HomeBlogsWarren B.'s blog5th Judge: The Sing-Off, Episode 3-10 (Nov. 21): Top 4 (2nd Hour)

If you've ever watched a talent competition on TV and thought "I really wish they'd all just go for broke and leave everything they have on the stage," this is the half-episode for you. This is the most in-your-face hour of the show ever. Please put your tray tables in the upright and locked position.

[Time-stamps still need to be finalized, sorry.]

[SPOILER ALERT for near the end, kind of. Although if you're reading this and can understand it without watching and enjoying the whole thing first, stop wasting time on the Internet and use your joyless robot-like focus to go cure cancer or something.]

This show has a way of making me appreciate songs I didn't appreciate before, and Pentatonix is about to do that with "Dog Days Are Over", whose popular recording (by Florence + the Machine) doesn't seem to go anywhere and holds no interest for me. But before that, they immediately make that same arranging misstep they made last week by exposing a 6th between Kirstie and Mitch [0:08], and Kirstie is doubling Scott's note, so while it's technically a triad, it's really spread out and choral (not in a good way). But then they morph into a VImi9(no5) [0:11] that's downright chilling, partly because that's how you use dissonance, and partly because Avi is projecting a double-low B(!) that I'd be lucky to hit after a good night's sleep. They repeat the choral-to-chilling progression again, and then Mitch & Kirstie do this dead-on staccato violin-ish figure (one on 8th-notes, the other hitting a 16th-note occasionally) [0:28], which mostly stays on the tonic but sounds like it's moving even when it isn't. At this point I'm suspecting that they're going to sidestep the harmonic-boredom issue of the original song by changing the textures instead. And when they start slowly marching forward, the audience cheers [0:49], because even they know that something insane is bound to happen.

The tempo doubles, they go all-out dynamically, and by the chorus [1:08] they're doing this freaky lurching march that reminds me of either Michael Jackson's "Thriller" video or a poem that Charles Ives set to music. The descending "gone" [1:14] is really striking for some reason; there's something about the tone of Kirstie's and Scott's voices in tandem, like they were meant to shred their vocal chords together. The sudden transition from good old-fashioned screamin' into Mitch's pretty solo [1:21] confirms that they're playing with textures the way that Afro-Blue plays with harmony; this hasn't been an harmonic journey, but it's felt like a journey anyway. I get really nervous for Mitch here, because the stability of the pitch of the song is resting on his shoulders, but he pulls through.

There's a staggered entrance under the solo [1:36], and since there's no cue in the lead and we're way out of tempo, I wonder if the staggering is intentional or a subtle mistiming-- either way it's pretty! Following the most sedate harmonies we've heard from Pentatonix all season, Mitch ends with his first all-out belting note of the season (he's been saving that this whole time?), and then all belting hell breaks loose with all three uppers singing at the top of their ranges [1:52]. When Mitch & Kirstie re-sync [1:55], they're in 3rds, and this is why 3rds are better than 6ths: when the arrangement counts on volume and you've only got two voices to work with, 3rds work better acoustically, even if it doesn't complete the chord. Oh, and then this section ends with Scott belting too [2:05], and then Scott belts some more like he's being punched in the gut, and then the whole thing climaxes with all three belting for four beats [2:29] and then everyone abruptly cutting off mid-note to expose the lead; even Kevin's snare cuts off perfectly. When the audience stands to applaud, I feel like they should just drop their mics and storm off-stage. Good gravy, people.

And this is the opening number of the challenge. What a gauntlet to throw down. (And offstage, Avi's a big mush! God bless 'im.)

Considering the role that "All Of The Lights" (o/b/p Kanye West) plays in recent contemporary a-cappella lore, Urban Method had better hit this one out of the park. (A second song "featuring Rihanna"! My goodness, she's everywhere.)

Great stabs (sorry to get violent on such a violent song!) on that dissonant ostinano [x:xx] leads to an oddly blended VII* that distracts me for a moment. On Mykal's entrance, they use what sounds like a combination of their great group flange (harking back to episode 1) combined with Liz's super-cool high phasing thing. They build really well on that texture (while Mykal isn't a marquee singing soloist, he's a better singer than Kanye West), but under "ghetto university" (end of phrase) they lose the chord-- sounds like [?] is going for a III root and may have lost his intonation in his turn to Mykal, and even then it doesn't match anyone else. More good textures under the next section, but Kim and Liz(?) sing an empty 4th (implying VII) on "all of the lights" (end of phrase again), everybody loses their tuning again with the under "y'all to see this" (end of phrase yet again), and then come back to some great dissonances. Usually a group will either be well-tuned all around or not gel, but they're back-and-forth; like Afro-Blue in previous episodes, they sometime hope the energy will help them coast through but they forget to solidify their transitions between phrases.

Mykal's rap from the chair is backed with that great dissonant ostinato again (which is far better than that cheesy horn synth Kanye uses), and I could listen to that all day. At the end of the second time around… they peter out at the end of the phrase(!), like half of them forgot to sing. Weird! The rest of the section goes well, with what sounds like adapting the notes of the dissonant ostinato into block harmonies on text, and it works really well ("all I can say is ohhhhhhhh" in particular), and the transition into the bridge is really, really solid. The bridge itself is solid too and keeps up the intensity… and now, the moment we've all been waiting for: the microphone wave. I've seen groups move their mics for effect before (M-pact's technique** in particular is seared into my brain), but this takes it up a notch [x:xx].

I just wish this had been a chord and not just a unison! Man, that'd been hot! Tony's trumpet is somewhat better than [?]'s saxophone from earlier, and background block is okay, but I'm still distracted (in a good way) by the octave mic wave. They suddenly transition into loud mode, and it's a full texture, but Katie bites off more than she can chew on the high notes [x:xx]. I mean, she hits the note, but she just sounds yelpy way up there and better serves the group singing in the middle of her range, which of course is the opposite of what the judges have been implying about her. Still, they're definitely "leaving it all on the stage", and it's a very effective performance all around. And speaking of Katie and the judges…

The judges keep putting Katie on a pedestal [x:xx, x:xx], almost like they're trying to create a cult of personality around her so that voters have something to hang their mental hat on-- Mykal (or Tony or Liz or any of the rest) aren't enough? Speaking of the rest, Ozzie, previously known to me only as The Short Guy for the last nine episodes, finally gets recognized by Ben Folds; go baritones! (Well, he's marginally shorter than Tony's mohawk, anyway.)

(Why does Nick Lachey start laughing for no reason [x:xx]? A rare hiccup from the otherwise great editors? Also, in the backstage interview, I'm just now realizing how ridiculous Tony's and Mykal's outifts are: crisp purple button-downs and ties, then striped hoodies and scarves, then jackets on top… how many layers are they contractually obligated to wear? And in L.A. during the summer?!)

Shawn Stockman says here that Afro-Blue "have to understand that every song doesn't need a jazz chord, it just needs some heart." For God's sake, enough already with the "heart". Oh wait, the judges chose Sam Cooke's "A Change is Gonna Come". They're really forcing the group's hand (or heart) here!

No surprise, Afro-Blue is playing it safe (Aires-style) with Christie on the lead, and they wisely pick up the tempo from the Cooke original. Tasty five-part chords, including a IV9 - IIIalt9 - VImi9 progression they do in both A sections*** [x:xx and x:xx], raises the hope that they're going to use the jazz chords. (Yes, IV-III-VImi is in the original, but not like this.) The dynamics are really good here, even though the range so far has been from soft to very soft.

The B section [x:xx] contains Christie's best solo work of the season-- she's leaving enough on stage for everybody else-- over a certainly tasty but surprisingly harmonically static background, until they start the build to the next section, which has more pivots around on a V9 chord than most other groups' songs have total chords, and yet it seems lazy for them. And the final A section [1:40?] is awesomely twisty. I'm not even going to try to analyze the chords here, but damn this really works. (Kevin from Pentatonix stands up in his opera box to confirm this.) In the coda they repeat that great progression [x:xx], and then they start marching forward, singing in the most guttural gospel style we've heard this season [x:xx], starting low and eventually inverting up to raising the roof, melodically and metaphorically. They shout out a strong bVII/bVI that leaves us floating exquisitely in the air… and Reggie does his most overt conducting the season, which I would normally find distracting, but it's so visually effective here, it being part of the church vibe and a declaration of (presumed) finality at the end of the competition. And what's their declaration? A major triad. The simplest chord they've sung this whole season, and it's heart-breakingly powerful. "Sure, we can end on a long major chord like everybody else. Wanna hear it? Here it goes. BOOOOOOOOOOOM."

