I’m not happy right now. Well, actually I am overall, because of this delightful piece of news here in my home state of Arizona. (Sorry to get all political on y’all for a fleeting second, but I couldn’t resist celebrating.) But about “The Sing-Off”…hmmm. Not so much. The result Monday night was a miscarriage of musical justice in my book, and it just seemed so wrong. So. Dang. WRONG.
Before we get to my airing out of grievances (which will most certainly involve the You-Know-Which group with “air” in their name), things started off kind of disappointingly with the opening number, “Wake Up.” If you would have told me beforehand that it would be an Arcade Fire song, I would have danced for joy and gladness. Arcade Fire and a cappella music? I never would have thought the twain should meet. However, unlike every other opening number this season, all of which have exceeded my expectations, this one just fell flat. It was kind of a combination of factors…the fact that the Dartmouth Aires started it off and I couldn’t quite tell what song it was at first; the truncated arrangement that excised one of my favorite parts of the song (the end where it switches from the well-known guitar riff to a shuffling, almost swinging bounce); the sad truth that even with all those tremendously talented vocalists on the stage, none of them really seemed to connect with the song whatsoever, instead choosing to riff all over the place in search of an emotion, but never finding one. OK, that was a bit harsh…but really, I expected more out of this, and I really didn’t get it. Feel free to keep trying, though, “Sing-Off” producers. (How about “No Cars Go”? It’s pretty much impossible to get THAT song wrong. And I’d kill to hear it in an a cappella setting.) Wow, I don’t think I’ve ever gone to town this much on a group number. And I’m afraid you’ll have to buckle your seatbelts, readers. There’s much more “going to town” where that came from. First off, the rock round…
- Pentatonix (performing “Born To Be Wild” by Steppenwolf): Week after week, song after song, Pentatonix just keeps delivering electrifying performances and wonderfully daring arrangements. They constantly change it up, and it should have gotten old by now…but for me, at least, it most certainly hasn’t. There isn’t much this group has done, or can do wrong. This was a smart, edgy take on Steppenwolf’s classic, and it (like many of Pentatonix’s performances in the past) struck a nice balance between making the song completely their own, but making sure they didn’t take it too far from its roots in the process. And Kirstie (yay! a name I remember!) absolutely slayed her vocals, after being sick the whole week to boot. To me as a viewer, Pentatonix is unstoppable right now.
- Dartmouth Aires (performing “We’re Not Gonna Take It” by Twisted Sister): The Aires chose an astute song title, because it described my feelings about their performance…and if we’re being honest, their continued presence in the competition…very accurately. I’m not gonna take it. I’M NOT GONNA TAKE IT ANYMORE. (Sorry for the yelling…but I do need those moments to let it out once in a while.) I will say that Michael’s lead vocal actually kind of worked for me. It fit the song well, which is a change from past weeks. They also had no significant pitch problems. And that’s all I can find to say that was positive. The second lead vocalist was trying way too hard to sound like a stereotypical “rock vocalist,” and failed miserably in the process. The arrangement was unimaginative and at times a bit frantic (a quality that’s been haunting the Aires’ performances all season). And why, exactly, are the judges raving so much about their energy and stage gimmicks, when let’s see, this is a competition for a RECORDING contract? They may be ‘fun’ and goofy and have a lot of tricks up their sleeve while on “The Sing-Off”…but all I can see a Dartmouth Aires CD being is just another cookie-cutter collegiate a cappella record. There is nothing special they have to offer in their sound, their soloists are wildly hit-and-miss, their performances are consistently mediocre, and I have run out of explanations as to why the judges are keeping them around (and what’s more, have kept them out of the Bottom 2 every week of the season to date). It’s frustrating.
- Afro-Blue (performing “American Girl” by Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers): Once again the judges harped on Afro-Blue’s arrangement this week, but Ben offered a very, very wise piece of critique that really opened my eyes to what he, Sara, and Shawn have been trying to hit at with their “too ambitious”/”too complex” comments. He said something to the effect that intricate harmonies are fine…but it’s best to have them presented in a way that makes the listener forget that they’re complicated. Now, Ben and I disagree in how effective Afro-Blue has been at doing this…I’ve never really had concerns with the level of difficulty in their arrangements, and the complexity they display has always enhanced, rather than detracted from, the performances for me, but reminding Afro-Blue about that delicate balance between invention and accessibility was an important point to make, and I applaud him for it. And now that I’ve spent quite a few sentences not talking about the performance…I thought it was great, displaying a different side of Afro-Blue than we’ve really seen (they hewed much closer to the original song, and it was a different vibe that was intriguing to see at work), and although I kind of have to agree with the judges that the detour into the National Anthem was a bit strange, I felt this performance really worked. It was one of Afro-Blue’s lower-key outings, but that didn’t diminish how good it was, at least for me.
