HomeBlogsWarren B.'s blog5th Judge: The Sing-Off, Episode 3-9 (Nov. 14): Top 5 (2nd Hour)

Classic R&B time, which I'm guessing means lots of shiny suits and up-dos. If only North Shore were here for this one. Man, I still miss 'em.

(Due to a combination of time constraints [late days at work, Thursday night NFL loyalties and a trip to D.C.] and technological hiccups [Amtrak's wi-fi is USELESS], my critiques of the final three songs were seriously delayed, hence the very late posting. Sorry, faithful readers.)

Sorry to start a critique so negatively, but the problem I immediately noticed with the Dartmouth Aires' rendition of "Midnight Train to Georgia" is… the dominant (V) chords.  I heard first a V9sus to start, and then a bunch of straight V triads and thought "That can't be right." (e.g. under "too much for the girl".) So I checked out the original recording (original popular recording, anyway) and found that Gladys Knight & The Pips had more interesting things consistently going on underneath, like V9 or even better V9sus-- I mean, they have to, because the melody is constantly skipping from ^6 (9th of V) to ^8 (4th of V) pentatonically (like in the line "I'd rather live in his world than be without him in mine") and never hits ^7. And if the melody never hits ^7, you can't constantly bring up V chords with ^7 in it, because it's jarring and it's the wrong genre. And you can't change back and forth between V9sus and V, because… it's jarring and doesn't settle on a genre. Argh. My long-dormant rule has been awakened:

Rule No. 2: Choose a style for an arrangement and stick with it.

Mixing up different V chords is not as immediately distracting as, say, a drum fill in a barbershop quartet, but it's still a strange mistake.

Oh right, the performance.  Michael O.-O.'s lead is killer as usual, and I'm embedding the video on the merits of the lead alone.

They've got a good blend per se, but there's some occasional tuning issues and the tone is bit a too throaty and "choral" for this style, particularly in the high tenors where someone's vowels are way too round.   The II9 on "left behind" is glorious, and then the iconic Pips response "leavin' on a midnight train" is lost in the choral blend, and finally the "bop bah, bop bah" lands on a plain V triad that quashes the soul vibe. The "Goin' back to find" (II9? II9sus?) is also glorious; why can't they all be this glorious? On a later V under "live in her world", a very loud tenor "resolves" from ^8 (sus) to ^7 (3rd), which as I've said before shouldn't be happening in this style. From the beginning of the coda, Michael's lead is the only interesting thing going on, because there doesn't seem to be any discernible change in harmonies for the last 26 seconds of the song. Mushy stuff from a group that usually knocks my socks off.

(By the way, for a brilliant literary breakdown of this song, see my friend Casey's essay here.)

Aside from an iffy opening downbeat, there's not much to complain about Urban Method's "It's Your Thing" (o/b/p the Isley Brothers). I watched through it twice uninterrupted, even though I had every intention of pausing playback at the first sign of overt strangeness, because I was so entertained. It's not a heavily choreographed number, but it's still somehow very entertaining in tandem with great vocals all around. It seems like everybody gets featured in this one, too!

Nitpicks: In the intro [particularly at 0:08] there's too much doubling between the bass and the soprano, and after the "bigness" of the intro, the transition out of the intro [0:14 & 0:53] bizarrely consists of a exposed minor 10th (implying… I guess you'd write it Vmi7(no3no5)?*), which is a huge hole in the arrangement. Beyond that, this is solid. Most of it is an exercise in how to properly exploit every voice in your arsenal, especially on the bridge [0:35]. The bongo-scratch-conga-bass tradeoff [starting at 0:56] is brilliant, Myke eventually comes up front to rap (and randomly chant) and adds a token contemporary feel (even if it is a little over the top), and damn, Kim is really distracting spending so much time on the lead. The only true mistake in the performance may be how Myke ("hit me!" on the upbeat) and Kim ("yeah!" on the downbeat) aren't quite in the same pocket to end the song [1:34]; were they supposed to do that at the same time, or further apart, perhaps?

Now this is weird: the Aires' song lasted 2 minutes, but Urban Method's was only 1:37. The latter is like ninja a-cappella: get in, do what you need to do (or wanna do), and get the hell out before any one suspects anything. Although both Shawn Stockman and Ben Folds allude to "leaving us wanting more," I think Urban Method made better use of their 97 seconds than the Aires made of their 120.

Vocal Point's "Ain't Too Proud To Beg" starts a little iffy-- the exaggerated rolled R's at the very beginning, plus very baritone heavy block chords (with a baritone singing the 3rd wayyyyyy too low at 0:12), make me nervous. But then the rest is really spot-on.

The soloists are no David Ruffin, but they're not phoning it in either. And their imitations of the downbeat guitar strokes ("jank"), which was a signature of Motown's sound, is perfectly balanced [starting at 0:20]. There's a a lot going on here, and they're yet again showing what nine voices are capable of. The reharmonization of the chorus [starting at 0:27], reminiscent of "Ain't No Mountain High Enough", jars me at first but then I recognize the genius of it, as it makes me realize how much I've somehow loved a song that has such a repetitive I-IV pattern. And it works seamlessly too! The "oh baby please" backgrounds [starting at 0:34] are solid in their scoopy-soulful way, and the horn figures [0:48, 0:57, 1:04, et al] are even more solid; these guys have a really wide palette of tone colors to work with, yet they never sound unblended, probably because they're always committing.

But the reharm on second chorus [particularly at 1:00] doesn't work quite as well as the first, and the third(!) verse more static than the second, which is an unusual way to arrange. A V7(+9) [1:23] bodes well, though, and sure enough the last chorus [1:24] has four different layers going on-- bass/perc, lead improv, a duet on melody, "bah" background, "guitar" background-- and it's almost bewildering. And then after a build-up including Keith's long melisma, it ends really sloppily with some sort of missed cue and a rushed whole-group thing that doesn't match the well-coordinated vibe of the rest of the song. Argh.

Afro-Blue has some good textures on "The Best of My Love", and it starts out using their ten voices more economically than they usually do on pop tunes-- girls on the horns, guys on the piano (as opposed to the recent trend of "girls on the backgrounds, guys not doing anything in particular"). This song, with its iconic horn hits on V9sus and I7sus, establishes disco as the kind of pop music that's most in their wheelhouse.** I'm surprised they're not throwing more 7ths on the I chords that lead back to IV [e.g. 0:32]. It's a good blend at the beginning, but by the first chorus [0:42] it falls apart a bit; there's some guys doing figures that stick out for both dynamic and intonation reasons, including a meandering line ("dee-ba-dah"?) that doesn't fit anywhere and sounds out of breath, which is a shame because everyone else is well synched up (although the whole break-up-into-five-couples choreography they do seemingly every week is getting clichéd for them). The transition at the end of the chorus [0:57] sounds like it wasn't rehearsed. We finally get some jazzy changes on the second verse [0:58-1:06] that take us the sub-dominant when we expect to be at the tonic, but by end of the verse [1:06-1-09] it sounds random, like it's some other group trying to arrange like Afro-Blue and not pulling it off. The second chorus [1:16] is stronger, although a group at this level shouldn't be doing "bah bah bah" horn figures like that (something on text would be more up their alley). At least the end of the bridge [1:35] has a big V9sus. In the coda there's flat-out wrong notes going on [1:45], and I fear that this might be the end of the line for them if I were judging. The ending [1:52] is on a note of mediocrity-- it's not a climax, it's just a I9sus, and doesn't bring anything new.

Afro-Blue has fallen off their game again. Ben may or may not have agreed with me, it's hard to tell; I'm not sure if be brings up their jazz strengths to say "That jazzy arrangement was so Afro-Blue" or "Afro-Blue, what happened to your jazz arrangements?" I'm with the latter, though I suspect Ben meant the former as a way to justify keeping them in for another week. This is yet another disappointing performance by Afro-Blue, by which I mean just plain really good in general, as opposed to mind-bending like we've seen and heard before. In the first three round this would've gotten them by, but at this hair-splitting point of the season, these kind of mistakes could get you eliminated, and sound mediocre compared to the other groups' sounds we're hearing tonight. Still, it's good enough for an embedding (and I might as well with all the time-stamping):

I'm not crazy about "Let's Get It On"*** as a song, but Pentatonix worked it like hell anyway, landing on the downbeats strongly and having no trouble setting up the slow jam. Mitch's opening guitar: awesome. Avi's bass: awesome. And Mitch & Kirstie stay within a 4th of each other! Only complaint: like the Aires, they don't stick with a flavor of V chord, going between V9sus [e.g. 0:27] and regular V [e.g. 0:53 & 1:44] for no apparent reason (and there's a lot of V in this song-- like, every eight beats). Bridge: solid. Scott continues to make his case for strongest lead singer of the show, icing it with his lydian arpeggio (II over I) to end the song [1:54].

