Here we go with the finale! Three groups remain, but only one can emerge as champions. Time for the opening number. The Dartmouth Aires front man kicks things off with the solo on Michael Jackson’s “The Way You Make Me Feel.” The Pentatonix lead takes it from there, followed by the female lead from Urban Method. Interesting, slowed down version—huh, I thought you weren’t supposed to change up the tempo on a Jackson song (my hat’s still off to Sonos…). The sound isn’t exactly clean here, but it’s fun and the groups move quite well, working out the choreography.
It’s mashup strikes back/judges’ choice tonight, and boy are the groups mashing the heck out of this opening number. The Pentatonix frontman leads us off with a sample of “Bittersweet Symphony,” then the ladies take us in a different direction on “Hollaback Girl,” before The Aires transition us onward into “Baba O’Reilly.” The ladies of Urban Method take the lead on the weakest link in the chain, “Last Friday Night (TGIF)” then the mashing gets fast and furious with bits of all the preceding songs weaving into one another for the strongest part of the medley.
November 11-13 marked the ninth annual SoJam. For the uninitiated, SoJam is an a cappella festival coordinated by The Contemporary A Cappella Society (CASA). Among the highlights of this year’s festival were a collegiate competition that included two 2011 ICCA finalist groups (the full review starts below), a dynamite professional group showcase, a series of workshops, and a pair of memorable end-of-the-day after parties. I’ll get into more sundry thoughts on the weekend at the end of this post, but right up front, I wanted to give a quick shout out to a few of the a cappella luminaries we had the pleasure of connecting with this weekend: Overboard's Alfredo Austin; world champion beatboxer and out-of-this world bass fromThe Boxettes Bellatrix; LA-based music director and arranger, and alum of the SoCal VoCals Ben Bram; long-time CASA board member and Recorded A Cappella Review Board (RARB) coordinator Benjamin Stevens; recorded a cappella virtuoso Bill Hare, A Cappella Records founder/president and CASA board member Chris Crawford; Mouth Off podcast hosts, CASA extraordinaires, and all-around swell guys Chris Diaz and Dave Brown, ACB Who’s singing blogger and Syracuse Orange Appeal all-star Keith Tripler; superstar of The Sing-Off’s Delilah, Berklee Pitch Slapped, and Musae Hannah Juliano; The Vocal Company’s UNC Sapphires alum Jill Clark, Liquid 5th Productions’ Josh Chopak; uber-talented member The Sing-Off’s Kinfolk 9 and Musae Kari Francis; L's Arrangements’ female a cappella arranging guru Laura Long; Musae co-founder, Acalosophy blogger, and all-around a cappella wonder woman Lo Barreiro; the mastermind behind SIN3G Mark Torres; RARB publisher and founder of Columba Nonsequitur Michael Marcus, a cappella evil genius and the guy behind the new Human-Feedback Rob Dietz, Voice Box's Sean Matthews and Brendan McCann; and the arranger extraordinaire behind Random Notes Tom Anderson. In addition, though I didn’t get to meet him, I was thrilled to walk away with my copy of Stephen Harrison’s newly released Acapolitics novel (ACB review pending!).
It’s R&B (both contemporary and retro) night on The Sing-Off. Our group number is an R&B medley that kicks off with James Brown’s “I Feel Good.” The Dartmouth Aires soloist gets the lead opening up, then hands it off to the Pentatonix front man. A mix of Afro-Blue, Urban Method, and Vocal Point takes the lead from there, shifting through “ABC” by the Jackson 5. Next up is “Crazy in Love” by Beyonce. Really fun, particularly when Afro-Blue has the lead on it. The rap guy gets a nice little spotlight for the Jay-Z bit. It may seem counterintuitive that the group numbers get stronger as the cast shrinks, but, in a sense, I think the ability to spotlight eah group more, and the smaller numbers all around are creating more cohesion on these big group sings. I dig it.
The Aires kick things off, singing R. Kelly’s “Ignition (Remix)”--not the sort of high energy song I would necessarily anticipate from them. The leads are charismatic, but just don’t sound quite as urban as I’d really like make this work. Fun little bit of choreographed walking on the “bounce, bounce” part. Smart cut forward to the “after the show” part, and a pretty sublime moment as the guys thrust their pelvises in slow motion as they slide their way up a scale. This is the kind of moment that’s a little silly and not necessarily family friendly, but goes along way toward asserting identity as a collegiate all-male group, which, by its nature, probably isn’t going to be entirely sanitized. I dig it. The breakdown is a lot of fun, and it feels like they really hit their groove there. Fun little succession of “beep, beep”s on the close. It took a little time for the guys to work their way into this song, but I really liked how it wrapped up.
