“The Sing-Off” Recap, Episode 1: Everybody Wants To Rule The World

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Before I started this here blog at Harmony Avenue, I was over at Blogger trying a few different things (a personal “here’s what’s happening in my life”-style thing, a poetry blog with some friends), and one of them was a blog devoted to recaps of “Dancing With The Stars” and “American Idol.” It’s still sitting there out in cyberspace, but since I wanted to completely throw myself into this endeavor blogging-wise, I’ve kind of left it pretty much alone. So why am I telling this story at the beginning of a post? Well, for a bit last year, I also included another fun reality show in the mix…”The Sing-Off,” the a cappella-singing competition NBC was running for a few weeks in December. The main reason I started watching was because one of the groups was from my very university, AND I knew the lead singer…but all the a cappella music goodness drew me in, and even after that particular group went home, I kept watching. The show has returned for a second season this year, and since I thought about it, and this is a music blog, and it’s a music program, in a little experiment that I hope turns out well, I’m going to try and merge my past and present blogging endeavors, and recap “The Sing-Off” once again. (If you aren’t watching the show, you should. If you refuse to do so…don’t worry, there’s only 5 episodes, so I won’t be writing TOO much about it.) So here we go! How did “The Sing-Off” premiere play out tonight?

  • Eleventh Hour (a group from Kettering, OH): These high-schoolers kicked off the season (well, after the incredibly amazing intro song by all the groups, anyway), and at the time, I thought they didn’t too bad with (shudder) Justin Bieber’s “Baby.” Looking back, though, they don’t stand out as one of the front-runners in the competition. They definitely improved on the song a lot (then again, how hard is it to improve on a mop-top-headed teen that sounds like a girl? Harsh, but true…), and they had a pretty good blend from what I remember, but their sound was a bit too bright and unfocused, and they simply just didn’t create a huge identity for themselves. I liked it, but I didn’t love it. Major props to them for landing a spot on a national TV show in high school, but I have a feeling that with the level of competition we saw elsewhere tonight, Eleventh Hour likely won’t last even close to the stage of the competition with the same name as their group.
  • On The Rocks (Eugene, OR/University of Oregon): Hey! That YouTube hit version of “Bad Romance” that they were talking about with this group tonight? I totally saw that a while ago. It was pretty fun. Their upgraded version, tonight, was just as much of a blast, but it revealed some flaws in On The Rocks that might put them, well, on the rocks (hey, I’m a sucker for puns… :)) in the later stages of the game. Ben Folds was right in noting that their pitch wasn’t too perfect, and I also didn’t quite dig their “ooh! we’re crazy college guys singing Lady Gaga!” shtick at times. It kind of made their performance seem a little gimmicky. Their high-energy style is likely to be an asset to them as they go forward (it certainly brought up my personal enjoyment level a few notches), but like they said themselves, they have to be more than one-trick ponies.
  • Groove For Thought (from Seattle, WA): Full disclosure: I’m a HUGE jazz fan. (You probably noticed just a BIT of that on the blog so far. :)) So the part in the intro package where Groove For Thought mentioned they’re more of a jazz-oriented group definitely made my ears perk up. But that wouldn’t have mattered too much had their performance (of Stevie Wonder’s classic “I Wish”) fallen flat…but it didn’t. It kind of pretty much rocked. (Or would it be jazzed?) Their harmonies were tight and delicious (weird words to describe music, I know, but sometimes they just need to be used), and their performance vibe was both classy and vibrant. They brought an interesting twist to the song, and Nicole Scherzinger (using full names today for those unfamiliar with the judges on the program) had a moment of lucidity and accuracy (they’re not too common with her, but I love her now anyways) when she cited the group’s “warm” sound. That’s the great thing about vocal jazz groups…the harmonies are complex and dissonant (“clashy,” as I sometimes like to call them), but the end result, when done right, is sharp, beautiful, and indeed warm. I was glad to see Groove For Thought move on (they weren’t exactly as “flashy” as the other 4 groups in the first half, and the judges did make a few off decisions last year, so you never know), and as one of my favorites, I’m really excited to see what they do going forward.