Since this is Afro-Blue's last full song of the competition, let's acknowledge what's been sitting in plain sight this whole time: we've got an (essentially) black group, from a historically-black college, promoting the best of the African-American musical tradition, singing a song about segregation (and with a white girl on alto to boot). When Christie started ad-libbing and Reggie conducted the final sequence, I teared up a little, I won't deny it. (I also teared up the second, third, fourth and fifth time I saw it. I will deny the sixth time, just so I can keep my man card.)

(I'm a little annoyed that Integriti's only "solo" moment in this whole season, aside from a mere seven beats in "I Wanna Dance With Somebody" (episode 5), is in the backstage interview. The only reason I even know her name is from NBC's web site! And earlier was the first we'd heard Ozzie's name mentioned at all on-screen. Shame on y'all, Outlaw Productions. At least mix up the interviews in the video packages so everybody gets at least one chyron at some point.)

Speaking of group members getting lost in the shuffle at the expense of soloists, here's 100 15 of them, a/k/a The Dartmouth Aires. Sara explains the judges' choice of "Shout" (o/p/b the Isley Brothers, also popularized by Otis Day & the Knights) as "bringing a party to the stage", and Samantha and I were immediately wary. I personally find "Shout" to be one of those songs that's more interesting in the verses than the choruses ("Grenade" being a more recent example), and I hope that the Aires can not only bring some harmonic interest to the chorus, but also not turn the traditional cut-time into a hoedown. And Michael O.-O.'s taking lead. Again. If they win the record contract, they may as well call them "Michael and the Aires", because I don't know half of these guys' names and might not even be able to recognize their faces, and I've been blogging this show for ten weeks.

Just like in "Sympathy for the Devil", somebody's singing a 3rd (A below middle C) of the tonic (F) out of tune over and over [x:xx], which is a problem considering half the song is on the tonic. I understand what they're trying to do with the lower syncopated figures, but it's got to hit the right pitch every time or it sounds like an afterthought. Upon further listening, it sounds like there's three guys singing that 3rd! Why?! The "say you will" part [x:xx] is less muddy-- low notes are fine as long they're offset by something else, otherwise it's like a really chipper dirge. The syncopated 3rd continues its out-of-tune charge through the arrangement, in the form of "you gotta, you gotta" [x:xx] that's worse than before. Hard to believe this is the same group that delivered a precise "Bohemian Rhapsody" and well-layered "Save a Horse..." a few weeks earlier; the frenetic choreography is taking a serious toll here.

I figure the bridge, which is traditionally slower and bluesier, will be better for them, but as good as their blend is, they seem to be singing the wrong chords; everything stays on the tonic despite the tenors reaching up to that high ^flat-7. Actually, I'm hearing lower tenors(?) singing ^b3-^2-^1 in parallel fifths with the "correct" ^b7-^6-^5 on "noooooooobody else", and it further muddles the situation. I know, I normally don't judge based on "original recordings", but both of the popular recordings of this song have so much more going on in that section, with quick I-IV-I7-IV-I progressions up top even the background, that this seems like a simplification.

Choral time! The oo's are well-blended [x:xx], but the VI back to I feels rushed, like a bad edit. Why even go back to the tonic-- why not hang out on the IV to build some tension? What's the rush? And to get us to Michael hamming it up unnecessarily? Interesting that they don't parallel that rush back to I the second time [x:xx], where they instead stay on IV for what feels like forever (to point where the guys are catching breaths all over the place) underneath [?]'s squealing and Michael's "You been so good to me"; I wonder why that choice was made.

The final section starts fairly full and high energy, and their play on the softer/louder gimmick [x:xx] is very clever. I really like the sub-section that follows the judges' cameos [x:xx], where they go all-out up-tempo gospel (I can practically see the tambourines); yes, it resembles a hoe-down, but at least it's got a lot of layers to it-- longer figures, the syncopated figures, the bass/VP of course, and somebody screaming at the top of their lungs-- and they're visually committing to it (and how!). When they all fall down the first time, here's an example of an obtrusive conductor diminishing the effect of the staging [x:xx]. If everyone is supposed to get knocked out by Michael, they could've gone with him building in a cue in his solo; it doesn't even look like anybody's looking at the conductor anyway! (Michael's charisma is reflected in Kim's grin from the opera box.)