- Delilah (performing “Dream On” by Aerosmith): Just the sheer fact that Amy can hit those crazy-high notes never ceases to amaze me, but beyond the novelty factor of hearing her sing into the stratosphere, I thought this performance was very, very solid. With any other group, we’d have a strong lead vocalist try to live up to Steven Tyler’s iconic original vocal, and then some underwhelming harmonies firmly in the background, most likely. What Delilah gave us was a powerhouse lead vocalist that matched Steven’s firepower, AND some equally powerful surrounding vocals to boot. It really felt like the whole group collectively stepped up to the plate. I do agree a bit with the judges that the build of the arrangement was just a tiny bit off at one or two points, but overall, I was thoroughly impressed by Delilah’s take on Aerosmith.
- Urban Method (performing “Here I Go Again” by Whitesnake): The girls certainly came out of their shell this week (Sara’s comment that it was like she was seeing Katie come alive on stage was astute…she burst out of the gate with a gale-force vocal in the opening number, and she certainly showed her pipes here as well), but aside from that, this performance was kind of…unmemorable, in a way. Adding rapping to the formula actually was a pretty shrewd decision this time around, I thought (it worked pretty well in the context of the song…I don’t think I would have been able to tell it wasn’t originally in the song had this not been Rock Night, and if I hadn’t heard the song before), but the harmonies were just…there. The arrangement didn’t have much punch musically, and although the ladies were confident and strong, it wasn’t enough to make this performance really stand out. It was alright, but it didn’t grab me like it should have.
- Vocal Point (performing “You Really Got Me” by the Kinks): It’s time to clutch your pearls and perhaps make an extremely cheesy gasp or two, but…I didn’t like this performance. I wanted to love it, I wanted to be blown away by it, but…I just couldn’t get into it. It didn’t work for me. Now, you know I’m a big Vocal Point fan. Mainly because they’re my fellow Cougars (that would be our school mascot, not an indication that we’re all middle-aged women looking for young boys to romance), but also because they’ve displayed a winning combination of infectious energy and top-notch musicianship thus far this season. This performance, however, felt like a combination of all the weaknesses that have been nagging me for a while about Vocal Point, and it seemed to fall flat. First case in point…although I’ve enjoyed pretty much every song by them so far…I have a confession to make. Out of all my favorite groups, Vocal Point remains the only one I haven’t bought a “Sing-Off” performance by from iTunes. They just never strike me as something I’d like to hear all the time on my iPod. This goes back to their sound…at times, there’s something just a little off with it. It’s not quite distinctive enough, and it feels a bit tinny. That came out in full force tonight, and the arrangement certainly did them no favors. It also really brought out their tendency to be a bit corny…and that came to a head with Ross, the lead vocalist. He sounded distractingly affected, his pitch was all over the place (and not in a cool “I’m a rock star and I don’t give a dang” way, more like in a “I’m trying to be a rock star and I still don’t give a dang, but I don’t sound good enough for you to not notice that” way), and it just felt like a boy playing dress-up, rather than a convincing lead vocalist on a rock-themed number. Not many things about this performance struck me as particularly effective, and although I’m very disappointed, with the small concerns that have been building between me and Vocal Point since the season began, I can’t say I’m surprised.
Whoa. I told you there’d be much nitpicking. And there’s more to come…here’s the country round (in which I wanted to mute Nick SO MANY TIMES for repeating a bunch of unbelievably stale country stereotypes, and being generally ridiculous overall):
- Dartmouth Aires (performing “Save A Horse, Ride A Cowboy” by Big & Rich): Hate to continue the criticism-fest, but sorry…this was yet another performance I was unimpressed by this week. I’ve never been a huge fan of this song, so the Aires were already in hot water there. In addition to that…while Michael was actually pretty good on the first number, he absolutely bombed on this number (he is NOT a good country vocalist, that’s for sure), and took his co-lead vocalist, who was wandering around in his lower register with nary a correct pitch to be found, with him. Add to that the in-and-out background vocals and the distracting stage gimmicks and idiotic choreography, and you’ve got yourself a recipe for a disaster. I’ll be quite frank with you…this performance actually moved me to audibly say the following words afterwards in response: “That was stupid.” Harsh, I know, but that’s what my immediate reaction was. And yet these fools live to see another week.
- Afro-Blue (performing “Need You Now” by Lady Antebellum): Best of the night. I’ll say it right now, and you’ll probably disagree with me, but nowhere else on Monday night did you see this kind of stunning combination of outstanding musical skill, and absolutely devastating emotional impact. The arrangement was certainly daring…some of those reharmonizations they were undertaking were incredibly close to falling apart…but that inventiveness really added a riveting dynamic to the performance. The two leads (great move to keep the guy-girl duet structure of the original) were committed and flawless. You could tell the entire group was just completely tuned in to the song, and it resulted in a truly special listening experience. It allowed the listener to get lost in the music…in the most wonderful way. It’s performances like these that are why I truly love Afro-Blue, y’all. This is why.