I've become more of a fan of the departing Vocal Point in the last few weeks****; "Every Little Step" (from hour 1), particularly the beginning of Keith's lead, the echo on "I take" and Tanner's insane solo have been stuck in my head all week. I've been under the assumption that having two all-male pop-oriented collegiate groups in the top 4 is a no-no for the producers, so if I had to choose between the two, really split hairs (which the show is pretty much down to anyway, since they're obviously trying to keep Afro-Blue despite their recent stumbles) and base it on the "season series", Vocal Point was the better one to eliminate by a hair. As much as I've grown to appreciate these guys, I'm on board with Shawn's comment***** that, as much fun (and technically brilliant) as "Ain't Too Proud To Beg" was, it didn't grab you or "take you to church" (ironic for an openly religious group)-- the lack of maturity in their voices was their undoing. Of course, this leaves the door open to eliminate the Aires next time, if you follow the "college = lack of maturity" logic, but Michael O.O.'s voice has been praised countless times by the judges at this point, and now Xavier has proven his worth.

On the other hand, can you really imagine the higher-ups at Sony Music being eager to draw up the recording contracts for the fifty fifteen guys in the Aires? If they're considering a Straight No Chaser kind of situation, I feel like the meteoric multimedia success of SNC was like capturing lightning in a bottle, and the Aires won't be quite the same phenomenon even if they take first prize. Still, it couldn't hurt, and I'm sure the inevitable advance-recouping tours from any of the remaining acts will be amazing.

My Facebook feed is full of cast members eagerly talking about reuniting in Los Angeles… next Monday? So next Monday's episode is live? Partly live? Either way I'm not going to like seeing anybody get kicked off.

* Note for the music dorks: I'm using capital roman numerals for all chords from now on, regardless of their majority or minority )or diminishedness), for typographical clarity. Assume that roman numerals alone mean major; I'll add "mi" for minor or "dim" for diminished. Sayin'.)

** By the way, if anyone wants an incomplete SAATTB mashup arrangement of The Emotions' "The Best Of My Love", The Eagles' "The Best Of My Love" and Cheryl Lynn's "To Be Real", hit me up. The chart's been sitting on my hard drive for, like, ten years.

*** I'm going to assume that the "tension" that Pentatonix dealt with earlier regarding lyrical content was manufactured. (Not that I missed the crasser lines they took out of "OMG", believe me.)

**** I knew them from the 2006 ICCA Finals, as I've mentioned before, but it took me some time to warm up to them on this show.

***** I've seen many Sing-Off conspiracy theories on the intertubes, including that the producers ask the judges to negatively comment on groups to justify eliminating them later. I want to believe that this isn't true, so I'll take Shawn's comment (and Ben's agreement) at face value. If the theories are true, then the producers are obviously maneuvering the eliminations so that the final three are the most palatable choices for a recording contract. And that doesn't bode well for any "collegiate" group on this show ever. (Afro-Blue is billed as a Howard Univ. group, but they've obviously got a true "band" going on there, as opposed to the revolving door of a typical college a-cappella group.


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 (Best Musical Comedy Act, 2002 Time Out New York year-end awards), 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

5th Judge: The Sing-Off, Episode 3-8 (Nov. 7): Top 6 (1st hour)

5th Judge: The Sing-Off, Episode 3-8 (Nov. 7): Top 6 (2nd Hour)

5th Judge: The Sing-Off, Episode 3-9 (Nov. 14): Top 5 (1st Hour)


Not buying the producers driving the judges rumor

Great post, as always.

In general, while I'm sure the producers, record company folks have a say, overall the performances on the show seem to drive the outcome.

Its a bit hard to tell how much of a 'college group' Afro Blue really is, but assuming they are one, this year's Sing Off has had truly sensational college groups. That said, I agree that Sony can't be too eager to go into the last show loaded with them. So, as much as I loved Vocal Point, they had to go.

I guess we'll see tonight. I think Urban Method has the furthest to go to stay in it, but if I were a record company exec I might really want to have them in the finals as having the most potential for a hit record.

Anyways, nothing can stop Pentatonix from winning it all. Scott has the double-whammy of having an amazingly versatile voice AND yet one that is completely recognizable as his own.

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