“The Sing-Off” Season 3, Episode 10 Recap: We’ve Only Just Begun

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Last night, “The Sing-Off” whittled its 4 semifinalist groups down to 3 finalists, and it’s a lovely finale we have before us…Afro-Blue, Pentatonix, and Delilah. I can’t wait for next…

Oh, that’s right. Delilah got eliminated two weeks ago. Sorry about that. I’m still in denial. OK, well then, the final 3 must be Afro-Blue, Pentatonix, and Vocal Point, right? I mean, who else would the judges pick if Delilah is gone? Vocal Point is terrific. So, like I was saying, next week will be…

Wait a minute. Vocal Point is gone too? Seriously? They really went home already?? Ah, that’s right. I had forgotten. So I guess the final 3 is Afro-Blue, Pentatonix, and Urban Method, then. That I can live with. I’m going to have a hard time choosing who to vote for the most, but I’ll…

Oh no. Oh no. Oh no…oh NO. You can’t be honestly telling me that Afro-Blue is gone. They got eliminated? Right before the finale? Are you KIDDING me? They’re terrific. They’re amazing. Last night they gave two of their best performances! So who advanced instead of them? The Aires? Please. Like that could happen…

Last night on “The Sing-Off,” for the third week in a row, the judges (and, I have reason to believe, possibly the producers…more on that later) made a horrific call. Last night on “The Sing-Off,” just a week shy of the finale, one of the competition’s most outstanding groups was eliminated, while a group that has been inconsistent, underwhelming, and overpraised the entire season sailed through to the finals. True, there was a few positive things to be found in the aftermath of last night…this season’s clear frontrunner is still cruising to a well-deserved win next week, and a group that has continued to successfully rebound from a mid-season slump was rewarded with a berth in the finals as well. But honestly…I can’t believe this. I really can’t. Let’s just jump into the recap now…I’ll find a way to vent some more throughout, most likely. First off, the group mastermix round (in which the groups had to take on two songs by different artists and mash them together in a “mastermix”):

  • Pentatonix (performing a mastermix of “Forget You” by Cee-Lo Green & “Since U Been Gone” by Kelly Clarkson): It’s become old hat to say that Pentatonix did an amazing job. But seriously…not only did they give these two songs a fresh, dynamic spin with, as always, some top-notch arranging, they were able to seamlessly blend these two contrasting numbers with a clever on-screen story that worked perfectly. What’s cool about this is that the choreography on stage enhanced the music beautifully, yet the performance works just as well on its own, with just the music to speak for it. That beatbox/bass battle between Kevin and Avi was a terrific touch, and the whole performance even further solidified Pentatonix’s pretty much set-in-stone status as the group to beat. The judges noted that there were a few fleeting pitch problems, but I didn’t notice them at all during the broadcast (and you know me and my pitch-police ways), and it was only after a few listens on iTunes that I finally spotted those small pitch issues. That’s how good Pentatonix is, yo.
  • Urban Method (performing a mastermix of “Hot In Herre” by Nelly & “Fever” by Peggy Lee): I’m pretty sure no one expected these two songs to ever be sung within a mile of each other, but I thought Urban Method did a great job making them work in tandem very well. The fact that “Hot In Herre” is quite possibly one of the most lightweight, ridiculous songs in the history of music kind of hurt the enjoyment level of their performance  a bit (as talented as Urban Method is, there’s just not much you can do to make that song better), but I really loved what they did with their mastermix. Liz’s solo on “Fever” was restrained, gorgeous, and hit just the right tone, and the use of a female trio to keep the strand of “Fever”  going during a return to “Hot In Herre” towards the end was a smart arranging choice. Urban Method has really impressed me the past few weeks, and this performance was no exception.
  • Afro-Blue (performing a mastermix of “I Believe I Can Fly” by R. Kelly & “Fly” by Nicki Minaj): Ballads are clearly one of Afro-Blue’s strengths, so it was kind of a given that they’d do well on “I Believe I Can Fly.” However, they did more than just ‘do well’…they brought the song to new heights with a gorgeous mix of complex harmonies and a strong sense of emotion and class. (In a nutshell, what Afro-Blue is at its core.) If that wasn’t enough, they brought in “Fly” (a tonally different song if there ever was one) seamlessly in the second half, with a showstopping rap/singing solo by Mariah, who proclaimed during the rehearsal package that she couldn’t rap, then proved otherwise during the performance. I know I say this a lot, but it just worked. Afro-Blue has a knack for making even the most subtle performances dynamic and engaging, and that’s a skill that really can’t be ignored. (Addendum to this section of the recap based on something Brandon noticed after he had written the first half, and subsequently listened to the iTunes recording: Not having heard “Fly” before, I didn’t even realize they actually introduced it much earlier in the mastermix. I quite honestly thought the first part of the performance was all “I Believe I Could Fly.” That’s how well Afro-Blue blended it in. And, admittedly, that’s how little I know about the music of Nicki Minaj…)
  • Dartmouth Aires (performing a mastermix of “Sympathy for the Devil” by the Rolling Stones & “Born This Way” by Lady Gaga): This one was an unfortunate combo of weak songs and an unfocused arrangement, and while it wasn’t trainwreck bad, it certainly came close at a few points. Both soloists were not up to scratch…Brendan (who, by the way, always looks like he’s half-asleep, in the worst way) tends to growl aimlessly more than he sings, and while in theory it should have worked for a song like “Sympathy for the Devil,” it really fell flat for me. Michael, on the other hand, hit all his notes just fine, but sounded 10 times too formal and placed for a song like “Born This Way.” It’s a problem I’ve had with him all season…he’s talented, but he always sounds like he’s playing dress-up, rather than truly having soul, emotion, and maturity. That, combined with a strange onstage aesthetic (so the devil is fighting against Lady Gaga and her little Monsters?), along with yet another uninspired background arrangement fraught with pitch problems, made this by far one of the weakest outings of the night.