It’s rock n roll/country night on The Sing-Off. The group number of the week is Arcade Fire’s “Wake Up”. Pentatonix front guy leads off quite well, and Delilah picks up and the ball and runs with it from there. Sublime wall of sound moving ahead, with the Vocal Point guys riffing off it. Urban Method gets its moment, then The Aires soloist says “heck no, this is my moment,” after which the Pentatonix an Delilah leads challenge him, before Urban Method gets it back. Afro-Blue is, oddly, the lone group up in the stands. I guess they couldn’t choreograph them in. But oh, wait, the whole crowd has a hand in the air waving, so I guess the entire studio is in on the choreo for this one. All in all, a pretty cool number that worked well for the uber-group formula, and I’d actually be interested to hear a regular-sized ensemble take it on.
Pentatonix kicks off the evening’s competition with Steppenwolf’s “Born To Be Wild.” The behind the scenes package shows that the woman is feeling sick—dangerous for a five-person group. Nice motor-simulation bass on the opening, and killer perc as always. Fun use of the steps on stage to stagger the group’s entrances. The sound is a little thin on the verse but masked well behind the bass and perc. Good call to go choral on the chorus. The whole group falls out, then flies into the second verse—excellent dramatic choice. I really don’t like the backing vocals here (said the broken record) because they just sounds so thin with only two people behind them. When they let loose and focus less on harmonies that echo the solo, and more on providing texture to the melody, the song takes off. The interesting thing I’m finding with this group is that, when the bass and perc are the stars, the group sounds killer. In more melodic pieces, I can sort of take or leave them. This was a good outing for the crew.
Sara calls the performance incredible, and says the sacrifice the group is making are all worth it. She lauds the solo. Shawn gives props to the bass and drums, calling them the driving force and the heroes behind the song. Ben—always the musical historian--points out that this song is the source of the term “heavy metal.” He says the performance was awesome.
Here come The Dartmouth Aires with Twisted Sister’s “We’re Not Gonna Take It.” Just two men on stage to open—solo and perc. The guys explode onto stage from all sides, launching into a racing tempo and pounding sound. Second rock solo is surprisingly solid—this brand of aggression is hard to pull off in a cappella, but he’s swinging for the fences and making contact. The choreography is a little too Westside Story for my tastes when they get to moving around, but the energy and pure swagger we saw from these guys in the opening weeks of the show is so clearly back that I won’t knock it—crazy what one week of the judges kissing your rear end will do for your confidence, huh? Neat little classical breakdown as the group staggers into three lines, and we’re back to a solid rock sound on the close. Really solid outing all around for The Aires.
Shawn channels Ric Flair with a big ol’ “WOOOOOOOO!” He compliments the growl of the second solo, then circles back to the first. Ben lauds the drive of the piece and the Broadway take on the opening and close. He comments they lost the pitch a little on the bridge, but recovered quickly. Sara praises the group’s versatility and ability to blend theatrical performance, humor and rock, and takes her hat off to the percussionist.
Third out of the tunnel is Afro-Blue singing “American Girl” by Tom Petty & The Heartbeakers. Very clean soaring vocals on the open. Jazzy little beat on the verse. Solo is good, but a little too animated for my tastes in a sort of uncomfortable, trying too hard way. In the lead-in Afro-Blue talked about stripping down to basics, and not over-thinking the sound, but when this group dumbs things down, they demote themselves to the status of “really good jazz group” which just isn’t as appealing or interesting as the crossover work they’ve shone with in the past. Weird choice to cut straight to the instrumental section next. This is the first part I’d cut if I only had two minutes to work with. They transition to a sample of the National anthem which is reasonably well executed ,but pretty forced in terms of thematic connection. I definitely could have done without it. Part of the problem is that this song is a rock anthem in which a man pays tribute to American girls; having a female lead really redefines it, and all the cutesy effects don’t help matters. Jazz breakdown of the chorus on the close, which I’m lukewarm on. Musically, this was all fine, but I think these are the poorest artistic decisions we’ve ever heard from this group.
Ben says the top was especially good, and the group members were themselves on the melody. He didn’t like the National Anthem sample for lack of a connection to the song itself. He comments on the conflict between finding an identity and being accessible; he challenges the group to be more complex, but deceptively so. Sara calls the group fantastically talented but says she didn’t see the group in this performance, and couldn’t really feel them. Shawn says he loves hearing Afro-Blue sing, but in this song, they seemed intimidated by the rock genre and it didn’t relate to the group as well as it should have.
Next up, Delilah is here with Aerosmith classic “Dream On.” The blend is a little off on the opening, but holy poop do I love this solo—particularly when she rips en route to the chorus. The bass is killing it. Nice, sudden escalation, cutting straight from the chorus to the bridge. That’s what it’s about when it comes to trimming a song for the context. The solo steps out front and gets the wind blowing in her hair for the high notes and… she… kills it. Lots of fun staccato bursts from the group behind her—easy to not notice them behind this star-making solo performance. Superb!