- Urban Method (performing “Before He Cheats” by Carrie Underwood): If Katie (hope I’m getting her name right, btw) stood out in the opening number and in Urban Method’s first performance, she shot out like a cannon here. That girl can SANG. (And she’s only 19?!?!?!? Lord have mercy, that boggles my mind. I’m 19 myself, and I could never belt out goodness like that.) Katie’s undeniably fiery vocals, and her two fellow ladies’ superb backup aside…the whole arrangement didn’t quite come together for me. It felt like there was one element in the powerhouse girl trio, and then another element in the background vocals, and neither of those elements felt truly, consistently united during the performance. Katie may have been a great lead, but the way the arrangement was structured, the background harmonies from the guys didn’t really stand out or adequately back her and the girls up. A cappella groups cannot live on strength of their leads alone, but they can coast. And what Urban Method did here felt a heck of a lot more like coasting than delivering the kind of all-around terrific performance I know they have in them.
- Delilah (performing “If I Die Young” by The Band Perry): You may have noticed in my “Sing-Off” recaps that I’m kind of a stickler for pitch. I tend to notice, and often get distracted, by performances with intermittent pitch problems. Which is why you’ll be surprised to hear that I thought Delilah actually stayed on pitch here. I do see where the judges were coming from in that the arrangement took a tiny bit to gel around Ingrid’s gorgeous lead (for a girl who amusingly thinks “country music is depressing”…well, I suppose when you end up choosing a song about dying young, you kinda have a point…she certainly can hold her own and then some while singing in said genre), but I really didn’t catch any significant note issues. What I did catch, however, was the beautiful emotional punch this performance packed, and the lovely build it had, something that time and time again Delilah has displayed its mastery of. I loved it, without reservation.
- Vocal Point (performing “Life Is A Highway” by Tom Cochrane): (Nick said it was by Rascal Flatts, but while I have a special place in my heart for the Flatts’ music, they most certainly aren’t the original artists. Do your research,
NickNick’s writers!) This once again hurts me to say…this performance didn’t quite work for me. (Two Vocal Point performances in one night, and I enjoyed neither of them? I feel dirty.) The lead vocalists, much like the first performance, sounded a bit too affected, like they were trying to be country singers rather than sounding natural within the context of the song. The background arrangement felt a bit off to me…I think the cutesy banjo/steel guitar-like effects they were using was detracting from the overall tone of the group, bringing it that tinny quality I mentioned earlier. And the whole cowboy hoedown theme? Eh. It wasn’t original, and although the group was as usual full of energy, for some reason the performance came off as stale. I really hope that Vocal Point blows me away next week, because if they keep up at this rate, things are not looking good.
- Pentatonix (performing “Stuck Like Glue” by Sugarland): Here’s what I said out loud at the beginning of the performance: “Oh NO, they picked THAT song?!?!?” Here’s what I said at the end: “That was brilliant.” Leave it to Pentatonix to turn a song that bugs the living daylights out of me into 2 minutes of pure a cappella triumph. Kirstie nailed the lead vocals…not that Jennifer Nettles isn’t crazy talented and charming and everything, but her twang in this song is so dang annoying, and Kirstie’s smooth, assured take on it was much easier on the ears, without losing the infectious lightness that gives the song an underlying appeal and sense of fun. Scott also rocked the reggae section, and it really helped take the performance up a notch. (Once again, a marked improvement on Jennifer, who is great, but cannot sing-rap in a reggae style convincingly to save her life.) All in all, an outstanding, inventive, great way to end an up-and-down show.
- Well, at least until the elimination happened. And here’s where I get even more frustrated, angry, sad, insert your own negative emotion here. The judges sent Delilah home. In 6th place. I still can’t quite process it. Seeing the girls deliver a terrific swan song performance of “Survivor,” it just didn’t look right at all. How can Sara, Shawn, and Ben justify sending a group this talented and unique home at this point in the competition? And to top it all off, who was in the Bottom 2 with Delilah? Not the Dartmouth Aires. Not Urban Method. Not even Vocal Point (who I don’t want to go home yet, that’s for sure, but definitely could have used a brush with elimination as a kick in the pants). Those increasingly frustrating judges put AFRO-BLUE in danger of going home. I just don’t get it. At what stage of the game have either of these groups truly showed that they weren’t cutting it? I know it’s late in the competition and I know the eliminations are going to continue to sting, that talented groups are going to go to home no matter where you turn for the most part…but this is not right. The judges, without question, made the wrong decision this week.
OK, time to breathe. I was a little mean this week, but honestly, quite a lot of things about Monday night didn’t sit well with me. It was a bit of a low point in this “Sing-Off” season, and while I enjoyed this episode as a whole (you really can’t go wrong with this show…now if only a few more million viewers would feel the same way, and show NBC some love), I can’t say it was one of my favorites. (And I’m a country boy at heart, too. Bummer.) Things will be brighter next week, though. And there’s still a few more weeks for the Aires to get eliminated for the finale. And Delilah, I love you. That is all. See you later this week with non-“Sing-Off” posting, and thanks, as always, for reading.
ETA: Oops, forgot the customary poll. Here it is, in all its glory: