Play List: Great Songs Called “Stay”

It’s been a wee bit, but I’m back with a new feature that I’ve been brainstorming for some time now. So, people on the Internet seem to love lists. I’d probably be one of those people. You just can’t resist a really fun list. (Hey, that could be a song lyric.) I’ve done quite a few lists here before (a selection of my favorite Christmas albums, which I will be adding to this year; the best albums of 2011, something I’ll be reprising for 2014 as well; etc.), but now I’m breaking them off into their own feature, and hopefully expanding my repertoire a little bit in regards to that. The subjects will be completely all over the place, most likely, but then again, isn’t that my style?

To kick off the new “Play List” feature, I decided to do songs with a common theme…and somehow came up with a list of great tunes that happen to have the same name, “Stay.” (Those musicians, always wanting people to stay.) Why “Stay”? Well, it’s what came to mind first, I suppose. (My next post will be about songs called “Go.” Ba dum cha…) At least one or two of these, you’re most likely well acquainted with, and the other ones, hopefully it will be some nice music discovery. Given the typical subject matter of songs where someone wants someone else to stay, you can expect that these will all pretty much be ballads…but there’s some variation that keeps things interesting.

“Stay” by Rihanna & Mikky Ekko

This is the one you probably have heard of recently. I don’t have firsthand experience in knowing how popular it became…it was released while I was in Peru. I actually found out about it while I was there…another missionary had the sheet music for the piano part, and so all I knew about this song for a year or so was the piano part, and one of my companion’s remembered version of how the song went. (He was a very good singer, but let’s just say his memories of how the song went weren’t very strong.) Once I got home, I was able to hear it in full, and I was quite impressed. Rihanna’s work has always been a bit of a mixed bag for me…some of her stuff I’ve liked, some of it I’m definitely not into, and a lot of it has me ambivalent. This song, however, she keeps it incredibly simple musically (though thankfully not lyrically, as happened with “We Found Love,” which features like 5 or 6 lines tops for the ENTIRE song), with just a piano, a bit of guitar, and singer-songwriter Mikky Ekko accompanying her. Rihanna’s vocal is very on-point, and her interplay with Mikky is excellent. (He does a fine job in the parts he has to himself, I might add.) It’s probably one of the strongest songs that Rihanna has ever done, I’d have to say. Having her go acoustic is a wise choice that I wish she’d take more often.

“Stay” by Katie Thompson

Years ago, before I started watching “So You Think You Can Dance” regularly, somewhere, someone was watching the audition rounds (this might have been during my freshman year at BYU, maybe?), and I heard a small snippet of this tune. A Google search of the lyrics I heard later, I was introduced to the full track by Katie Thompson, an artist I’d have to admit I still don’t know very much about, but according to her website, is an actress and singer involved in lots of interesting projects. (Apparently she was in the original cast of “The Forgotten Carols,” which reminds me that I haven’t even heard of any of the songs from that, and she will be returning to tour with the production this holiday season. Very nice.) Regardless of the fact I haven’t dug much more into her other work, this song stands as an excellent testament to her talent…it’s a langorous, heartbreaking, yet strong and beautiful song full of emotional heft, thanks to Katie’s emotionally gripping performance (on both piano and vocals). And on top of all that, she’s singing it live. Very impressive, I’d say.

“Reste (Stay)” by Sophie Milman

So FYI, these will all be by women. I don’t know how that worked out, exactly. I mean, there’s definitely more songs called “Stay”…I just ended up liking/knowing about all the ones by female artists. It happens. Anywho, this one is actually in French. An English version was also recorded, but I think I just got it because I bought the deluxe version of the album on iTunes or something. But I digress…Sophie Milman is a top-notch jazz vocalist from Canada, whose music I fell in love with a while ago, when one of her tunes was offered for free as an iTunes Single of the Week. This song is off her second album, “Make Someone Happy,” and is a captivating bossa nova that…well, I don’t speak French, but despite the language barrier, Sophie’s vocal is stellar, and she communicates the passion of the song perfectly, making this song a real treat (among many in Sophie Milman’s repertoire).

“Stay” by Sara Bareilles

Sara Bareilles has come out with some absolutely incredible stuff lately (her most recent album, “The Blessed Unrest,” is gold…I’ve been meaning to post a detailed album review sometime…someone hold me to that), and this, yet another showstopping ballad by Sara (she can write and perform them like nobody’s business), is no exception. She OWNS this. OWNS it, I say. Off her “Once Upon Another Time” EP (produced by Ben Folds), it’s a slight sonic departure for Sara in that the instrumental backing is based on guitar, rather than piano. Honestly, though, Sara could sing with a kazoo and rock it. The vocal, the writing, the fire, the passion…everything shines brightly through in this track. (And this is just one of many musical high points in her career so far.) If Sara was singing this track to me, I wouldn’t just stay…I’d probably start talking about marriage. (Yes, that might be influenced by the fact that I’d love to marry her in general, but that’s beside the point.) It’s that powerful.

“Stay” by Holly Conlan

Like I said above, I so did not plan this being an all-women post. But we need more of those in our lives, right? Women are awesome. Like Holly Conlan, for example. Yet another case of me falling in love with her music thanks to an iTunes free download (would you believe me that that’s how I was introduced to Sara Bareilles as well? There’s a few patterns here…), Holly is an outstanding, innovative singer/songwriter/pianist that keeps coming up with some absolutely gorgeous music. This tune, released a few years back as a non-album single, plays to Holly’s strengths (well, all her songs do, I’d say…) as a writer and performer. It’s a somewhat unassuming tune at first glance, but her quiet confidence and riveting lyrics really draw you in. I highly recommend not only this song, but the entirety of Holly Conlan’s other work…she’s terrific.

“Stay” by Sugarland

And last but not least…OK, so I just did a search now on Spotify for songs called “Stay,” to see if there were any late-breaking additions to my list. This came up, and I’m pretty sure I’ve heard it before…but I wasn’t terribly familiar with it off the top of my head. Now I remember it quite well (I just finished listening to it in full), and…yeah. I like it a lot. Jennifer Nettles delivers an assured vocal, one of her best, and the stripped-back accompaniment is warm and complements her perfectly. There’s even a bit of a lyrical twist…she’s singing to a man who’s already with someone, which adds a new dimension to her pleas to have him stay. If you’re going to listen to a bunch of songs called “Stay” (why not?), you’d better add this one to the list, even if you’re not much of a country fan. (I am, but I think this song appeals to a heck of a lot more than just the typical country music lover.) It’s a winning tune no matter what your tastes are.

Well, that’s the inaugural edition of Play List. I’d love your feedback…do you like it? Hate it? Do you have some more songs to add to the list? Any other ideas on things with common musical themes you’d like me to take on? Go ahead and comment away…it’s always good to not be blogging into the void or something. Thanks, as always, for reading and listening.

“The Sing-Off Christmas” Recap: Good Feeling

So, I lied. I was planning not to recap this, but I knew that I’d probably end up doing so anyway. And I did. Blame the live-tweeting I started doing spur-of-the-moment, and ended up continuing throughout the whole show. It was my gateway drug. And now I’ve mentioned drugs in the first paragraph. Go me?

Anyways, since this wasn’t a competition night, I plan to keep this concise and fairly short, since I don’t have any who-should-win/who-shouldn’t-win related rants to make for the most part, and well, otherwise there’d be quite a lot of gushing. And in the case of certain groups and soloists (you know exactly who), some heavy criticism. So let’s “Sing-Off Christmas” it up…

  • Nota, Committed, & Pentatonix (“Christmas [Baby Please Come Home]”): I’m not really going to bother too much with listing the original artist this time around, since this is meant to be a low-key blogging affair, and also I’m going off my live tweets/short-term memory for song titles and group combos. (Watchful commenters, if there are any of you out there, feel free to correct any mistakes.) Pairing the 3 champion groups was a killer way to start the show. All 3 reminded us why they’re champs, and it was great to see them all do their thing.
  • The Backbeats & Delilah (“All I Want For Christmas Is You”): It’s hard to beat the iconic Mariah Carey original, or Michael Buble’s recent game-changing cover, but this powerhouse duo of groups delivered a terrific version of this song anyhow. It was great to see some of my old favorites like Joanna (the amazing Backbeats soloist from last season), Amy (well, I guess she hasn’t been gone for long, but I still missed her), and of course, she-who-can-beatbox-and-sing-like-nobody’s-business, the amazingly talented Courtney Jensen. (She got a solo! She got a solo!) Witness the following tweet below (the Backbeats retweeted me! And a bunch of other fans too, but still…):

  • Dartmouth Aires (“All You Need Is Love”): Wherever Paul and Ringo (and for that matter, George and John) are right now, if they’ve heard even a whiff of this, they’re probably weeping. (With their guitars. Gently.) The arrangement was cutesy and lightweight, so on its own that wouldn’t have been too much of an affront to the Fab Four’s legacy, but then…Michael had to open his mouth, and deliver a vocal that neither fit the song nor sounded appealing in any way, shape, or form. The good news was that they spread the love and let some lesser-known group members have some solos during this song as well, but the bad news was that they all failed to rise to the occasion. All in all…a performance that made me very, very happy that after tonight, the Aires will be off my TV for good, and I won’t have to hear them ever again.
  • Afro-Blue & Committed (“Ooh Child”): Oh sweet mercy, was this incredible. I love this song (Nnenna Freelon’s spirited cover is pure musical gold), and the killer combo of two of the show’s greatest groups (you’ve got that right, Nick Lachey!), Afro-Blue & Committed, was a perfect choice to take it on. The performance moved, it grooved, it proved (hey, just warming myself up for the Grinch song later) that jazz is alive and here to stay. Heck, I was quite literally bouncing around on my couch with the music. The arrangement was daringly intricate, fearlessly vibrant, and full of the perfect balance of complexity and accessibility (along with a sense of fun and joy) that made Committed the champs last season, and Afro-Blue such favorites this season. Ben was spot-on when he noted that Afro-Blue & Committed really have set the “Sing-Off” standard.
  • Street Corner Symphony (“Hallelujah”): How great it is to see Street Corner Symphony back! As noted above (and in my Season 2 recaps), I was thrilled to see Committed take the crown last year, but I would have been just as tickled to see it go to the endlessly terrific SCS. With an assist from killer lead Jeremy Lister’s older brother Jonathan (of the Collectives, a bit more on their performance later), they delivered a beautifully poignant, gorgeously intimate take on “Hallelujah,” a song that’s been covered by everyone and their dog, and at this point, probably even their dog’s dog, but when done right is still breathtaking to listen to. Jeremy’s vocal was emotional and direct, and the arrangement was top-notch. If this is what “unpracticing” brings for SCS, we all need to try it out, methinks.
  • North Shore (“Little Saint Nick”): A classy, solid take on the Beach Boys’ holiday classic. It was great to see North Shore get a performance of their own (they’re pros through and through), and like many of their previous performances, this was kept simple and direct, and that really helped hit it home. These guys may not be completely fresh or innovative, but they’re full of heart and have years of valuable experience, and I always really enjoy seeing and listening to them. Here’s hoping we see more of them soon.
  • Sara Bareilles, Ben Folds, & ‘The Sing-Off Five’ (“Baby, It’s Cold Outside”): The pre-performance video segment was worth the price of admission itself (Sara Bareilles & Ben Folds are secretly comic geniuses…I want to see them pretend they don’t like each other and talk behind each other’s backs more often), and had me in stitches. However, things got even better…the song that followed was equally brilliant. I noted on Twitter that this is one of the freshest versions of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” I’ve heard in years, and I stand by that. There’s a lot of nice covers of this song, but in pretty much every one of them, the vocalists play it safe. Sara took some great liberties with the melody that really put a new spin on the song, while keeping the appeal it’s had for decades. Ben also rocked the vocals, as well as some top-notch piano work, and the addition of The Sing-Off Five (a little vocal backing band stocked with five talented guys) was a nice touch. Sweet mama, was this both entertaining and musically delicious. Another tweet break, with an amusing post-song exchange between the awkward-as-always Nick, and charming-as-always Sara:

  • Pentatonix (“Under The Mistletoe”): Ha, remember when I said I was going to try to keep this short? Silly Brandon. Brevity is for kids. Anyways, this performance made me realize two things: 1) This is quite possibly one of the most badly written holiday songs ever recorded. I never, ever, ever, ever, EVER want to hear the Bieber’s original version of this, because hearing it done well was lyrical torture enough. (Did the bridge honestly combine a reference to the wise men and the Christmas star with a line about how [s]he followed his heart to a girl, or was I hallucinating? If either of these are the case, gag me now.) 2) Pentatonix can make anything sound terrific. You’d think after a season’s worth of cutting-edge arrangements that they’d run out of steam, especially with such subpar material, but they brought their signature Pentatonix sound to this lump-of-coal-esque number, and I loved it.
  • Jerry Lawson & The Sing-Off All Stars (“Sweet Soul Music”): It was a little bit strange that the Talk of the Town was absent tonight, but I wasn’t complaining…the collection of singers that were assembled to sing with Jerry was quite breathtaking. Jerry, as always, was pure class, and it was a celebration of the classic and the new, all at the same time. Sweet soul music, indeed.
  • I don’t want to talk about this next one.
  • I really don’t.
  • OK, fine…The Devil Children Beelzebubs, On The Rocks & Darmouth Aires (“Santa Claus Is Coming To Town,” supposedly): Here’s one of my tweets after the song in question. It captures my thoughts pretty succinctly (though you know me, I’m going to type more anyways):

  • (continued) So yeah. I just couldn’t get into this performance at all. Even On The Rocks, who I enjoyed last season for the most part, really bugged me here. The ‘fun’ seemed all manufactured. The pitch and intonation…well, let’s not even go there. The solos ranged from depressingly weak (Michael, obviously, and Brendan, though the latter’s vocal was a step up from his usual fare) from OK (the Beelzebubs’ middling soloist) to pretty good, but not enough to save the whole performance (Peter Hollens, the frontman of On the Rocks would fit that description). From what I can see, almost all male collegiate a cappella groups are turning into this utterly affected frat party-esque goofy mess, and it’s not something I enjoy at all. The music is supposed to come first, and the fun second. If you truly pay attention to the music, it’ll often be entertaining on its own. When you take it the other way around like these three groups did tonight, the performance, and the ensemble as a whole, ends up being neither truly musical, nor truly fun, and it’s a real bummer to see that this is a large part of the future of a cappella music. Thankfully it’s not the only part.
  • Urban Method (“You’re A Mean One, Mr. Grinch”): OK, I’m off my soapbox, and from here on out, there should be a minimum of ranting. This performance was a real treat…and a demonstration of how Urban Method has really come into their own. At the start of the season, if Urban Method had put a rap into a song like this, I would have probably hated it. Tonight, however, I loved it. A rap in a song like this? You’d think it wouldn’t work. (Busta Rhymes’ ghastly version with Jim Carrey from the 2001 “Grinch” movie is very convincing evidence to that regard.) However, Myke pulled it off brilliantly, and the arrangement as a whole was pretty exciting and well-played (the samba-style breakdown towards the end was a highlight). The solo by the bass (aargh, I was doing so well with the names this late in the season!) (Troy, whose name I now remember thanks to…ahem, I mean, nothing to see here, nothing at all) was perfect, and it was just fresh and tons of fun.
  • Nota & Shawn Stockman (“This Christmas”): Shawn got his chance to shine tonight after staying at the judges’ table during last week’s finale, and even with some lines in Spanish to contend with, he did quite well. He was accompanied by the sweet sounds of Nota, and they were all on top of their game, really bringing this song (one of my absolute Christmas favorites) home. I loved the arrangement, and really, I loved everything about it. Nota and Shawn both have still got game, yo.
  • The Collective (“Santa Baby”): To tell the truth, this was the only performance of the night I didn’t tweet about (I didn’t have much interesting to say about it at the time), and I’m kind of guessing where it was in the night’s order. It was…alright, I suppose. Ruby did a nice job on the solo, but it wasn’t Eartha Kitt (or even Madonna). This is a hard song to reinvent (the basic premise is pretty much set in stone…a sultry, tongue-in-cheek entreaty to Santa for really, really expensive things), and if anything, the Collective, while talented, is still a bit unfocused as a group to really do so. It was good, but nothing to write home about…that said, the group still has tons of potential, and once they start fulfilling it to the utmost, they will soar.
  • Vocal Point & Nick Lachey (“Let It Snow”): So, so outstanding. THIS is how a collegiate male a cappella group does it. It was all so smooth, so entertaining, so effortless and classy. The surprise addition of Nick into the mix was a fun bonus, and there were even some great staging touches, like the snow falling on the stage (probably because I’m a snowaholic, I LOVE when that happens on TV shows/concerts/etc.), and the group making snow angels afterwards. The following tweet (by the way, did you know I’m on Twitter? If not, you definitely do now…) relays my feelings about this gem quite perfectly:

  • Urban Method, Pentatonix, & some clown named Flo Rida (“Good Feeling”): This performance was a tale of two cities musical elements: on one hand, we had some killer harmonies (and deliciously daring reinventions) by Urban Method & Pentatonix, two groups that really should get together more often, because they rocked it here. On the other hand, however, we have the abysmal Flo Rida, who I really haven’t cared for before tonight, and I really didn’t care for tonight either. (I will give him credit, though, he didn’t seem detached from the proceedings like Smokey Robinson did last week…he seemed to actually be performing with the groups and enjoying it, rather than performing and happening to have the groups on stage with him, so that’s a plus.) I might be possessed to shell out money for this on iTunes simply by virtue of the Urban Method/Pentatonix part of the performance alone, but really, Mr. Rida (sorry, just wanted to see how weird it would look if I called him that) added precious little to the performance, other than the fact that this is of course his song.
  • All The Groups (“Happy Christmas [War Is Over]”): (Programming note: I am aware the official title uses “Xmas” instead of “Christmas,” but I HATE the former abbreviation, since it replaces Christ with an X, so I always write the word out properly. Sorry, John and Yoko, but I have to stick to my guns.) And now that I’ve gone entirely off-topic…this was nice. Not perfect by any means…they just HAD to give Michael a solo, and there was 1-800-Too Much Riffing at the end. Still, it was wonderful to see fourteen (fourteen!) groups from all 3 seasons take the stage together. There’s something really special about that, especially for a series-long “Sing-Off” fan such as myself. It reminded me of exactly why I love this show so much…there’s so much talent, and friendship, and good music, that I can never stay away. (Even when I say I’m not going to recap an episode, and then I do. Ahem.)

To close, a farewell tweet from a devoted “Sing-Off” fan, Twitter buddy, and fellow #AiresHater, which expresses a sentiment I share:

It’s been an amazing season. Hopefully there’ll be more to come. For now, thanks once again for reading, for following me and my recaps these past few months, and I hope you’ll stick around.

“The Sing-Off” Season 3 Finale Recap: Eye of the Tiger

After 2 long months of a cappella goodness (and just as much a cappella heartbreak), some great music, some OK music, and some incredibly outstanding music…Season 3 of “The Sing-Off” has finally come to a close, and with tonight’s finale, brought an often uneven, but ultimately rewarding, season to a fitting end. Who took the title? In the off chance that you’re reading this post specifically to find out, I won’t spoil you yet. I will hint right now that I think America made the right choice. Now, on to the beginning of the night’s festivities, where the groups tackled one more last individual performance before pairing up with the judges:

  • Pentatonix (performing “Without You” by Usher feat. David Guetta): On a night where I was rooting for them to win it all (as I have for most of the season, of course), I’d have to say this was one of their weaker efforts. Not because of lack of strength in the arrangement…as always, it was a beautifully daring reinvention of yet another song we all know. Rather, I heard some pretty recurrent pitch problems pop up every time Pentatonix got to a particular reharmonization they made in the chorus (or at least, that’s where I think it was). Every time that chord came up, it didn’t quite click, and the soloist and the rest of the group sounded like they were in two different keys for a brief moment. All that aside…Pentatonix at their worst is just as good as the other two finalist groups at their best (sorry Urban Method, but it’s the truth), and everything else about it was top-notch (the solos, the arrangement, the blend), so I still enjoyed this performance immensely…the uncharacteristic pitch issues just got in the way a bit.
  • Urban Method (performing “Stereo Hearts” by Gym Class Heroes feat. Adam Levine): Much like Pentatonix’s first outing tonight, I felt this wasn’t up to Urban Method’s usual standard, but I still really liked it. While at the start of the season, Myke’s rapping bugged me (apparently so much that I’ve been spelling his name wrong all season…sorry about that), by this point, I’m totally used to it, and it really works. Given the fact that this song is normally a rap/singing combo, it worked especially well here. The arrangement was nice and inventive, but it seemed a bit too unfocused at a few points, and I heard a few small pitch issues here and there. And when all was said and done, it really didn’t cohere as well as it should have. That said, it was a fine effort by Urban Method, and proof positive why it’s not a bad thing that they made the finals.
  • Dartmouth Aires (performing “Paradise by the Dashboard Light” by Meat Loaf) (featuring AMY WHITCOMB!!!): By now, you probably know exactly what I’m going to say here. (The good news for you Aires fans is that you won’t have to hear me nitpick them any longer, after tonight.) And, well, that’s pretty much what I’m going to say. Michael is just not a good soloist. He has a voice, he can hold the notes, he can belt them out until the cows come home…but it doesn’t move me at all. It’s very Broadway, but not in a good way. It’s all flash and no substance, all shouting and no heart. It’s distinctive, for sure, but for all the wrong reasons. Anyways, enough yapping about how I can’t stand his solo work. Him aside, this performance wasn’t terrible (the background vocals weren’t significantly off, though they were as usual a bit nondescript), and if I’m remembering the original song correctly, the arrangement was a bit of a nice departure from Meat Loaf’s recording. My favorite element, however, had to be the surprise addition of Amy Whitcomb (of Delilah, formerly of Noteworthy, and soon to be a recording sensation if there’s justice in the world), who brought the whole performance up a notch, even if the material given to her (fawning over Michael while singing an 80s rock song) was a bit lackluster. Heck, if they had included a Delilah member in every performance, I might have not hated them as much…

After those three songs, each group got to perform with the judges. Well, sort of…more like two of the judges and our host. (Poor Shawn got left out of the proceedings.) Things were quite excellent here, and the round started off with:

  • Pentatonix (performing “Give Me Just One Night (Una Noche)” with Nick Lachey): Nick may be, by far, one of the weakest and most stilted reality-show hosts out there (Tom Bergeron & Cat Deeley, just to name a few, could emcee circles around him), but I’ll give it to him, he has a great voice, and he really got to show it off here. My only experience with 98 Degrees and their music was years ago, hearing a tiny bit of their Christmas CD on a carpool ride, so I’m pretty sure this was the first song by the group I’ve heard. Pentatonix was on their A-game, Nick looked like he was having a blast getting to sing one of his group’s old songs, Kirstie looked charmingly starstruck (I wonder how many girls would have killed to be in her shoes, singing next to a boy-band icon?), the whole group and Nick played off each other perfectly, and it was, as a whole, tons and tons of fun. But it wasn’t just fun, I might add…it was high-quality music as well. (Take THAT, Aires.)
  • Urban Method (performing “Gonna Get Over You” with Sara Bareilles): As you may recall, Sara Bareilles performed last season with the Backbeats, and I went into super-fan mode and loved it. Sara, and Urban Method, stepped it up with an infectiously delicious take on her new single “Gonna Get Over You” (which I posted about a month or two ago). Sara hit it out of the park, and Urban Method delivered one of their best performances of the season, perfectly capturing the energy of the song, and making it an absolute joy to watch and listen to. The choreography was clever, the arrangement was undeniably solid, and Myke even slipped in a tiny little rapping at the beginning that perfectly in the performance. (Look how far I’ve come since the first time I heard him…) While their first performance was proof why they belonged in the finals, this performance was proof that they’re true contenders. I loved it.
  • Dartmouth Aires (performing “Not The Same” with Ben Folds, & the audience): I’d have to say this is my favorite Aires performance of the season…it only took the absence of Michael’s usual solo work, and the help of the entire audience, for me to finally get behind one of their songs. (I might…shudder…even consider buying this on iTunes. The pull of Ben Folds, it is too strong…) The audience harmony effect was ultra-cool, the background vocals by the Aires were a bit unfocused, but they worked well enough, and I may be in the minority, but I love Ben’s voice. It’s hard to get used to, but it works perfectly for the songs he writes, and he’s a perfect example of how a live performer can be unassuming yet completely energetic and charming. (Take notes, Michael.) I didn’t expect to enjoy this as much as I did, but I thought it was a treat, even with the Aires on stage.

Now, things got group-tastic (excuse me while I go slap myself about the head for inventing such a lame word…) with two performances…one by the ladies of the top 10 groups, and the other by the men. The top 10 groups also got to sing us to commercial, which is always a nice touch, even though I wish I could see most of them perform a full song again. (Sad day for the other 6 groups. All they got was a seat in the audience.)

I’ve had the privilege of being on stage while Amy Whitcomb and a group of unbelievably talented girls (not Delilah, but the ladies of BYU Jazz Voices, a group I was in my freshman year of college) sang the heck out of “(You Make Me Feel Like A) Natural Woman,” so seeing all the “Sing-Off” girls take on the song, with Amy contributing some kick-butt solo work in the second half of the number, brought me back to that thrilling experience. Everyone just rocked here. All the solos were strong and in the character of the song, the harmonies were gorgeous and full of life (that generally tends to happen when you get this many outstanding female vocalists together), and overall, it was terrific, and one of the highlights of the season. “The Sing-Off” needs more female-centric moments like this…here’s hoping they’ll include more than one all-girl group next season?

As for the boys, I must say my gender didn’t quite acquit themselves as well as the ladies did. Their take on “Born To Run” was solid enough, but it was marred by you-know-who (his name starts with an “M” and ends with an “ichael”) getting a large chunk of the lead vocals, the other soloists (aside from Scott) not quite standing out, and a bit too much going on in the arrangement at times. It was fun and full of energy, but coming off of the women’s fiery, darn-near-perfect performance, it couldn’t help but pale in comparison.

Afro-Blue got a deserving turn in the spotlight as well, getting to sing with R&B legend Smokey Robinson. I was thrilled to see them return to sing, and Smokey still has a terrific voice, even after all these years, but…I’d have to say it didn’t quite live up to expectations. Afro-Blue got little more to do than play second-fiddle, and Smokey seemed a bit disconnected from the group…in fact, after the performance, he gave a hug to Nick (rather than the people he just sang with…huh?) and awkwardly walked rather quickly off stage. (From what I remember, Smokey’s duet with Nota in Season 1 was similarly a bit chemistry-free where he was concerned.) I’m sure Afro-Blue had the time of their lives, though (how often do you get to sing with the guy who was one of the stars of the Motown era?), so that was wonderful to see.