Now, the second round…the Judges’ Choice numbers:

  • Pentatonix (performing “Dog Days Are Over” by Florence + the Machine): There was a small part of me, in the corner of my mind, that didn’t think that Pentatonix could pull this off. I absolutely adore Florence + the Machine, and this song is of course one of my favorites of hers. That said, it’s pretty hard to do in a live setting, and more importantly, it’s even trickier to put an original spin on. Pentatonix most certainly accomplished both of these challenging feats. Their performance started off solid and only took off from there, building in an absolutely thrilling way, and culminating in a heartstoppingly beautiful, wonderfully unexpected solo turn by Mitch while all the other singers dropped out, then a rivetingly powerful ending with the whole group to top it all off. This was truly one of the most breathtaking performances of the entire season, and if I’m not mistaken, I think Pentatonix just won the whole show right then and there.
  • Urban Method (performing “All of the Lights” by Kanye West feat. Rihanna): A Kanye West song (and on top of that, a Kanye West song I haven’t heard of) most certainly wouldn’t have been a place I would have expected to find one of my favorite Urban Method performances, but indeed, I think this was one of their best efforts, and a clear showing of why they earned their place in the finals. Mike’s rapping fit perfectly in the mix, the arrangement was powerful and focused, and the soloists were very on point. It seemed like Urban Method at their very best, and when they’re at their very best, they can certainly hold their own with the big boys (and girls). A few weeks ago, I wouldn’t have minded seeing Urban Method go home, to be honest, but after this performance, I was rooting for them to head to the finals.
  • Afro-Blue (performing “A Change Is Gonna Come” by Sam Cooke): In recent years, “A Change Is Gonna Come” has been covered by quite a few people, and as a result, at times it feels a bit overdone. Which is why I was slightly worried when Ben, Sara, and Shawn gave it to Afro-Blue as a judges’ choice…I mean, what more can you do to such a timeless composition? Afro-Blue answered that question for me…with resounding, unequivocal musical brilliance. Their arrangement was devastatingly gorgeous, and their performance was stirring in all the right places. Christie is an endlessly gifted lead vocalist, and she struck a perfect balance between singing the song with all her heart and soul, and sounding natural and effortless at the same time. The background harmonies (especially in the moments where they swelled and stood out) were terrific. All in all, it was one of the most rewarding 2 1/2 minutes of the entire season. It’s performances like these that are why I watch “The Sing-Off.” Simply put, Afro-Blue absolutely nailed it.
  • Dartmouth Aires (performing “Shout” by The Isley Brothers): The Aires certainly gave their all here. And even I have to give it to them, it was fun to watch. But as the judges noted, because of the sheer amount of performance energy they put out, musically, they really suffered. It wasn’t wildly off pitch by any means, but the group was clearly not paying attention to the harmonies. It all seemed muddled and unfocused. Once again, Michael sang powerfully, but emotionally, resonated very, very little. It was a dime-a-dozen lead vocal…there was no distinction to it, no soul. It wasn’t completely ineffective, and it was one of his better outings, but in the end, it didn’t stand out as much as it should have. This was a great way to close the show, but in the end, it should have been much more well-rounded and polished, and as is the case constantly with the Aires, it wasn’t.