  • Pitch Slapped (from Boston, MA/Berklee College of Music): You know the judges aren’t playing games when they send the group from the most prestigious contemporary music school in the country home first. I was intrigued to see what the folks of Pitch Slapped would come up with (their intro package was kind of nice), but the pieces of the puzzle just didn’t really fit together for them tonight, and I fully agree with Ben/Nicole/Shawn in having them be the first to go. There are a lot of current songs that work well in the a cappella genre, but I’m not quite sure “Good Girls Go Bad” is one of them. Their performance was certainly eye-popping (lots of choreography, crazy flashing lights during one section), but it had a bit too much flash and not enough substance. The lead singer’s mannerisms were off the charts on the obnoxious scale, and his vocals weren’t all that hot. His female counterpart didn’t fare much better, and her taking-off-her-glasses-and-letting-her-hair-down moment was a bit too cheesy (“Look, I’m a good girl gone bad!”) to add anything to the song. It was good singing, and Pitch Slapped’s large numbers (12 members) really helped them out tonight, but in the end, it felt like they just shouted a bunch of well-sung notes at us. Not quite a recipe for an outstanding a cappella performance there.
  • Jerry Lawson and the Talk of the Town (from Oakland, CA): “Enough of the kids…let the pros show you how it’s done.” OK, so no one really said that, but that’s the kind of vibe Jerry Lawson & the Talk of the Town sent off tonight with their ultra-uber-solid take on “Save The Last Dance.” Jerry’s been in the music world for 40+ years! And I doubt the Talk of the Town is much less experienced. All those combined years of hard work and genuine artistry really showed in their performance, and although it was one of the oldest songs of the night, and the arrangement wasn’t incredibly modern, it really came off in the end as classy, fun, and delightful to listen to and watch. The blend was just a hair off during a few fleeting moments, but none of that really affected the performance at all. It’ll be interesting to see what these folks come up with in the coming episodes, and judging from their preview of “Mercy” at the end of the show, they’re not too shabby at putting their own spin on modern fare. I really enjoyed them, and although I’m not quite sure they can go all the way yet, they certainly made an outstanding first impression.
  • (As already stated, the first elimination was Pitch Slapped. The right choice, I thought, though it was kind of a bummer to see them go, simply because even their performance didn’t quite gel, they definitely showed a lot of potential. Ah well. There’s still lots of groups to love going forward.)
  • The Whiffenpoofs (New Haven, CT/Yale University): If you were a watcher of “The Sing-Off” last season, do you remember the Beelzebubs? Those kids from Tufts that everyone loved? Yeah, I didn’t like them very much at all. Their personalities were kind of grating, their lead singers were a bit obnoxious, and in the end, I was kind of wondering why a storied collegiate male a cappella group even needed $100,000 and a recording contract at all. (I know some colleges are feeling the hurt right now as a result of the recession, but still.) So anyways, it probably goes without much saying that I wasn’t a big fan of The Whiffenpoofs tonight. They’re even more well-known than the devil children Beelzebubs (sorry, old habits die hard :)), and since they’ve been around for 100 years (literally), comments like “we invented a cappella” are actually kind of true. (But still kind of bratty. Just sayin’.) Their take on “Grace Kelly” was technically sound for the most part, but I didn’t quite dig the arrangement (the more traditional elements fell flat for me rather than added to the effect), and the lead singer hit all the right notes, but had a very unpleasant vocal tone when he wasn’t in falsetto. Also, the tuxes-and-bow-ties thing was a hindrance rather than a means of setting the group apart…I know it’s a tradition, but really? All this added up to give me the feeling that the Whiffenpoofs didn’t need to be there. After the judges’ praise, I had a feeling that they wouldn’t dare send the oldest a cappella group home so soon, but I hope they’ll grow a pair and have the courage to give this group a bit of an early exit. If they were oustandingly fresh and amazing, I wouldn’t be saying this, but they really don’t need a win.  It’s an Ivy League school, for crying out loud, and they’ve been going strong for 100 years, after all.
  • Men of Note (Cherry Hill, NJ): These guys were certainly plucky, but their performance wasn’t quite up to snuff tonight, and the judges agreed, sending them home first. “The Longest Time” is a fairly classic song, true, but seeing as the original version was an a cappella song already, you have to get really creative to make it sound anywhere near fresh. The arrangement the Men of Note had was OK, but felt a little disjointed at parts, and although their performance energy was pretty good, they didn’t exactly bring the house down. Their blend and harmonies also felt just a little below par. The fact that they have their old choir director as their “mentor” was sweet, and I have to admit they grew on me a bit as their segment of the show progressed, but I’m not too disappointed seeing them go home, especially after the 3 top-notch groups that followed them (see below).