After all these performances, it was time for the results to start rolling…and we discovered the 3rd place group ended up being Urban Method. It was a bummer to see them go out before the Aires (and it certainly made the final part of the show a tiny bit more nerve-wracking), but they really have come a long way, so making it to the finals in the first place is its own reward. The group bowed out with a fine rendition of “Coming Home” (delivered through tears at a few points), and off into what’s bound to be a bright future for them.

There were some breaks and montages in between that and the final announcement of the winner. The Aires’ “journey” package was a chore to sit through, and Pentatonix’s reminded me how Scott and Mitch (and maybe Kirstie too?) are NINETEEN YEARS OLD (chances are they’re also younger than me, since my 20th birthday is in less than a week), and therefore blow my mind exponentially. (They didn’t mention that specific fact, but they noted that they’re one of the youngest groups in the competition, which is crazy, and it jogged my memory to a week or two ago when the judges mentioned their young age.)

And after all that…plus an ungodly long pause by Nick (if anything, he knows how to draw things out…though I’m pretty sure they cover that in Reality Show Hosting 101)…we discovered the winners of Season 3 are…PENTATONIX! It’s the right result, and the group was clearly moved and thrilled to take the crown. $200,000 and a recording contract will really mean a lot to them, and I absolutely can’t wait to hear their CD. It was a great moment (made even better by the fact that the Aires’ swan song was relegated to an online clip), and a perfect end to a crazy season. Pentatonix really earned it, and I’m happy to see America agreed. They sang us out with “Eye of the Tiger,” and unfortunately got cut off by the dastardly credits, but…

We get to see them next week! Plus a bunch of great groups from all 3 seasons. (And, knowing the producers, some maddening ones as well.) “The Sing-Off” will have one last hurrah for the year with a Christmas special next Monday, and I’m quite excited to see that. I probably won’t be recapping that (after all, no one will be competing), but I’ll be watching it, that’s for sure, and loving it. It’s been an absolute blast recapping “The Sing-Off” this season, even with it being twice the length, and thus twice the posting. It’s been great to see a lot of reader interest over the past two months, and although I know most of you are here just because of the show, I hope you’ll stay around a while and follow my other posts as well. I’ll do my best to keep them coming, and not having as much of a lull as I’ve often had in the past. Thanks for reading, for commenting, and for visiting! It’s been a wonderful season. See you soon with more posts. :)

Holiday Song of the Day: “Love Is Christmas”

Lest you forget that I actually make posts on this blog that actually aren’t about that one “Sing-Off” show, here’s a quick Song of the Day to kick off the Christmas/Kwanzaa/Hanukkah/whatever holiday you choose to celebrate season. Last year I kept Harmony Avenue’s Christmas festivities kind of low-key, but this year I plan to make them a bit more, y’know, festive. If you’re left cold (ba dum cha…) by the holidays, no worries, as I’ll be continuing some general posting throughout this lovely month of December. Now, to an absolutely stunning song that, coincidentally enough, is a bit “Sing-Off” related now that you mention it (the artist is of course a judge on the program)…

“Love Is Christmas” by Sara Bareilles!

Sara delivers a truly heartfelt, warm message of hope and love with this song, and it’s uplifting and tender without being too sweet or cliched. Backed primarily by just her own piano, she sings beautifully about the true meaning of Christmas, and the peace that we can find with those we love, during the holidays, and really, anytime in the year. It’s a sentiment that’s been expressed in countless Christmas tunes, but Sara finds a gorgeous, genuine new spin on it here. It’s the kind of Christmas song that will make you want to cry without you even realizing. It’s the kind of Christmas song that you don’t feel guilty for playing over and over and over again. And best of all, it’s the kind of Christmas song that’s truly timeless.

Coming up on the blog, since I haven’t done a to-do list in a while, and it will keep me honest at any rate:

  • A few Christmas-themed Cover Stories. Think you’ve heard all there is to hear when it comes to your favorite (and least favorite) carols and chestnuts? I’ll be posting some top-notch versions of Christmas classics.
  • An explanation of why it’s not Christmas for me without Johnny Mathis, and more personal Christmas music thoughts, memories, etc., via a Sketches post.
  • An Artist Spotlight or two (it’s not Harmony Avenue without them, really)
  • Two album reviews! One of the Christmas variety, and one of…not the Christmas variety. :)
  • And of course, “The Sing-Off.” (Go Pentatonix!)

Thanks for reading (and thanks to the amazing a cappella blogger Warren Bloom for posting a link to my last “Sing-Off” recap on his Facebook page!), and see you on Monday with a finale recap!

“The Sing-Off” Season 3, Episode 9 Recap: Every Little Step

This is ridiculous. Absolutely RIDICULOUS. You know what I’m talking about. Yeah, you over there. It’s what I’ve been harping on since the competition began, and it’s what’s been bringing down this otherwise wonderful third season of “The Sing-Off” for me. Almost every week this season since the groups combined, a group ranging from good to great has gone home, while a group (oh, you know exactly who I’m referring to…more on that in a second) that has consistently underperformed continues to stay around (and, to boot, not even land anywhere near the Bottom 2). Much like last week, where Delilah rather unjustly was sent packing, this week was home (or rather, given the departing group’s swan song, “Home”) to an equally infuriating elimination.

I promised that this week I wouldn’t pick on the contestants as much as I did in my last recap, and I’m planning to keep that promise. However, I’m done with the Dartmouth Aires. I do have some good things to say about their performances below. But it is exceedingly clear they no longer belong in the competition, and I will most likely make that quite plain in the following paragraphs. Witness the following tweet by yours truly:

Yep. I’m that ticked. Moving on from that…recovering from last week’s non-starter of an Arcade Fire cover (I never thought I’d be typing those words…), this week’s opening number was INCREDIBLE. Even though it was mostly started off (once again) by the Group Who Shall Briefly Not Be Named, it was high-energy from the start, the arrangement was outstanding, Katie ROCKED her solo work (I audibly cheered, “Go Katie!” after she belted that one note during “Crazy In Love”), as did everyone else except a member of the GWSBNBN. (I suppose I could have picked a better acronym there.) It was a great way to kick off the night, and I look back on it very fondly, given the roller-coaster of a show that was to come. First off, in the contemporary R&B round, speak of the devil, it’s…

  • Dartmouth Aires (performing “Ignition [Remix]” by R. Kelly): Let’s get the positives out of the way. It stayed on pitch. It wasn’t a trainwreck. And it did have energy. I didn’t hate it, I’d have to say. Now the negatives (of which there are a few): Michael’s solo, for probably the billionth week running, was incredibly ineffective. His tone just bugs me…there’s a overly formal quality about it that undercuts any ‘soul’ or smoothness it might have had. (His speaking voice does the same for me too, but given the fact that judging on recordings I’ve heard of myself, my speaking voice sounds very weird and awkward, I’ll give him a pass on that for sure.) And the arrangement was just too dang chaotic. (Thank you, member of the group whose name I can’t remember, for using that word in the rehearsal package. It described your performance quite accurately, I’m afraid.) There was too much going on, and it ended up being more of an assault on the ears rather than a pleasant musical experience. Just par for the course for the Aires, and yet again the judges gave them a free pass. I’m aware they most likely come off much better in person than on TV, but tonight was Top 5 week. I have yet to see the judges really go after any weakness of the Aires besides their low end issues (and to be honest, those really aren’t their main problem at all, in my view), and after 9 weeks of competition, that’s just not right, under any circumstance.
  • Urban Method (performing “Knock You Down” by Keri Hilson feat. Ne-Yo & Kanye West): This wasn’t quite perfect, but I really enjoyed it. After bugging me with it in the early stages of the season, I’ve really grown fond of Mike’s rapping and the whole “rapapella” concept in general. I don’t love it, of course…but it really seems to fit much better within the context of the performances now. (P.S.: He did a bang-up job in the opening number as well.) Katie and the other female soloist (sorry I don’t know your name!) did a fantastic job, although I noticed that I think I like Katie’s tone better in her upper register than in her lower. She can hit the low notes just fine…but they sounded a bit measured and formal, and when she really let loose and started belting towards the end, it came together nicely for me. It was a solid performance, not quite a standout, but an effort worthy of Top 5 week nonetheless. Urban Method is beginning to get their groove back (but can they continue the momentum enough to make the finals? I hope so).
  • Vocal Point (performing “Every Little Step” by Bobby Brown): Last week I rather disappointingly found myself not being able to connect with either of Vocal Point’s performances. Whatever was off during Week 8, was on tonight, because this was, in my opinion, Vocal Point’s best performance of the season. The arrangement was absolutely terrific, even a little risky for Vocal Point (in all the right ways). That beatboxing section in the middle, particularly…gold. Pure gold. The performance popped, it shined, it was musical, it was entertaining, it was playful, it was inventive, it was all those things and more all at once. I unequivocally loved it through and through, and it really was a stylistic breakthrough for Vocal Point. And to top it all off…it became the very first song this season I’ve bought from the group on iTunes. (I’ve already listened to it three times in the last 30 minutes.) That’s how it’s done, boys. That’s how it’s done. (Side note: How fun was it to see little Provo boy McKay gleefully noting after the performance, “Sara Bareilles said I’ve got soul!”?)
  • Afro-Blue (performing “We Belong Together” by Mariah Carey): Propelled by a lovely, assured solo by Christie, this was yet another outstanding performance by Afro-Blue. And here’s where my beef with the judges creeps up again…while I kind of see how Ben and Co. are trying to find the sweet spot for the group, that balance between cutting-edge jazz and the inherent level of accessibility that a cappella requires…it can’t help but feel at this point like the judges are kind of jerking Afro-Blue’s chain. (Out-of-context “Sabrina” quote break! “Can I say that to a woman…’jerking your chain’?”) Not intentionally, of course, but it’s approaching what sometimes happens on another televised singing competition (perhaps you might have heard of it?), “American Idol,” where the judging panel often ends up offering conflicting advice to the contestants. Are Ben, Sara, and Shawn getting that bad? Of course not. They’re one of the best judging lineups on TV (way better than any of the “Idol”  judging table iterations). And they certainly did show their love for this terrific performance…I just wish they’d stop getting hung up on little things in Afro-Blue’s sound and overall vibe, things that don’t really get in the way of their performances at the end of the day.
  • Pentatonix (performing “OMG” by Usher feat. will.i.am): (Brace yourself. There’s a corny joke on its way.) My reaction to this performance: OMG. (Ba dum cha.) But really. It was utterly, completely terrific. Yes, I know I end up falling in mad love with Pentatonix’s turns on the “Sing-Off” stage every week. Much like my unquenchable fire burning for Afro-Blue, I suppose it’s getting to be like a broken record in a few ways. But honestly…there are no other ways to describe it. They’re just consistently, continually, pretty much perfect. Their changing of the lyrics to reflect group member Kevin’s moral qualms with the song was a brilliant, nice touch. I never thought I’d hear a song with the phrase “oh my gosh” in it, on national television no less, and it made me very happy. (“Oh my gosh” is in fact the phrase I use instead of what OMG typically stands for, as well.) The arrangement was, as always, daring and truly riveting. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again…at this point, Pentatonix can do no wrong.

Now, on to the R&B classics round:

  • Dartmouth Aires (performing “Midnight Train to Georgia” by Gladys Knight & the Pips): This was one of Dartmouth Aires’ better performances, and it did some measure of justice to Gladys Knight’s classic. However, the arrangement was a bit static, and once again Michael was an underwhelming, inconsistent soloist. The judges said the performance was emotionally connected, but for me it felt more like any emotional weight the performance might have had was forced, rather than natural. The song didn’t flow, it didn’t glide…it was just there in many aspects. (Insert customary plea to the judges to stop giving the Aires free pass after free pass here.)
  • Urban Method (performing “It’s Your Thing” by the Isley Brothers): So I didn’t know that “Isley Brothers” was pronounced “Eye-sley Brothers” until tonight. (The more you know…) Anyways, this was another quality effort from Urban Method. I can’t say it all came together for me for the whole performance…there were some spots where the arrangement seemed a bit overstuffed…but in many ways, this was an effective, outstanding job by the group. The soloist (who I believe hasn’t had much of the spotlight before?) was a perfect choice to helm the number, and she really worked the song, especially at the end. This performance kind of reminded me of Urban Method’s outstanding early-season take on “Dance To The Music” (if you’ll recall, their breakthrough in my eyes), and that is a very, very good thing. And once again, Mike’s rap work (there wasn’t much given the song, but there was a little bit of comping towards the end if I remember right) fit in like a glove, much to my surprise. A nice job by Urban Method, and a continuation of their comeback from a few weeks prior, where they really seemed to be struggling.
  • Vocal Point (performing “Ain’t Too Proud To Beg” by the Temptations): Coming off what I believe was their best performance of the season, Vocal Point had a lot to live up to here. I think they ended up doing so, albeit in a low-key, simple way. Their take on “Ain’t Too Proud To Beg” was classy, energetic, and I actually thought the soloist did a fine job of capturing the soul that the song emanates. Perhaps it was just a tiny bit too squeaky-clean at one or two points, but overall, it was ultra-solid. Vocal Point sounded right at home here, and I really don’t get the judges’ small quibbles with the performance as a whole.
  • Afro-Blue (performing “The Best of My Love” by the Emotions): I won’t lie…for the first time this season, I heard some fleeting pitch issues for Afro-Blue. And I will concede that the arrangement was at times ready to crack. However, it never did end up falling apart, and the small pitch fluctuations I heard towards the end didn’t detract from the performance for me. The song is probably a factor (it’s a deliciously infectious tune, and hard to get wrong), and the great solo work really brought it up to a whole new level as well. (Plus, as always, the choreography was eye-catchingly good. Still amazed how Afro-Blue can pay attention to that even with all that, y’know, singing going on.) I really, really enjoyed this.
  • Pentatonix (performing “Let’s Get It On” by Marvin Gaye): How do you take on such an iconic song by such a legendary artist? Well, perhaps just like Pentatonix did tonight. The dynamic build was exhilarating, Scott’s solo work was the definition of ‘slaying it,’ and it really just rocked, on so many levels. The group really kept things beautifully simple throughout, but threw in some killer touches, and even a little reharmonization, in to make the whole thing even more refreshing and unique, all while keeping what made the original so timeless and enduring. (Plus Ben’s comment that the performance will likely cause a spike in births within 9 months was CLASSIC.) Pentatonix came into this week as the unquestionable frontrunners, and that’s how they leave this week as well.
  • Hey, I’m kind of in a better mood now. That may change in about 5…4…3…2….OK, here it goes. I have to type these words, even if I wish that they weren’t true. As you may have been able to surmise from my sadness, Vocal Point went home tonight. The fine representatives of my beloved school were cut from the competition. And I still can’t understand why. (Once again, adding major insult to injury, the Aires escaped the clutches of the Bottom 2, and Afro-Blue was inexplicably placed in danger of going home for the second week running. As I said at the beginning of this recap: This. Is. RIDICULOUS.) It’s heartbreaking (well, reality-show-fan-style heartbreaking, not like oh-my-gosh-so-sad-and-depressing heartbreaking) to see them go when they should have gone all the way to the finals, and my only explanation at this point is that the judges must have heard their swan song of “Home” by Michael Buble, heard the lyrics (“Let me go hooooooooome….I’ve had my run, baby, I’m done…”), and then gone back in time to make sure their past selves complied with those nice boys from Vocal Point’s musical request. OK, so that’s probably not what happened. But it makes more sense than saying that Vocal Point truly deserved elimination tonight. Because they most certainly did not.

Disappointment is inevitable when you’re a big fan of an elimination-based competition reality show. I just wish it didn’t have to come so often this season on “The Sing-Off,” especially so late in the season. If you need me, I’ll be off mourning over Vocal Point, Delilah, Sonos, heck, even great groups from previous seasons (still haven’t gotten over it) like Groove for Thought, Noteworthy, and Maxx Factor. (Why the carnage? WHY?!?!?) For now, a poll, and a promise that I’ll be back later this week with more Harmony Avenue non-“Sing-Off” related goodness. As always, many thanks for reading.

“The Sing-Off” Season 3, Episode 8 Recap: Dream On

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, Nick Nick’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:

“The Sing-Off” Season 3, Episode 7 Recap: Can’t Help Falling In Love

It was Halloween tonight on “The Sing-Off,” and this particular group of superstar medleys was a real treat. (The previous line was brought to you by Nick Lachey’s writers. Not really, but it could have been. :) ) Really, though, there was a lot to love in this week’s episode (even the conclusion, which brought an elimination I’ve been awaiting for weeks now), and although I was a bit distracted tonight having to help hand out candy to trick-or-treaters at a few points, I still really enjoyed it. (I also enjoyed watching “Rock Center with Brian Williams” afterwards. I used to watch “Dateline” with my parents as a kid, and this was kind of a nice progression from that…a great mix of news and a little entertainment. Plus I love Brian Williams. Also, I promise NBC is not paying me to write this. I just like random things, such as newly launched newsmagazine programs.) The Halloween-themed opening group performance was very interesting. I wasn’t big on the first two songs (Danny Elfman is one of my heroes, but I’ve vowed never to see “The Nightmare Before Christmas,” and to be honest I’ve never heard of “Werewolves of London” before now…to top it all off, there wasn’t much great singing to be had in those first two parts of the number), but I LOVED the “Ghostbusters” portion. Which is highly ironic, since I actually hate that movie, and I’ve never been a big fan of the song, to be honest. I’ve never loved it as much as I did tonight, which is once again a testament to the power of a cappella, and great harmonies. After all that, the night started off with…

  • Urban Method (performing a Rihanna medley of “What’s My Name,” “Umbrella,” & “Only Girl (In The World)”): Urban Method’s momentum has seemed to be slowing down a bit these past weeks, and tonight was no exception, I’m sad to say. It took a bit too long for their Rihanna medley to take flight…the girls once again seemed to be holding back, and the arrangement was OK, but lacked a bit of spark and originality. Their take on “Only Girl (In The World)” was a step up, though, and it ended the medley on a high note for sure. The soloist in that part, however, didn’t let out the more poppy side of her voice enough, I thought, so it wasn’t a complete slam dunk. I like Urban Method, and they’re bringing something different to this competition…but their past two performances just haven’t completely cut it, and at this stage in the game, that’s not a terrific omen.
  • Vocal Point (performing an Elvis medley of “Don’t Be Cruel,” “Can’t Help Falling In Love,” & “Jailhouse Rock”): I have to admit I’ve never been the biggest Elvis fan, but Vocal Point just may have changed my mind tonight. (OK, not really. But they came pretty close.) Rebounding from last week’s emotionally gripping but pitch-imperfect outing, they brought tons and tons of energy (as always) to the stage, and the result was business as usual for Vocal Point…pure fun to watch. If I were to pick on anything in their performance, it would probably be the first two soloists. They were good, but I found at many instances that their tone seemed a bit too ‘square,’ in many ways…like not quite dynamic enough for this kind of flashy a cappella setting, if that makes any sense. (The last lead, however, blew it out of the water in my book. He nailed the energy and classic quality of “Jailhouse Rock” without veering into Elvis imitation.) It was a great job by Vocal Point tonight, and I continue to be very happy that they’re still in the competition. (Go Cougars!)
  • Afro-Blue (performing a Janet Jackson medley of “What Have You Done For Me Lately,” “When I Think of You,” & “Miss You Much”): “Too ambitious.” That’s the phrase that seems to be haunting Afro-Blue throughout this season, by way of the judges’ table. The lovely trio of Sara, Shawn, and Ben seem to love Afro-Blue, there’s no question about that…but they seem to keep harping on the complex quality of the group’s arrangements, and that kind of bugs me. I will admit that the performance came dangerously close to flying off the rails at one or two points (particularly in the transitions), due to how much was going on harmonically…but the end result is that it didn’t. It still worked. Fabulously. I’ve never really heard any of these three songs before (Janet Jackson’s oeuvre has largely escaped my ears, except for the inexplicably catchy chorus of “Feedback”), but I heard them in an amazing way tonight. The arrangement was dynamic and brilliant and so gloriously inventive, the staging was classy and energetic (how is it that they can be throwing out these kinds of crazy chords AND still be paying attention to their excellent choreography at the same time?), and once again, I was in love. Afro-Blue can sing all kinds of intricate harmonies, and I’ll enjoy it every time. I just wish the judges would feel the same way.
  • Dartmouth Aires (performing a Queen medley of “Killer Queen,” “Bohemian Rhapsody,” & “Somebody To Love”): File the Dartmouth Aires also under the category of “group I wish the judges would feel the same way I do about.” After they pleasantly surprised me last week by delivering a performance that I actually didn’t hate, and after realizing that they were starting off with the impossible-to-dislike “Killer Queen,” I was trying to take a positive approach to the fact that one of my least favorite groups in the competition was taking on one of my favorite bands of all time. That positive approach didn’t last long, I’d have to say. The whole thing just didn’t work. It was energetic and flashy (as the Aires are wont to be), but there was no substance behind all that spectacle, which is pretty much how the group has gone through the show so far. The soloists were not cutting it (especially the last one, who took a pick-axe to the greatness that is “Somebody To Love” with his distractingly wonky falsetto). The arrangements were by-the-numbers. Their pitch and blend was hit-and-miss. It really failed to come together in my book. It’s not that Queen’s work can’t be covered well (even though Freddie Mercury is pretty much an incomparable vocalist), because it can and it has, but it certainly wasn’t here. And after all that, the judges gave the Aires unanimous, glowing praise, which I simply cannot get. I’ve been in agreement with them since Day One on pretty much everything else…so why is there such a disconnect between their love for the Dartmouth Aires, and my own opinions about them as a viewer?
  • Pentatonix (performing a Britney Spears medley of “Oops… I Did It Again,” “Toxic,” & “Hold It Against Me”): This was probably the portion of the night that I was most distracted during (I had to run to the door to hand out candy, my grandma called, AND during the judges’ critiques, one of our dogs ran out the door and I had to go catch her really quick), but that didn’t stop me from once again getting a big kick out of it. I’ll have to re-listen to it more carefully once I buy it from iTunes get the chance (OK, I’m so buying it from iTunes, let’s put that out there right now), but what I heard was gold. It’s not easy to translate electronically-driven music like Britney’s to an a cappella setting (does anybody even know what her real voice sounds like? Can she even actually sing? IS ANY OF THIS REAL?!?!? Sorry, got a little carried away there), but if any group was the right one to do so, it would be Pentatonix. Their creativity knows no bounds, and their female member (sorry I’m so bad with not knowing names…this is what happens when you’re an amateur blogger and all that) was a great choice to anchor much of the medley, delivering some powerful, assured vocals. For me, Pentatonix continues to be one of this competition’s front-runners, and I remain incredibly excited to see what they’ll do next.
  • Delilah (performing an Alicia Keys medley of “Fallin’,”A Woman’s Worth,” & “If I Ain’t Got You”): Yet another performance I wasn’t able to devote quite my full attention to, but I still was wowed by nonetheless. That opening of “Fallin'”…where they had just the soloist singing by herself…was AMAZING. She owned that song, y’all. Like the judges noted, the sensibility of Alicia Keys was a perfect fit for the female-driven soulfulness of Delilah, and it spotlighted many of the group’s good qualities in a cool way. When “A Woman’s Worth,” which they did a great job on, was actually a low point of the performance compared to the other portions, you know you’ve got something terrific. Plus powerhouse vocalist Amy got her chance to shine once again, tearing it up on “If I Ain’t Got You.” Delilah is back on the rise, and I’m happy to see that being the case.
  • Yellowjackets (performing a Billy Joel medley of “The River of Dreams,” “She’s Always A Woman,” & “Uptown Girl”): When you say things in your rehearsal package like “we’re NOT going home,” sometimes you get in trouble. This was one of those situations. Not a lot about this performance worked very well at all. Aaron was simply not a strong soloist…his tone was incredibly off, and his pitch wavered at quite a few points. The arrangement wasn’t all that and a bag of chips (it was a little too straightforward to make it stand out), and during “Uptown Girl,” I was seriously struggling to find the group’s tonal center. That pitch was swimming all over the place, and very rarely to the right places. All in all, it was not the Yellowjackets’ best night by any means.
  • Before we said goodbye to one of tonight’s 7 groups, we had a stellar guest performance by Committed, last season’s top-notch champions. (By the way, how weird was it that the show had them sit in one of the opera boxes, like they were competing on the show again? It was kind of like someone going back to high school, then having to sit in their old desk.) Chris Brown’s music would be far from my first choice for a medley, but Committed sold it beautifully with their trademark intricate harmonies, and fine stage presence. It was great to see them back again (I was afraid all we’d get of them this season was the short appearance they had a month or so ago), and a reminder that this show really gets it right with the talent it chooses.
  • Now back to the matter at hand…tonight’s elimination. And here is where I rejoiced, because…the Yellowjackets were FINALLY sent home. I called it beforehand that them and Urban Method would be the bottom two, and I was afraid that the judges would send the latter home, but I had a small feeling that they’d stay around simply by virtue of their unique concept. I was correct, and thus one of my least favorite groups was cut from the show…but not before they delivered probably one of my favorite swan songs in “Sing-Off” history. When they started off their take on “Tubthumping” (AKA that song that repeats “I get knocked down” over and over and everyone recognizes, but absolutely no one knows the name or artist of), I thought it was some weird, strange ballad of sadness or something. I was very surprised to hear them break into the familiar chorus, and it all went WAY uphill from there. They dropped in references to the judges…the show…heck, even the network “The Sing-Off” airs on…and had an absolute blast doing it. It was classy and tons of fun to watch, and a terrific impression to leave viewers with as they departed. I may have never been a fan (whatsoever) of the Yellowjackets, but they left on the highest of notes. I likely won’t be seeking them out much further, but I have to give them props for making a classy exit.

Next week, the groups take on two numbers…a country song, and a rock song. (That’s certainly an interesting combo, but then again, this is the show that brought us Radio Hits/60s Classics Week.) We’re down to the wire, with 6 groups and less than a month remaining, so things should get even more intense. For now, the customary poll, the also customary thanks for reading, a reminder that the deadline for commenting to enter to win the iTunes gift card giveaway is WEDNESDAY (there’s only two entries right now! Don’t miss your chance to win!), and as always…I’ll see you later with more new posts.