HomeBlogsWarren B.'s blogThe Sing-Off, episode 4-1 (Dec. 9): season premiere (1st hour)

The World Series of contemporary a-cappella returns, leaner, meaner, and Jewel-ier.

[Sing-Off critiques are simul-blogged at CASA.org.]

So here we are again, bless NBC's and Mark Burnett's hearts, with another season of the original American edition of The Sing-Off. Part of me is very disappointed that they've slimmed down the season to ten groups, but the March-Madness-like bracket system they had last time was kinda out of control, so it's proabably for the best. And if the show is back, then I'm back; CASA.org has a compendium of everything I've written on The Sing-Off going back to December 2009, if you're curious.

This episode is hilariously entitled "The Sing-Off is Back!", just in case anybody thought that the 24-month hiatus was too short to help make a distinction between seasons. [Full episode video here.]

Technical note: I watched this episode with sound coming from my 20-year-old PSB Alpha speakers, and then watched it again on my new headphones (beyerdynamic DT 770 [80 ohms]), and not surprisingly it's like another show that way, with the separation of parts and the bass in the middle of your head. Like with most a-cappella nowadays, I highly recommend the headphone route to get the detail that the sound crew manages to capture in such a chaotic environment. Although there've been many, many, many online opportunities for me to see and/or hear the groups competing tonight ahead of time (NBC's short-lived release of a video that hadn't been cleared by their licensing department notwithstanding), I'd made a point of not seeking out any videos or other recordings of any kind of any of the groups. I did have a cursory knowledge of Vocal Rush from their numerous videos of their "Bottom of the River," but that's it. I was hoping they wouldn't resort to performing that particular song again, but hey, you can't have everything.

Carson Daly concludes The Voice at 9:02 PM with an enthusiastic exhortation to watch The Sing-Off next, and... whoa! The show just starts with the opening group number! What, no quick-cut montage of previous season highlights narrated by Nick Lachey? No self-aggrandizing clips of the Today show hosts talking up the show? No desperate references to Pitch Perfect and other things that supposed prove the "phenomenon" that a-cappella supposedly is now? Pretty ballsy, but also pretty shrewd, considering that they need to immediately engage the half of their audience who just forgot to change the channel at 9:03.



Considering that it starts with a not-to-fancy string of triads, or perhaps because it starts with a not-to-fancy string of triads, "Some Nights" sounds enormous (although that's including the pre-recorded tracks that are snuck in here and there). The choreography at 0:08 confuses me, with all the legs moving but no singing. At 0:26 they hit this massive earthshaking V7, which strikes me as out of character for a pop song, but I listened to the original and it's there, so I'll live with it.

The season premiere opening number is always entertaining, whether it's the American, Chinese, Dutch or French series, because it's a fascinating look into how the producers have already pigeonholed groups based on their age, gender, occupation or regional origin. (The Children of the Corn look of the Fallin Family last season still cracks me up.) The acoUstiKats (oh boy, that capiltalization is going to get tiresome after a while) of the Univ. of Kentucky continue the costume designers' urgent need to repeatedly remind the viewers that point-collared blazers is shorthand for collegiate. I do appreciate that they're using red-orange to tie everybody together, even it's not my favorite color ever. I'm not sure what they going for, though, with the sparklers that Element are precariously carrying from upstage. (That must be why they upgraded the set-- the old one burned down, dog-food bowls and all.)

Ideally, a season-premiere group number clearly establishes each groups musical style (who can forget Committed's first appearance in season 2!), and so far we haven't heard anything particularly unique between groups, which is why the ascending add9's in Filharmonic's section (1:47) feel so complex by comparison. Finally, actual color tones! I was hoping that Street Corner Renaissance would have a similar uniqueness, but alas no. (What is it about doo-wop groups and pivoting back and forth?) Ten (or is TEN, as I've read previously?) (2:14) shows some serious energy as they invert ever higher, so there's hope yet. (It's nice to see that Nicole Scherzinger is back, this time with Calle Sol. That's her at 2:24, right?) The Footnotes of Princeton Univ. (2:33) are not wearing pointy-collared blazers, and it's seriously throwing me off-- how are we supposed to distinguish the college students from the others if the costumes aren't telegraphing their academic status? How, I ask, HOW?! I'm just glad they were able to take time off from subbing for Wink Martindale in 1978.

And after an enormous tonic chord... after two year absence... it's the return of The Theme To Dullsville via Partridge Family and Glee. Ugh. But the bitter taste of the theme song is offset by Shawn Stockman's boundless enthusiasm for this show. God love 'im.

