-nothing while singing "Hold It Against Me" was okay?)  [EDIT: The words really are "oh my gosh," despite the actual meaning of "OMG".  Go figure.]

* If you're not sure what that sounds like, it's the chord underneath the drum solo in Steely Dan's "Aja".

**  See also the discussion in the comments to my last posting, regarding three-part harmonies versus multiple duets.

[Continued in the next posting.]

[photo: Urban Method]

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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. 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
http://www.casa.org/content/sing-episode-3-1-sept-19-1st-hour-round-1-br...

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-br...

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-...

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-...

5th Judge: The Sing-Off, episode 3-3 (Oct. 3): round 2, bracket 1 (1st hour)
http://www.casa.org/content/5th-judge-sing-episode-3-3-oct-3-round-2-bra...

5th Judge: The Sing-Off, Episode 3-3 (Oct. 3): Round 2, Bracket 1 (2nd Hour)
http://www.casa.org/content/5th-judge-sing-episode-3-3-oct-3-round-2-bra...

5th Judge: The Sing-Off, episode 3-4 (Oct. 10): round 2, bracket 2 (1st hour)
http://www.casa.org/content/5th-judge-sing-episode-3-4-oct-10-round-2-br...

5th Judge: The Sing-Off, Episode 3-4 (Oct. 10): round 2, bracket 2 (2nd hour)
http://www.casa.org/content/5th-judge-sing-episode-3-4-oct-10-round-2-br...

5th Judge: The Sing-Off, Episode 3-5 (Oct. 17): Top 10 (1st hour)
http://www.casa.org/content/5th-judge-sing-episode-3-5-oct-17-top-10-1st...

5th Judge: The Sing-Off, Episode 3-5 (Oct. 17): Top 10 (2nd hour)
http://www.casa.org/content/5th-judge-sing-episode-3-5-oct-17-top-10-2nd...

5th Judge: The Sing-Off, episode 3-6 (Oct. 24): Top 8 (1st hour)
http://www.casa.org/content/5th-judge-sing-episode-3-6-oct-24-top-8-1st-...

5th Judge: The Sing-Off, Episode 3-6 (Oct. 24): Top 8 (2nd Hour)
http://www.casa.org/content/5th-judge-sing-episode-3-6-oct-24-top-8-2nd-...

5th Judge: The Sing-Off, Episode 3-7 (Oct. 31): Top 7
http://www.casa.org/content/5th-judge-sing-episode-3-7-oct-31-top-7

5th Judge: The Sing-Off, Episode 3-8 (Nov. 7): Top 6 (1st hour)
http://www.casa.org/content/5th-judge-sing-episode-3-8-nov-7-top-6-1st-hour

5th Judge: The Sing-Off, Episode 3-8 (Nov. 7): Top 6 (2nd Hour)
http://www.casa.org/content/5th-judge-sing-episode-3-8-nov-7-top-6-2nd-hour

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Comments

The "gosh" struck me as odd,

The "gosh" struck me as odd, too, so I looked up lyrics and the music video to OMG and... the lyric is actually "gosh". I think what Kevin had trouble with was the booty and boobies line.

oh my gosh.

I stand corrected.  That said, Kirstie isn't always the epitome of modesty on the show.

oh my gosh

Oh, I'm definitely not saying that I find Kevin's stance entirely internally cohesive (you can sing a song about checking a hot girl out on a dance floor - or, hell, a Marvin Gaye song about premarital sex, gasp - as long as you don't specifically reference body parts? Ooookay.)

Though I doubt he has much of a say in what the show stylists decide to put Kirstie in.

And, because this is my first time commenting - I refresh my google reader incessantly waiting for your posts after each episode. As somebody with enough musical background to say "Something sounded off there" or "Wow, that was cool" but not anywhere close to enough to know why, I've found that your posts vastly enrich my viewing experience. Thank you!

Kevin

Two thoughts from this first-time poster:

1) Could it be that Kevin's religious beliefs lead to him to object to OMG's lyrics, not because of their explicit nature, but because of how they objectify women sexually? This would explain why he's okay with Let's Get It On, but not OMG; Let's Get It On, though basically explicit, is tender and loving, while OMG is... not. Could it be that he feels uncomfortable with Usher's lyrics that could be interpreted as being degrading towards women?

or, more likely...

2) It seems to me that the producers needed *something* to inject some tension into Pentatonix' lead-in video this week. Because, I mean, really, who's gonna be worried that PTX won't be, well, bloody awesome yet again? No one. I would bet that Kevin's always been a little bit uncomfortable with some of the more sexual lyrics PTX has performed this season, and that OMG being unusually explicit (boobies and booties and all that), provided the producers with a way to exaggerate a relatively minor internal tension into something that's easily telegraphed in a two minute video.

Just some thoughts.

Kevin

I'm definitely with you that it seems like option 2 is more likely.  Per Kevin's Facebook/Twitter, he struggled a bit with both songs, but he did his best to work with the group and be respectful of their efforts and they respected his.  Also, per the group's blog on the NBC Sing-Off site, Kevin sprained his knee during the Born To Be Wild performance the previous week and was in pain during rehearsals for R&B week.  I'm thinking the "friction" in their OMG rehearsal package was manufactured at least a little bit--shots in which he was sitting by himself resting his leg were edited to read as shots where he was off pouting by himself as the rest of the group works nearby.  I love this group like I love rainbows and puppies and chocolate ice cream, though, so I'm inclined to see them as fabulous at all times and blame all wonky moments on evil editing monkeys. :)

Honestly, I've hated the

Honestly, I've hated the editing this season. The whole entirety of the packages bothers me. last season all these sections were FUN. how the group is gearing up. Not a single one of these packets (save for the country and 60s ones) have been fun. and no offense, but Kevin's 'you guys know my religious beliefs' read as 'i'm saying this for the camera' more than anything else i've heard from the show. oh, wait. 'well, I think we should do this. so we have a full on disagreement'. *scott when discussing the britney medley*  I don't like the way they paint this, and I doubt any of the groups care THAT much about this. 

 

Rather, I don't think it's as make or break for everyone as they say it is. I just hate what they do with the video packages so much. 

 

incessant refreshing

Thanks for the compliment!  That's pretty much the reason I do this.  (And for the ACA nominations.  Hint hint.)

Heads-up on my posting schedule, though: the earliest I've posted a Sing-Off critique this season is 2 AM the next morning, if I'm lucky.  More likely it's late the following night (hey, I work for a living, people!), or in some cases Wednesday night.  And if I'm dealing with more than seven songs (which is all but one episode so far), I'll critique the second hour separately and post even later, like Wednesday or Thursday, or, depending on personal obligations, maybe even Friday or Saturday, as you've likely noticed.  (I wrote the posting for ep 6 hour 2 from a day spa in Norwich, Connecticut, between brunch and a massage, and then between the massage and dinner.  Don't say I don't come through for you people!  :) )

And don't hold your breath

And don't hold your breath for an hour 2 posting tonight-- the Jets/Broncos game, and packing for a weekend trip, will be occupying most of my time tonight. That is, if my train can even get through downtown Brooklyn, whose central subway hub is being occupied by Occupy Wall Street as I write this.  Fun fun fun.

oh my gosh

Eurgh, double post, is there a way to delete? Sorry.

Unedited time-markers

Warren,

You seem to have left a lot of unedited time-markers in there.

Slacker. ;)

Did not.  (After, um, 2 PM.)

Did not.  (After, um, 2 PM.)

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