Then came the announcement of who would make the finals. Urban Method was called safe first (somewhat surprising given the fact that coming into tonight, they certainly weren’t a sure bet for next week). Pentatonix was subsequently sent into the finale, a forgeone conclusion if there ever was one. After that, I fully expected the Aires to get sent home (after all, they were the only group that were truly given any points of criticism last night)…but then, with about 20 minutes left in the show (I was wondering how they were going to fill time…of course, seeing as this is taped and not live, everyone involved with the show already knew exactly how it would be filled), Nick announced that the judges hadn’t come to a decision on who to send home, and that there’d be a “Sing-Off Battle” where the remaining two groups would sing what they considered their best performance of the season. Afro-Blue wisely reprised their stellar Week 3 take on “American Boy” (one of their most clever yet accessible arrangements), and hit it home once again. The Dartmouth Aires, on the other hand, did the “Somebody To Love” portion of their Week 7 Queen medley. It was fine, I suppose, and Michael rather impressively held his glory note at the end of the number much longer than he did in the original performance (if Michael’s good at one thing, it’s belting out much more proficiently than I or many other people ever could), but it didn’t hold a candle to Afro-Blue’s repeat performance. It was abundantly clear that the Dartmouth Aires were outclassed, and as it came down to Ben as the deciding vote (Sara voted for the Aires to stay, a choice that caused me to impulsively shout “idiot!” at the screen…sorry, Sara…and Shawn stuck to his guns and voted for Afro-Blue), it was all set for Afro-Blue to make it to the finals next week…

But that didn’t happen. Ben’s vote was for the Aires, and thus the finale next week consists of Pentatonix, Urban Method, and a group that shouldn’t have even made it to the semifinals in the first place. This is all kinds of wrong, and even more frustrating coming off the heels of the all-too-early eliminations of Vocal Point last week, and Delilah two weeks prior. Why is there such a disconnect?

And here I briefly launch into mild “conspiracy theory” mode. From what I’ve heard, the decision to oust Afro-Blue was somewhat colored by producer involvement. That’s not to say that I think the judges wanted to put through Afro-Blue, the producers didn’t, then they made Sara, Shawn, and Ben go their way, because it’s definitely more complicated than that. But I do believe there was a bit of pressure from the powers at be to put through the more ‘exciting’ group because of the TV potential. The “Sing-Off Battle” seemed a bit contrived and tacked on at the end, and it all too easily could have been a way to try to convince viewers that the choice between Afro-Blue and the Aires wasn’t as one-sided as it should have been. If indeed the producers were behind Afro-Blue’s elimination, was it something that crossed the line? Of course not. They’re putting on a TV show at the end of the day, and it’s their right and prerogative to do whatever they think is necessary (within the rules of the show) to have that TV show produced the best they see fit. Do I think it was the right decision, though? Not in the slightest. It didn’t leave a bad taste in my mouth, per se, but I fully and completely disagree with how it played out.

Now to Afro-Blue for a moment. I’ve heard previous remarks to the end that they’re boring, that, as one commenter here put it, they’re “like a physics problem about a bridge that no one wants to see built.” I beg to differ. I know I’m a jazz fan, and as a jazz fan, I’m going to gravitate towards the groups that are driven by jazz. However, what Afro-Blue did this season was greater than jazz music, greater than one genre. They took jazz music and touched hearts with it. Their performances were anything but boring…they were inspiring, they were full of energy, they were fun when they needed to be, tender and soul-stirring when the occasion called for it. They showed that jazz music, and music as a whole, doesn’t have to be solely high-concept and go over people’s heads. It can be complex AND engage the average listener at the same time. They mastered the balance between innovation and accessibility, and for that I applaud them. They’re anything but “boring,” and for that they’re my winners.