For their first "conducted" chord, I think it's a IV, but it's a little fuzzy. And like Afro-Blue, they holler a I for their final chord [x:xx]. Verdict: Afro-Blue did it better, although that slide into it was really good.  And they do literally leave everything, including their unconscious bodies, on the stage.  (I'm not liking the visual implication here that Michael is controlling everybody and reveling in it-- living up to the "God-like" as Ben put in the video package. It's a little creepy.)

So, at the end of this party, I'm putting The Aires at the bottom, but only marginally. This is such a strong top 4, I have to split hairs, especially when taking the quality of the whole season into account. But instead, Afro-Blue and the Aires have to go head-to-head for the final spot, allegedly because the judges were deadlocked. (An odd number of judges deadlocked? Seems mathematically unlikely. Also, I heard a rumor that the judges ultimately consulted with the producers until the wee hours, but for all I know they started taping at midnight.)

Afro-Blue chose (I presume well in advance) an abridged "American Boy" for their encore, and it's stronger than the first time (in episode 3). The harmonies are thicker (skipping the opening of the verse was a good iead), the moving figures are more assured, Eliza's even sultrier on her super-short solo, the movement is more fluid, the Brooklyn shout-out is clearer, the balance on the end sequence is 100% better… oh man, this is stellar.

The opening chords of The Aires' "Somebody To Love" [x:xx] are as beautiful as they were in episode 7, but Michael seems to be hamming up even more this time. (Even the bass is looks bewildered, not in a staged way, but genuinely, like he's wondering how and/or why Michael is holding that note out for so long.) They stay on pitch, they keep up the energy, and the last chord (Iadd2, what else?) is beautiful as well, but taking the degree of difficulty into consideration, there's no contest here.

Also, taking the record contract into account in my hypothetical "decision", I'd assumed that the producers would want to get the Aires out of the way so they wouldn't have a musical fraternity-- one that also simultaneous exists in the parallel dimension of college-- to deal with. A friend on Facebook put it this way:

I just can't see the producers allowing a college group to win. It's too problematic for them. These kids are all going to drop out for a $200K music contract? Remember there are more than a dozen in the group... "Um, mom... dad… I want to drop out from Dartmouth to sing a-cappella music with 14 other guys. We even get $13,000 each! What? You never support anything I do! I hate you!"

Sara goes with the Aires… Shawn goes with Afro-Blue… and Ben, in a vague, terse statement that has launched the conspiracy theories on the intertubes again (and somewhat contradicts his own blog), goes with the Aires. The idea of a final without Afro-Blue would've been inconceivable in week 1, and honestly, I'm still having trouble conceiving it now. My favorite conspiracy theory: Sony didn't want another Take-6-style jazz-R&B group again and pushed the judges to eliminate them. If it's true: What do you want, Sony? If jazz-R&B groups are superior, then jazz-R&B groups are superior.

Well, there it is, the final round. (I'm posting this several hours after voting closed, but you should've voted anyway!) I'll chime in again with a summary of the finale and some final thoughts about the season. However, I won't be writing about the season finale in nearly as much detail as usual, as it's not a competitive episode, I'm not adept at live-action snark for snark's sake (that's this guy's job), and I'll be watching it in a bar surrounded by far snarkier people. Yay a-cappella community!

* We're in a minor key, which is rare on this show, so III, VI and VII are the minor-scale versions, i.e. "flatted" in relation to the parallel major scale (whatever it is).

** If anyone can recall the song-- it's a jazz-rock tune, I think, and they sing two quick notes on mic, then immediately pull the mics away and echo themselves-- I'd appreciate the help. I last heard it in '03(?) at the IAJE convention, probably.

*** I'm presuming the structure of the song is A-A-B-A'-coda.


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)

5th Judge: The Sing-Off, Episode 3-9 (Nov. 14): Top 5 (2nd Hour)

5th Judge: The Sing-Off, Episode 3-10 (Nov. 21): Top 4 (1st Hour)


Final episode

I agree that was a powerful last hour of the final episode.  Dog Days Are Over was my favorite performance of the entire season by any group.  I think you phrased it perfectly - Pentatonix is for texture what Afro Blue is for harmony.  And how about Avi's overtones at the beginning?

To feed the conspiracy, just go to Ben Folds blog on the nbc website.  He openly states that Afro Blue was his personal favorite.

Thanks for sharing this

I think you phrased it perfectly - Pentatonix is for texture what Afro Blue is for harmony. And how about Avi's overtones at the beginning? online high school

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