“The Sing-Off” Holiday Special Recap: Sing

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It’s been a while, folks, since I’ve gotten to sit down and watch “TV’s number one a cappella competition” (AKA its only one, Nick Lachey…). I was a loyal watcher (and recapper) of seasons 2 and 3 of “The Sing-Off,” but then I went off to Peru, and thus was not here in the States for the show’s cancellation, season 4 resurrection, and all that crazy stuff. Now that I’m back, the NBC higher-ups decided to cut season 5 down to a 2-hour holiday special. Of course. And then Ben Folds had to up and leave because he’s doing something important like touring. It’s like he’s a musician or something. All that aside, this abbreviated “season” of “The Sing-Off” was a treat to watch, and I found myself getting right back into the swing of things…at which point Nick Lachey, hopeful as always, said “see you next time” (please, NBC, make Nick happy and renew this show), and it cut to the credits. OK, maybe I got into the swing of things a bit before that. 2 hours was barely enough to get invested in the whole shebang, but I got pretty darn close, with some great performances, a less-than-ideal but decent result, and some pleasant surprises. Without further ado, let’s get into the swing of things…with bullets, of course, because that’s how I roll.

  • All six groups opened with an impressive combined performance of “Kids In America.” Weird song choice (way to start off your supposed “holiday special” with a random rock song), but very well-done by all involved. This is why I keep tuning in…to see so much talent on stage, and as Nick surprisingly didn’t point out as much this time (or was it just me), with no instruments involved. That’s what I call a singing competition, folks.

After the group performance, things started out with a first round of “signature songs” (the traditional first step in “The Sing-Off” journey) performed by each of the six groups:

  • Timothy’s Gift, from Nashville, TN (performing “Ghost” by Ella Henderson): Much was made in the intro package about how these gals from Nashville (which was very well-represented this season, it seems…the Melodores from Vanderbilt also hail from there) sing in maximum-security prisons. That didn’t faze me too much, to be honest, but it must be quite a unique experience, I’ll grant you that. I’m admittedly somewhat predisposed to love all-female a cappella groups (Noteworthy started fanning that flame way back in season 1 of “The Sing-Off,” when I was a wee freshman here at BYU), so Timothy’s Gift had that going for them already. I was impressed by their very current song choice, and I think they really hit it home. They had strong, confident soloists throughout (the depth on their bench is impressive), very good pitch, and I got something akin to chills on that bridge. The arrangement was just very tight and highlighted the song well. The judges had good points to make, particularly Jewel (who impressed me greatly…she had concise, wise feedback, and was funny and charming to boot…I think she, rather than Patrick Stump, gamely stepped up to the Ben Folds role), who noted that there was a lack of percussion…but the girls of Timothy’s Gift made it work really well. There wasn’t really a drop in dynamics, balance, or performance quality, and that’s impressive without a beatboxer or much vocal percussion. It’s a different approach, and I think we need a little bit more of that in today’s a cappella world.
  • a.squared, from New Haven, CT (performing “Pompeii” by Bastille): It was an interesting choice for the show to allow vocal effects on “The Sing-Off” stage, and I think I really liked it. (The times, they are a-changin’. I remember back in season 3, Sonos unfortunately had to leave their effects pedals at home.) The boys were right to note that all the looping would only maximize any errors, not hide them. (They noted this about 3 or 4 times too many, but hey, whatever works to get it through to people.) They admittedly came across a little too earnest in the intro package for my taste, but once they got performing, I was pretty well on board with them. I did comment in my notes that they could have used a bit more stage presence. A few of the singers lacked a bit of facial expression and could have used some more energy (though their vocals themselves were very strong). However, maybe it’s because I often struggle with the same problem, but the vibe still worked very well for me. The arrangement was cutting-edge, and a.squared really stepped up to the plate. The judges weren’t as sold…Shawn’s comment that this could be future of a cappella seemed a bit behind the 8-ball, because to my knowledge, other groups already do this. On a regular basis. I think it was here where I completely fell in love with Jewel and her judging (this is where I made the Ben Folds comparison in my notes, and said “she’s terrific!”), and I loved how she used “delicious” and “tasty” to describe the performance. I do that all the time, so it’s nice to know I have a kindred spirit.
  • Traces, from NYC (performing “River Deep, Mountain High” by Tina Turner): I noted that Timothy’s Gift had a bit of a different approach to a cappella…now this all-girl group from NYC, heavily influenced by gospel and R&B, definitely brought a VERY unique vibe, and I was a fan. I was worried that all their big voices would result in a poor blend…but while it was indeed a tiny bit tinny, they really sang well together, and that soloist…good gosh. She deserved every bit of praise the judges threw at her. She didn’t just shout the number into oblivion…her vocals were entirely on point. Lest she overpower the ladies around her, the rest of the group stepped up to the plate as well. I was pleasantly surprised to find that their pitch stayed on throughout (with this kind of song and arrangement, it would be easy to fly off the rails), that bass singer was unreal (“I can go down to a B.” “She can do a B flat.”), and they all had a really high level of entertainment quality. Shawn said it very well when he commented that Traces really nailed the “feeling” of the song. That’s what made them stand out…sure, their blend could improve a hair, they weren’t perfect, but they sold it with their energy and commitment. As Nick pointed out, “stage presence goes a long way.” (Now if you could just apply that a bit more, Nick…)
  • The Exchange, from Myrtle Beach, SC (performing “Love Runs Out” by OneRepublic): When I hear Myrtle Beach, I think of the classic movie “October Sky” where the wife says she’s going to go to Myrtle Beach. And…tangent over. Sorry. Anywho…this ‘all-star’ group, composed of a few Yellowjackets members and also someone from Urban Method (does this mean they’re not together anymore? dang…), plus some other people of unspecified origin, did pretty well for themselves, I thought, though I wasn’t completely moved by this performance as I was with the first three. Maybe I’m just picky, or cranky, or biased, or something. But I did note some slight pitch issues, it seemed kind of a little ‘too much’ at times, the typical kind of male a cappella group sound…but let’s not have that taking away from the fact that they did quite well. Their soloists were good, their blend worked pretty darn well, and that reharmonization in the middle (which Jewel sagely pointed out…yep, she just kept going up the charts with me) was outstanding. So yeah. I really liked it. Can’t say that it was my favorite, but maybe that’s just me being me.
  • SanFran6, from San Francisco, CA (obviously) (peforming “Break Free” by Ariana Grande feat. Zedd): The whole “we just got together as a group” thing hasn’t worked entirely well in “Sing-Off” past, but SanFran6 did pretty well for only being a group for a month. I’m going to take a moment and say…HOLY FREAKING COW, that beatboxer was incredible. INCREDIBLE, I say. OK, I just used up my all-caps quota for the year…but yeah. I would have paid good money to watch just him alone. So there was that, but he wasn’t the only good thing they had going. Their soloist was respectable, though a bit pedestrian at points for me. The arrangement was strong, as well. I do admit that they could work on blend and filling out their sound more. The whole thing seemed a bit thin at times. A respectable debut, all told, and, once again, that beatboxer…ahhhh. I could only dream of doing those kinds of things with my voice. Still not over that.
  • The Melodores, from Nashville, TN (Vanderbilt University) (performing “Trumpets” by Jason Derulo): Oh, so that’s what this song is called. I heard it on the car ride back up from Arizona after Thanksgiving. And yep, I’m going on another tangent…get used to it, y’all. So if I’m pretty biased towards all-female groups, as I pointed out earlier…I’m admittedly pretty biased against male collegiate a cappella. I’ve just been burned so much by it in the past…it’s turned into a caricature of itself, I feel, with some notable exceptions (Vocal Point, for example…OK, so they’re from my school…but still). That said…the Melodores were not bad. I was probably way too hard on them, but they did alright, there were no offputting soloists (if you read my recaps in season 3, you know exactly who I’m talking about), and it was, of course, an energetic affair. Their blend could use a bit of work (that happens constantly with big groups such as this), and while their solo work was hit and miss, it was at a respectable level overall. The trumpet effect was a nice touch (I admit, I’m a sucker for those kinds of things). Shawn made a good point in their lack of strength in the bass, Jewel (who else?) gave a quotable compliment to one of the soloists: “You are cuter than kittens on YouTube!”, and Patrick…well, I noted here that throughout the night, he seemed to fall into the “a cappella…no voices! it’s so cool!” kind of trap. He didn’t have terribly much to add, though he did have his moments. Overall, I wasn’t completely impressed, but it wasn’t as bad as it could have been.

Before the elimination of half of the groups, season 3 champs Pentatonix returned to “The Sing-Off” stage and performed a winning medley of songs off their stellar Christmas album, “That’s Christmas To Me.” (Check it out now, I urge you.) Gosh, it seems like just yesterday these 5 talented people were fighting for “The Sing-Off” crown. (I was admittedly gone for 2 years of the time that has passed since their win, so it’s understandable.) They can pretty much do wrong now. I’m almost positive that their runaway success (they have absolutely exploded in every way possible) is a big part of the equation that brought “The Sing-Off” back after its brief cancellation (“Pitch Perfect” was likely another factor), and like Nick Lachey, I’m very proud of Pentatonix, and them getting to live their dream. They are to “The Sing-Off” what Carrie and Kelly are to “American Idol”…the undisputed superstars, and part of the reason we keep watching, to see what other stars are about to rise and take our breath away. (Yes, much like “American Idol,” “The Sing-Off” hasn’t really seen the likes of Penatonix all the time…but the hope that we will see someone on their level keeps the flame alive, I think. At least for me.)

Next, we found out the 3 advancing groups. My picks to move on were the first three who performed…Timothy’s Gift, a.squared, and Traces. Sadly only one of my wishes was fulfilled. The 3 groups that went on to the judges’ choice round were The Exchange (alright, I can get behind that), Traces (yes!), and The Melodores (oh no, here we go again). I liked that the judges were happy enough to keep the very unique Traces in the competition, but boo hiss at their shunning of a.squared’s new approach, and what’s with the Melodores advancing? Let’s not have a repeat of the Dartmouth Aires saga here. (Oh yeah, I brought them up. What of it?) That aside…not a bad top 3. (Timothy’s Gift, though…we hardly knew ye. You were in my top 3, that’s for sure.) Next up, the judges’ choice round…with some interesting twists and turns:

  • Traces (performing “I’m Every Woman” by Chaka Khan, chosen by Jewel Folds): So I just thought that everyone missed an opportunity here by not picking “One Night Only” for the ladies of Traces (it would be an awesome meta statement, and they could have used it in the TV ads), but “I’m Every Woman” was a pretty spot-on choice too by my new favorite judge, Jewel. (Notice what I tried to do with her name up there? Yeah, it was worth a try…) This is a big song to take on, but the soloist brought it home once again, and although I was concerned that that weird modulation the song has would be a bit of a mess (it’s devilishly tricky to handle for the best of musicians), the group pulled it off in the end. (There was just a moment of tension where it came this close to falling apart, but they saved it just fine.) The bass, Tamika, was once again a rock. I was happy to see the judges join me on the Traces train…this was a very, very nice job, and proof that all-female a cappella groups can play with the big boys, no doubt about it.
  • The Exchange (performing “SIng” by Ed Sheeran, chosen by Shawn Stockman): Whoa, Shawn. You certainly weren’t playing games with your choice for The Exchange…”Sing,” while an incredibly catchy, fine song, is a veritable minefield for singers…that rap, for example, could send you packing within moments if you’re not careful. It ended up being a very shrewd choice, though…because wow. As you saw above, I wasn’t completely thrilled with The Exchange’s first outing, but I’ll be darned if I wasn’t completely sold on this second song. I was just as impressed and into it as the audience…they NAILED that. Shawn’s audible “What?!?!” during the falsetto solo (which was very nice, by the way). The audience clapping along and aiding with the beat. That jaw-droppingly cool 3-part harmony on the rap (nice to point it out, Jewel of my heart…I mean Jewel, ahem). All the soloists, really, hit it out of the park. Patrick (of all people) actually pointed out something I wouldn’t have noticed…the transitions were probably the only thing you could quibble with…they could have used the tiniest bit more of polish. But yeah. As much as I enjoyed Traces, after this…I was on board with The Exchange. I’d dare say it’s arguably the performance of the…season? Night? Let’s go with night, that sounds better. (Darn you, NBC, taking our real season away…)
  • The Melodores (performing “Take Me To Church” by Hozier, chosen by Patrick Stump): I’ve become quite the fan of Hozier, so I think it was a wise choice by Patrick to have the Melodores take on such a powerhouse song, and one so current too. (Even if I’d rather have another group take it on…sorry, sorry. This old dog isn’t learning too many new tricks today.) You can probably predict, however, what I thought of their take on it. Actually, much like their first song, I liked it much better than I thought I would. (I guess I’m learning a few new tricks, at least.) The soloist, Dan, was good (and you have to be to sell this kind of song), but I did feel he got a bit sharp and ‘shouty’ on the louder parts at times. The softer, more traditional choral-influenced parts were impressive, but the loudest parts kind of seemed to suffer in blend and intonation. Especially at the big part at the end, the intonation just went south in general…it took away from the whole thing a bit. And that kneeling on the stage at the end? Shawn might have seen it as a sign of total commitment, but for me, it seemed a little too much and not that authentic, though you know, different strokes for different folks. Yeah, I’m being a bit too hard on them, I think, but I honestly did enjoy the performance. I just thought the judges, as usual with collegiate male groups, it seems, were a bit too effusive in their praise. It happens, I suppose.

Once again before the results were announced, we were treated to another guest performance, this time with last season’s champs Home Free taking the stage with all 3 judges, plus of course, our host Nick Lachey. I’ve checked out Home Free’s music a little bit, though I didn’t see their season, and they’re pretty good. The country a cappella thing is a bit much to get used to at first, and they didn’t really get to show it here in “Stand By Me,” but they’re pretty solid. And it’s always a treat to see the judges take the stage (Jewel held her own very nicely, Patrick was kind of shouty but shined a lot in the brief softer moments he had, and Shawn played it cool and came out swinging), and Nick Lachey, while always an uneven host, is an accomplished singer. (His little duet moment with Jewel was fun.) And seeing the unity between the judges/Nick and Home Free at the end was a great ending touch. Awww, this show…

Now, finally, after nearly 2 hours and 3000 words of recapping (I’m not known for brevity), the results. Nick oddly dispensed with announcing any third place or second place, and just skipped to the goods (after a horribly long dramatic pause…I told you I got invested in this)…the winners of Season 5/the holiday special masquerading as “season 5” are…The Melodores!

Yeah. I alluded at the beginning that I wasn’t thrilled with the results (um, hello, The Exchange and Traces?), but well, the Melodores were indeed not bad. Seeing as there was no recording contract on the line (as far as I know), it appears Sony was rather OK with a college group finally taking the crown. With some other much better college groups in the past (ahem, Noteworthy and Vocal Point, and this season’s Yale alums a.squared, for example), it seems a bit strange that the distinction goes to the Melodores, but what can you say? Asi es la vida. C’est la vie. That’s life, as they say in English. (Of course it would take me three sentences to actually get to my native language…)

And with that, a season has passed us by, in just 77 minutes (according to the NBC.com video), plus commercials. Short as it all was, it was a great Christmas gift to have “The Sing-Off” back in my life again, and now I’ve realized what a jewel that Jewel is as a judge. (I would tell you that Nick Lachey wrote that pun, but…actually, I’ll just go with that. Let’s lay the blame at his feet.) There was lots of great talent on display, and we were all reminded how cool and unique this show is, and how important it is to have on the TV singing-competition landscape. Here’s to a season 6 (hopefully longer than this one…just shove it on Fridays or Saturdays or something if you have to, NBC…we’ll take anything we can get), and many, many more after that. If not…it’s been great while it all lasted. To those of you returning to read my recaps, I thank you. For those of you seeing these for the first time (it’s very probable), make sure to go on and watch the full episode on NBC’s website, because you can’t just get by on my wacky recapping skills alone, and it’s a great show that I know you’ll love. And also thanks for reading to you too, of course. Stay tuned for more holiday Harmony Avenue goodness, coming your way in the coming days.

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