HomeBlogsWarren B.'s blogThe Sing-Off, episode 3-1 (Sept. 19), 2nd hour: round 1, bracket 2

[Continued from previous posting.]

We're back from commericial, and the interstitial music is still kicking my butt.

Nick Lachey refers to the show as "riding the wave of a whole new musical movement." *sigh* If we're assuming that the "movement" is Contemporary A-cappella, then I could swear theres a Society for that. Founded, um,19 years ago.

I've been looking forward to seeing more of Urban Method, particularly as it's the brainchild of Tony Huerta, who's been behind some seriously amazing projects over the last 20 years and also happens to have the best job a live sound guy could ever have. Not surprisingly, their video's music bed is amazing. Resident rapper Mykal Charles seems like one artistically hungry guy; he wants this so bad, I can taste it.

Eminem and Rihanna's "Love the Way You Lie" is a gimme to showcase a female singing lead and a male rapping lead. The opening solo is quite beautiful, but when Mykal's rap (which is great) kicks in and the tempo shifts up, something gets muddy in the backing vocals; those minor chords are arranged either way low or way too spread out.

Then Urban Method does something we haven't heard in any previous episode of the show: the group vocal flange. (It's at the 3:00 mark in this clip.)



I did a serious double-take when I heard it, and then wondered why no one on a show that features contemporary a-cap had ever tried this. And it is awesome. Unfortunately, it's all too brief (the length of the first chorus) and then we're back to the too-low chords. I hate to say it, but my favorite arranging moment (after the flanging) is the octave doubling of the lead (it looks like Tony's on the low part) along with the female descants during the choruses. That's not to say the whole thing isn't effective, because it is thanks to the energy of the soloists and some solid rhythm.

(Shawn tells a wonderful story of the a-cappella/hip-hop connection, but starts it with "I saw [hip-hop] go from where it was [indicating low] to where it is [indicating high]." I would personally say "from where it was [indicating middle, circa 1980] to where it went [indicating high, circa 1995] to where it is [indicating low].")

(Can we put a moratorium on the word "rapappella"? Please?)

Now we can see what a group called Cat's Pajamas is like. My first impression about their name and demeanor during the opening group number was that they're trying to be an old lady's version of what's "hip" and "cool". Frighteningly, they meet those expectations almost perfectly in their video package (word for word!). They cut to a live performance (for an audience of old ladies in an impressive-looking theater) of "Pretty Women", and suddenly I realize that they're trying really, really hard to be Rockapella circa 1998, perhaps too much. Can't blame them for copying from the best, though. Once of them says they're trying to do repertoire "in a fresh new funkier way," which is directly contradicted by what we're seeing and hearing.

Back to the live show, and "Some Kind of Wonderful" seems like it be right in their wheelhouse-- perhaps their second set opener in their nightly show. I'm pleasantly surprised to see their VP-ist doing double duty on bass ("basscussion", as we once called it), which is really tricky on a single mic. I do have to say that despite the cheese factor, these guys have a really slick act and tight sound going on; 200 shows a year will do that for you. (I doubt the Fannin Family has even had dinner together 200 times.) They're not my favorite act ever on the show, and they're arrangements (for a quintet) aren't the best we've heard, but I'd be hard-pressed to root for their demise. I really respect these guys, and if they make it through I hope their arranging (and all-around vibe) gets more interesting. (Shawn and Sara agree!)

Kinfolk 9's video package is full of people undulating their arms to the music, which is something I feel like you only see when a-cappella groups are rehearsing. Why do we do that? Seriously? And enough of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" already! Everything we see in this package says that they're some sort of bohemian gospel outfit, and I can't quite pin down what their vibe is supposed to be.

(Their song will be "Secrets", one of many dull songs from the beige harmonic cloning laboratory of OneRepublic. Can we put a moratorium on OneRepublic too? To paraphrase Chris Griffin, covering OneRepublic just perpetuates the stereotype that OneRepublic is worth covering.)
Soloist Moi is way too low in his range at the beginning, which momentarily offsets Kinfolk 9's great blend. Seriously, their tuning is dead on the whole way through, even on the breathy rhythmic backing lines. Killer add2 final chord too, which locks instantly. I don't think anyone is vocally hiding in this group; you can tell they're all experienced at this.

On to Vocal Point (from Brigham Young Univ.). If memory serves, I ranked them 1st on my judge's form when they won the ICCA in 2006. I haven't seen them since (or heard them, save perhaps an occasional clip on Mouth Off!, and five years for a four-year-college group is a long time, so my curiosity is piqued. For a self-described "clean-cut" group to get past this round, they need to go loud and uptempo (like they did in '06) or risk being unmemorable. They're short a low baritone (if Ben's speaking voice is any indication), which means they really need to bring it.

And "Jump Jive and Wail" is a pretty good vehicle for that, as long as they maintain their blend and don't cheese it up too much. Their blend is great initially, but then their attempts at imitating brass veer into more nasal territory. Then I realize what's going wrong: they've got a baritone soloist, a (solid walking) bass, a VP-ist, and apparently five tenors singing at full volume. Perhaps they didn't try to accommodate for their lost baritone? Unless all of the tenors are singing different notes, which I'm pretty sure they're not, there's no good reason they couldn't shift some guys down a third.

I'm loving the hip-hop half-time feel of the third(?) verse, as it gives the "horns" more space to be featured as "horns", with some great jazz harmonies, though it's still really too heavy on the countertenors. My personal ideal arrangement for all-male groups is to have maybe one part singing super-high, not two or three. The trumpet is a soprano instrument, and if the group doesn't have a full bank of actual sopranos and doesn't have enough baritone support, they shouldn't be singing in that screechy range for so long, as it doesn't read as high-- just screechy.

That said, this is one hell of performance and earns them a spot in the next round in my opinion. Shawn makes reference to Ben's absence in the group's range, referring to him as "the baritone", which begs the question: is Ben this nine-man group's only baritone? Are they hoarding tenors or something?

Elimination time again, and the choice seems a lot less obvious. Vocal Point and Urban Method are saved first, leaving the intriguing choice of Kinfolk 9 versus Cat's Pajamas. These a both groups with experience, although in different ways; the former seems like they'd be the better group eventually if given a little bit more time. This is tough, because neither of them outright suck at all (unlike an hour ago).

And Cat's Pajamas-- a group with solid showmanship and musicality that performs in-residence at a large theater 200 nights a year in the "live music capital of America"-- is eliminated, which speaks to how tough this bracket of four was. I hope the Fannin Family (eliminated for good reason from the first bracket) was an anomaly, because if a mediocre group makes it past next week's show because another other group was even worse, that's going to hurt the credibility of the show, which would suck. Fingers crossed.

About the author:
Warren Bloom: Vegetarian libertarian feminist capitalist musician educator. Elementary-school music teacher by school year, middle-school theater musical director by summer, bass singer and vocal arranger by passion. Tenth-year ICCA/ICSHA judge. Itinerant voiceover talent and music copyist. Residing in Ditmas Park, Brooklyn, N.Y. http://www.5thjudge.com

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-bracket-1