It’s mashup night this Halloween on The Sing-Off. The group number starts off with “This is Halloween” from Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas. Interesting choice, with enough animation on the voices that everyone can find of find its own natural place in it. The Pentatonix lead guy takes us in another direction with Warren Zevon’s “Werewolves of London.” Fun. I like that this lead-in is honoring both the holiday and the mashup theme, though I do not envy the groups that needed to learn fragments of these songs in addition to their own three song pieces for their individual mashups. Ray Parker’s “Ghostbusters” is next on the docket. Fun fusion of vocal bits with some pretty cool, basic choreography. This may not be the most musical opening number we’ve heard on the show, but I’ll be darned if it wasn’t the most fun.
Urban Method leads us off with a mashup of Rihanna songs. The group starts with “What’s My Name.” First solo is meek and starts a little flat. We’re back to the overtop theatrics with the rap guy and first solo adancing up on one another—I don’t like it. This soloist neither looks nor sounds comfortable in the least. The beatbox is solid, but nothing else about this is really wowing me. “Umbrella” is the second leg. The solo is better, though also a bit understated here. Nice crescendo from the group sliding into the chorus. I could very much live without the box step choreography. And what’s with this E-Z listening backup vocal take on the chorus? This should be a power point in the medley, and they’re positively blowing it. On to the third leg, “Only Girl in the World.” Best solo yet, and the group seems most comfortable on this part, though the group still just doesn’t seem to have its usual swagger. Nice moment as the earlier soloists mash in their parts toward the close—probably the best element of the performance. I appreciate the decision to put the girls up front and prove that they can go, but the way things turned out, this went much further toward confirming my doubts than getting me on board the Urban Method bandwagon.
Sara says parts of this song really worked—particularly the end. She questions the group’s confidence early on, and wants them to sing their butts off more from the get-go. Shawn praises the decision to put the women front and center to show what the ladies can do. He compliments the final soloist, but asks the second soloist for more bravado. Ben says the transitions were really cool, and showed their production sensibilities. He thought “What’s My Name” worked well, but things came unglued in “Umbrella.” He says they wrapped up well on “Only Girl in the World,” and that, all in all, the girls did just fine.
Vocal Point is here with an Elvis Presley mashup. They kick things off with “Don’t Be Cruel.” They go old school announcer style on the intro, which is a fun little touch. Very basic start to the music with the soloist lent plenty of room to operate. He’s good, but not quite as bold as I’d really hope for on an Elvis song. Abrupt transition to “Can’t Help Falling In Love With You” but it’s the right choice on soloist here, with the “The Way You Look Tonight” guy. Very slick. Interesting maintenance of the earlier tempo which makes the overall mashup sound more cohesive, but also robs the song of it a bit of its emotion. The tempo changes as the song moves along, which is interesting and well-executed. Nice moment as the guys spread out and the soloist rips loose on the final bit. Smoother transition to “Jailhouse Rock” and the “Zoot Suit Riot” front man. This is very similar to that first performance we saw from Vocal Point this season, fueled on tons of choreography and a soloist who is as entertaining of a showman as anyone who has ever been on this show. You can see the influence of this group’s International Championship of Collegiate A Cappella experience in how they constructed this medley. The ICCAs give you twelve minutes to work with, which usually means three songs, with which each group has a good amount of space to show its range and work in its best licks. Smart work.
It’s hip-hop hits week here on The Sing-Off. In the opening we learn there will be a one-on-one sing-off between the bottom two groups this week. Let the drama build. The show opens on “Nothin’ On You” by B.O.B. featuring Bruno Mars. The Vocal Point dude is the first to sound out of place in the genre. Urban Method gets a nice long bit to let loose, followed well by Pentatonix. Delilah and Ruby from The Collective take their part. By Ruby’s standards, this is understated—I’ll take it. Unfortunately, the vast majority of the cast follows Vocal Point’s lead sounding like they’re singing too carefully and just don’t fit here. The key to this episode is readily apparent—own the hip hop the way Urban Method and Pentatonix are likely to do, or reinvent a song to your interests. I fear anything in between is going to fail miserably.
As much as it’s a bit lame that we don’t get a competition performance before the break, I like the concept of the background video here. Hearing the groups talk about the challenge of getting 2 hip-hop songs ready this week is interesting and, particularly for those of us in the audience who haven’t performed like this, it demonstrates that getting music together on the fly isn't as easy as the Glee kids make it look...