Nick is apparently still under contractual obligation to disclaim the entire umbrella of "a cappella": "No guitars, no bands, just voices." YES, WE KNOW THAT. WE HAVE ALWAYS KNOWN THAT.

Nick also brings up this mysterious Ultimate Sing-Off. My initial reaction was to beg the Lord above that it won't be based on the bizarre riff-off scene from Pitch Perfect, where groups had to improvise arrangements based on certain criteria. Mark Burnett is involved now, and I'm sure he would want something a little less prone to mistakes... and turns out my hunch was right, because the Ultimate Sing-Off, a/k/a the Battle Round, turns out to be a fantastic addtion to the show. More on that later.

And finally, after Nick kibbitzes with the judges... the singing. Remember singing? It's done with voices, if you didn't hear Nick earlier.

Vocal Rush's package doesn't exactly bode well for them, with a weak group tone; it kind of reminds of fellow high-school group Soul'd Out's intro in season 3, and those guys were eliminated in the first round. (And isn't the expression "age is nothing but a number" supposed to refer to older people acting younger, not the other way around?) I know Vocal Rush mainly for "Bottom of the River," a song that I saw done freakin' twice in two shows during the 2012 ICCA season (and that's before seeing Vocal Rush themselves, as newly crowned ICHSA champs, at the 2013 ICCA final). I had complained on Facebook this year that I didn't understand the appeal of the song, and frankly I still don't; to me, raw and dark does not necessarily equal interesting. I was hoping that this "greatest hit" of theirs wouldn't be their first song. And... it is, so nuts to me.



A lot of power, to be sure. However, they're taking a cue from original which has a weird arrangement, with low "inner" parts that are so low they become fake bass parts (like at "the mornin' baby" and "early warnin'"), and "fake bass" parts have brought down the best of them on this show. I can hear the argument: "That's not a fair thing to criticize, because that's the way the original is." Should they have corrected it? Yes, a thousand times yes. In 2003, back in the day when ICCA judges could meet with groups after a show and debrief them, I told a group flat-out that I thought that a particular song was harmonically boring and that I held it against them; the MD said "But that's the way the song goes," and I replied "Well, your repertoire is your choice, and you should've chosen a better song." Point being, if something in a song is problematic and gets in the way of the otherwise supposed awesomeness of the song, fix it! But I digress-- these guys do have an amazing and ballsy blend, and of course there's the crazy stepping near the end, which rushes a bit but in a way that make it even more impressive, and Jordan shows the general public why she shared Outstanding Soloist at the ICHSA final this year.

Much respect to Home Free, who seem to working their butts off on the road year-round. In their adorable intro package, Austin says something that usually raises a red flg with me-- "Normally a-cappella is clasical, barbershop, or it's all pop these days..."-- and I have a knee jerk reaction, thinking this is season 1 all over again, i.e. here we go again with what a-cappella isn't. Fortunately he goes on to explain the dearth of country music in a-cappella, and you know what? I buy that.



(Nick's tendency to take on the stereotypical mannerisms of a genre continues into a new season. "Florida-Georgia Lahhhn"? His sudden swag when introducing anything hip-hop last season was equally uncomfortable.)

When I was singing bass with a rock quintet many years ago, an audience member joked that the bass, VP and whoever's soloing are the actual band and the other two guys (usually doing some background rhythmic part) are expendable for that song. The way to not make them expendable is to make the top three voices a true trio, and Home Free do that here in spades ("nice clear tones, not a lot of vibrato," as Jewel says). It also doesn't hurt that their bass Tim has SACK. Sweet Lord. As a group they're very tight and have the quintet formula down in their sleep; their Achilles hill, of course, will be if a sextet comes along and make their quintet's "lead trio" formula empty by comparison. (Oooooo, foreshadowing!)

The Princeton Univ. Footnotes' intro package is killing me with its lack of self-awareness. KILLING ME. "We are not a stuffy group that fits any sterotypical Ivy League mold." Um, yes you are. In fact, you sound EXACTLY how I thought you'd sound. EX. ACT. LY. In further fact, this is most stuffy, stereotypical Ivy League group I have ever seen. And adding fuel to the fire, this might be the worst-sounding intro package ever-- exposed dissonances (in "I Get a Kick Out of You"), an inappropriate tone for jazz, an inappropriate tone for rock, parallel fourths for no good reason, a horrible imbalance in general... not a good sign.