  • Street Corner Symphony (Nashville, TN): Street Corner Symphony definitely seems like an endearingly down-home, close-knit group, and the story about one of the lead singers losing their record deal hit close to home. (My major is music, and I’m looking to be a musician, so although I haven’t gone through something like that yet, the realization that it could certainly happen to me in the future was very present.) The whole beer-drinking “unpractice” thing was kind of awkward, but also fun. And then they sang “Everybody Wants To Rule The World”…and it all came together. There were tiny, little, miniscule issues with their sound and blend, but 99% of it was pure, unadulterated good music. Their lead had a very natural flavor to his tone, and their harmonies (and the percussion) were done exceptionally well. It felt very intimate and inviting, something rare and special on a night where most of the groups were bringing their hardest-hitting numbers to the stage. Street Corner Symphony definitely earned my rapt attention, and although they’re personally not my absolute favorite, they’re pretty darn close. I can definitely see them winning the competition, and I would be quite happy with that.
  • The Backbeats (Los Angeles, CA): Watching this group was an interesting roller coaster. Before the show even started, I was excited to see them…simply because of Courtney Jensen, a former member of Noteworthy (NOTEWORTHY!!! Sorry, I’m a total fanboy :)) who can beatbox like no one’s business. Then the intro package came along and that Kenton guy rubbed me the wrong way. It kind of seemed like personality-wise, he was trying too hard. And then they took a trip to the beach and sounded OK in the small little snippets they sang, and I was wondering if they would be another SoCals (the group last year from LA that was good, but inconsistent and ultimately a bit annoying). Finally, the roller coaster prepared for its final change of altitude, as they launched into “If I Were A Boy”…and WOW, that was a terrific, terrific performance. Their lead singer…incredible. (Going from a very low, vulnerable alto range to soaring hights an octave above, all while sounding very consistent and beautiful? Major, major props to her.) Their harmonies? Top-notch. The beatboxing? Horrible. (Just kidding. It was COURTNEY FREAKIN’ JENSEN. Like it could be anything but bloody brilliant. :)) Believe it or not, I literally had the beginnings of tears in my eyes by the end. The judges hit it right on the nose when they noted that the Backbeats tapped into something powerful and special within Beyonce’s song. I don’t know how they made a simple little pop ballad into a tour-de-force of emotion, but they did, and now they’re by far one of my favorites, and I’m most certainly pulling for them to make it to the finals.
  • Committed (Huntsville, AL): Ooh, I liked them. (And judging from my glances around the Internet, a LOT of other people did too.) I was kind of worried at first during the intro package when they stated that secular, modern music was a whole new ballgame for them, and then promptly started looking in a record store, of all places (ummm…), but by the time their performance came along, all my doubts were gone. They really sold “This Love,” with a killer blend, outstanding lead vocalists, and a really incredible level of performance energy. (Plus the judges were hysterical here. Best judges’ critiquing moments of the night. :)) Shawn, who was all blown away by Committed, was really onto something when he noted that the group really did well at translating their faith and dedication to non-gospel music…and with a Maroon 5 song, to boot. I really loved Committed, and it seems like I’m not alone in that. Another strong contender to win it all? I would say so.
  • (And Men of Note were the second group tonight to go home. I wish them luck in their future endeavors. Perhaps not in their stalking random girls at the mall, though. :))

There you have it! I’m of the opinion that this season of “The Sing-Off” looks to be even better than the first. Nick Lachey sounded slightly less wooden (though I still wish his brother Drew was hosting instead); Nicole was pretty much…just as crazy and loopy as last year, but she’s totally grown on me; Shawn definitely held his own; and Ben Folds still is an expert at bringing both a high level of music knowledge and fun into his critiques. Oh, and there’s a lot of great groups. That might have helped too. 🙂 See y’all on Wednesday for the recap of Episode 2. Let me know what you think in the comments! Who did you love? Who did you hate? I also greatly welcome any suggestions on how I can improve my (still developing) recapping skills. And if you didn’t tune into NBC tonight to watch, make sure to seek it out online! You’ll definitely dig it. 🙂

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