It’s disheartening to see a finale more akin to Season 1 (an outstanding group, Nota, and two underwhelming groups, Voices of Lee and the Beelzebubs) than last season’s anyone-can-win powerhouse (the top-notch quartet of Street Corner Symphony, Committed, the Backbeats, and Jerry Lawson and Talk of the Town), and looking back on this season, the wonky eliminations have parallelled that first season’s barrage of questionable judging decisions much more than last season’s relatively peaceful journey. Maybe I’ve been spoiled by Season 2, seeing as there wasn’t too much heartbreak (aside from Groove for Thought going way too early, and On The Rocks staying a week or two too long). That said, next week should be a great show (Afro-Blue confirmed on Twitter that they’ll sing with Smokey Robinson next week!), and things are looking great for the group that deserves to win (Pentatonix) taking home the crown. (I’ll be using my voting powers rather liberally to help make that the case.) As for now, I’m taking comfort in the fact that for my fallen faves of this season…Sonos, Vocal Point, Delilah, and now Afro-Blue…it’s only just begun. To close, a final pair of polls. I’ll see you later this week with more posts.

 

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8 Comments Add yours

  1. Glenn says:

    You just said what I’ve been thinking about the Aires. While I think that Michael has a great voice, many of his vocal tics (and his almost soul-less interpretations) leave me cold.

    I got into a discussion recently about Shout vs Vocal Point’s Every Little Step. While not perfect by a long shot, ELS was the more fun performance. It was like comparing apples to wax apples, when the Aires tried to be fun while VP didn’t have to try so hard.

    1. Brandon R. says:

      Amen to all your points. “Shout” was definitely one of the Aires’ best efforts in my eyes, but it just didn’t flow as well as Vocal Point did. The Aires’ technique on “Shout” was kind of a let’s-throw-it-all-at-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks thing (and lucky for them, some of it actually did stick). Vocal Point, however, really seemed to push themselves with ELS, and for me, it came off as incredibly polished, but they made it seem effortless and natural.

  2. Bill says:

    The “Dartmouth Aires over Afro-Blue” decision definitely reminded me of the “On The Rocks over Groove For Thought” decision in Season 2. I suspect Sony Music feels that aca jazz wouldn’t sell particularly well, so the judges kept them on the show as long as they could but still had to prevent them from making it to the finale.

    1. Brandon R. says:

      My thoughts exactly. (Though as much as I loved Groove for Thought, I have to say Afro-Blue is even better than they were. And I liked On The Rocks much more than I like the Aires, so in the long run I wasn’t as devastated, especially with the amazing final 4 the season ended up having.) Hopefully Afro-Blue proves Sony wrong by doing well once they get an album out.

  3. Els says:

    Have you read Ben Folds’ blog? I find it clarifies the judges point of view better than the actual episodes do. I still don’t agree with them on all accounts, but I do understand it somewhat.

    About the Dartmouth Aires vs. Afroblue, it could have gone either way for me. As much as I like the Dartmouth Aires and enjoy their performances, what do they have without the show aspect? It is all about the recording contract and I don’t think I’d buy their cd. As for Afroblue I love their more playfull side, the way they sing incredibly complicated harmonies with a smile and make it look easy (girl put your record on, American boy). If their cd would have been like that I’d buy it, but that was not likely to happen. Moreover, they have been inconsistent, probably because of the comments of the judges and at this point you have to be able to count on the group to deliver.

    Also when I looked over the previous posts I spotted my name, it actually took a while to realize it was the abbreviation for “every little step”…

    1. Brandon R. says:

      Yeah, I’ve been keeping up with his blog all season. I really like the insights he adds. His explanation of why Afro Blue was eliminated doesn’t quite add up for me still, but it’s good to see what he has to say about it (more or less).

      It is true that Afro-Blue’s been inconsistent, though in my view them at their worst has been better (or at least equal to) the Aires at their best. It was really fun to see Afro-Blue’s playful, fun side pop up, and I think it might have gotten overshadowed by the more stereotypical “fun” style that the Aires have.

      (And sorry about the name confusion there… 🙂 )

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