And then the intro to "I Knew You Were Trouble" starts, and... it's really good! Thick IVadd9 and Vadd9 (assuming we're in major) block chords create an unexpected dark mood. When they go uptempo, though, the energy is lost, not because they don't literally have energy, but because they're arranging way too low in the backgrounds-- dare I again say "stereotypical Ivy League"?-- and having three basses is really dragging them down (though somehow the Dartmouth Aires dealt with that all the way to the finals last season). The half-time breakdown is straight out of the Pentatonix playbook-- I must admit I love when people jump downstage in sync-- and there are some bright moments interspersed amongst the generally still-too-low arranging. Shawn makes a point about appreciating the strength of the inner parts, and I'm not sure An aside: Jewel (agreeing with me on the bass front) is talking about building pitch from the bottom, and talking about basses hitting tonics and whatnot. Ben's got some competition in the talking-technical department, which is a-okay with me.

And just in time to possibly derail Home Free, along comes a sextet (albeit a mixed one). Calle Sol's intro package has a lot of very tight moving close-harmony, and as a bonus they're in Latin rhythms, which is a good sign. Also, Puerto Rico is home to season 1 champions Nota, so, you know, no pressure or anything.



They kick in with a tight trio underneath the solo, plus a cool dissonant stab on "in the club", but then "how we do" (and later "show you how to groove") sounds rushed, like they collectively ran out of breath. Transitions, people! The stacking parts on "hey misterrrrrrrrr" (which maxes at a suprisingly low Imi[add4]) is a squandered opportunity for more awesomeness. Then comes the percussion breakdown... or is it a dance breakdown? The dancing is a lot of fun, and the guy doing timbales sounds like a guy doing timbales, so let's go with the latter. To be fair to the other VPist, Jewel makes an point about how the guy on the cowbell matched his own pitch on every hit. Not that they haven't been good so far, but they really take off in the last chorus, where the groove really gels better. And then the ending just sort of ends, like the rushed transitions earlier on.

Shawn's point about "filling up that middle" is the aspect that keeps the theoretical superiority of the sextet in check; the four women are the main block singers, all of them apparently mezzos and sopranos, and there is this acoustic hole that they have to figure how to fill, or get around.

Good God, I love good streetcorner singing, with its open tone color that makes a plain major chord sound like the most soulful things you've ever heard. North Shore left way too early in season 3, and the loss was palpable. In Street Corner Renaissance's intro package, we hear that beautiful open tone, making Sonny's hilarious dig on vocal percussion not curmudgeonly but rather a "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" thing.



I'm ashamed to say I didn't recognize what song with was ("What Makes You Beautiful") in the intro-- at first, given the I-vi-IV-V progression, I was thinking it was some variation on "Runaround Sue"-- and then when they hit the hook... this is just a stroke of genius. Sonny takes a solo turn near the end, and he is vocal chameleon, starting out with a light tenor and then adding some serious grit near the end. And of course they land on a final I triad that somehow transforms into a Ima9, and it's like being transported to a basement dance in East New York in the late '50s (or so I'm told).

Thanks to limited space that would prevent all ten groups from being onstage simultaneously (or so I've heard), we've got a sort-of elimination at the end of the first hour, which for the first time in the show's history will explicitly send a group to a final "bottom two" for a head-to-head "battle" (ugh, this antagonistic terminology is killing me) at the end of the episode. (There was one last-chance battle in season 3, although I suspected it was the producers' back-door way of getting rid of Afro-Blue). Seeing as the actual taping of the show goes on for much longer than the final product we see on TV, this initally seemed quite unfair to the group that'll be sent to the battle later, as I presumed that the first group would have at least an hour's edge on them to mentally prepare and make any last-minute tweaks to their piece. Then the next day after the broadcast, musical director Deke Sharon revealed that truth is even more meticulous than fiction. But that's for later.

Street Corner Renaissance, Vocal Rush and Home Free are declared safe, and Calle Sol makes the final spot to move on, leaving the Footnotes to twist in the pre-battle wind. Now, although it's never been explicitly explained over the years (that I can recall), I'm going to go on the presumption that any two remaining "unsaved" groups are the true "bottom two" of an elimination, as opposed it being the bottom one plus some arbitrarily chosen group. With that in mind, it's interesting that Calle Sol, who had too much high range, was at the bottom with the Footnotes, who had too much low range. Acoustic holes sink ships, people. Well, seeing as it's common knowledge that a college group will not win on this show, it might be best to rip the Footnotes' bandage off now.

[To be continued.]