The Dartmouth Aires lead us off this week. They’re singing Flo Rida’s “Club Can’t Handle Me.” Squeaky clean classical sound on the opening. The guys just plain don’t look natural here. Way out of their element. The rap is on tempo to the guy’s credit, but the tone just plain is not connecting here. The guys are working the stage fairly effectively, but even the energy seems subdued for their discomfort with the music. I’m not hearing the low end. The lead guy gets a few moments of attitude and gets his power note at the end as the group swells nicely behind him. The good news is that this got much stronger toward the end, and they left on a good note. I just don’t think much about the song worked prior to that point, though.
Sara loved the energy and that the guys enjoyed what they were doing. She thought the guys sounded rushed early, but they found themselves and their swagger later on. Shawn says they kept the attitude of the song while lending their own spin to it. He talks about the importance of having fun and letting the music flow, and says they pulled it off. Ben says it was fun and lauds the way in which two of the hey parts blended. He describes the sound as polka hip hop, and says they found their tempo toward the end. He compliments the tenors.
Here comes Afro-Blue with their take on The Fugees’ take on “Killing Me Softly.” Smart way of blending what’s more natural for them with the theme of the episode, but let’s see how they execute it. The sound starts out loose and fun, and the group looks remarkably at ease. It sort of harkens back to Street Corner Symphony’s chill treatment of “Hey, Soul Sister” last year. Nice beat. The solo is working early on and I like the little backing harmonies they’re throwing out there. Pretty little backing on the solo for the chorus. The bass and perc are performing quite nicely. When this group gets big on some of those power chords, it’s just fantastic. This comes a bit un-complex and static relative to what we’ve heard from the group before—but that’s a lofty standard. This was comfortable and quite good. Above all else, I sort of liken this to the ICCA group that’s sort of forgettable when you watch them live, but if you buy their CD after the show, or re-listen on YouTube, you’ll be pleasantly surprised at how pleasing the sound really is.
We get a touch of battle rap banter from Ben folds and Nick Lachey. Wow, never thought I’d write that sentence. Ben calls the performance gorgeous, and credits the decision to omit the bass early on then work it in. He praises the solo. Sara calls it a flawless arrangement and performance of a classic song. Shawn says Roberta Black would be proud, and calls the bass the foundation of the group. He comments on how they sound like a record track, which is dope.
We are back for episode five. Two groups go home tonight, and we open with what Nick Lachey’s voice over touts as the biggest opening number of in Sing-Off history. Urban Method opens up the group number, Lionel Richie's "All Night Long," followed by The Deltones, then Pentatonix whose soloist over-enunciates just to annoy me. The Aires follow, then North Shore, oddly apart from everyone else up in the balcony. Then Delialah’s here back on stage. The Yellow Jackets are mixing it up in the crowd. The Collective descends the audience stairs with Ruby’s vibrato OUT OF CONTROL. Vocal Point enters the stage in similar fashion. Afro-Blue makes an entrance in style with a quasi-congo line coming from the back (not to mention the opening number’s slickest vocals). The Aires front man is doing his all to bust a gut, and Ruby is not to be outdone. Good song choice and fun enough opening number, particularly considering how many groups the number had to account for.
The Yellow Jackets are back in the opening slot. These guys definitely have something to prove this week. They’re taking on by Wannabe The Spice Girls. In the intro video, the guys acknowledge that the odds are not on their behalf being one of three remaining all-male collegiate groups. Some fun opening bits with two separate groups singing against one another. The tenor is way over the top on the solo here—cutesy and a bit graing this week. The solo to follow is better. The classical voice guy is… rubbing his pec. Uncomfortable. (Male) Posh Spice is embarrassingly British. They fade into a free-for-all of do-si-do choreography for a moment. The good news is that the bass sound is good and full here, and the group sounds very clean on its build to finish. This was fun and mostly funny, but also a bit grating. Far better than any other a cappella treatment I’ve heard of this song. This is the kind of song choice I usually balk at male groups picking for competition, but the guys took it seriously and did well, particularly under the guilty pleasure guidelines.
Sara loved that the song was fun and showed off personality. She did observe there were tuning issues and that it’s easy to over-sing. Shawn found the song strange but enjoyable, but noticed that the harmonies were a bit pitchy. Ben says it was really entertaining, and that the group worked an event into every four-to-eight bars. He notes that one of the challenges the group will have to address is giving a face to each of the voices to help them connect with the audience.
Delilah is up next with “What a Feeling” by Irene Cara from Flashdance. We open on most of the girls seated in chairs, save for the soloist. She sells the vulnerability of the opening well, though I’d like a little thicker sound from her voice—maybe she’s just saving it. The girls are up and dancing behind the solo. The solo sounds a little flat to me, the group a little more subdued than we’re used to hearing from this group. I hear the bass loud and clear and the perc is quite good, but the group sounds a little restrained otherwise. The choreo is mild. The harmonies sound a little sharp. Nice little scale-vocal-breakdown effect on the close. Good, but probably the weakest we’ve heard Delilah to date.