Event Review: The Sing Off, Season Two, Episode One : The A Cappella Blog
Welcome to the a Cappella Blog’s exclusive coverage of The Sing-Off!
This is the second go-round for the most watched a cappella competition in history, which, this time around, features a packed roster of ten groups. Nick Lachey returns as the host, alongside judges Shawn Stockman and Nicole Scherzinger.
Oh, you know, Shawn, Nicole, and my buddy Ben Folds.
Ben and I talked about The Sing-Off when we met in DC this fall, and he told me the level of competition was all the higher for this season. I hope he’s proven right.
All the groups team up to open with Kiki Dee’s “I’ve got the Music In Me.” Fun little number in which every group gets to make its entrance. This song choice doesn’t have quite the immediacy or cool factor of “Under Pressure,” which opened season one, but the groups sound fantastic. I particularly like the On the Rocks-to-Jerry Lawson and Talk of the Town-to-Pitch Slapped transition, really demonstrating three distinct styles from the contemporary all-male power to old school class to the newest of new school sexy a cappella. I also enjoyed the juxtaposition of the Whiffenpoofs’ heel-ish swagger with the youthful idealism represented by the Men of Note. Ladies and gentlemen, methinks this is going to get very interesting.
Nick reminds us of the stakes—winner take all, with the top group earning $100,00 and a Sony Music recording contract. two groups go home tonight.
The shows kicks off with high schoolers Eleventh Hour who liken themselves to the Breakfast Club, complete with a rendition of Simple Minds’ “Don’t You Forget About Me” and vignettes of each of them living their distinctive lifestyles, spliced in with clips of the members reenacting scenes from The Breakfast Club’s library.
The group performs “Baby” by Justin Beiber. thank God they’re not dressed like the Breakfast Club on stage. Instead we get a mix of formal wear and bright PINK. Slick moves to start. Very simple, smooth sound early on. Soloist shows great stage presence. the group is certainly exceptional for a high school squad, but I can’t help thinking they sound a little thin for this stage. Strangely old school sound from such a young crew, too. Don’t get me wrong—they’re a high school group that would be more than competitive at a collegiate competition. but this is The Sing-Off, and I would have hoped for a bit more.
Ben says they sounded like they had more people on stage than they had, and praises the basses and the perc. Nicole calls them the real life Glee. Shawn says they’re fresh and stand up for a generation; he lauds their level of focus for such a young group.
Next up is On the Rocks. the group snaps snaps its way across the University of Oregon campus all Sharks and Jets style, then transitions to performing at a toga party. Nice representation of the diversity of a great college group’s life, if a bit random. cut to talk of their viral video success.
True to form, On the Rocks sticks with what brought them to the national stage in the first place, Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance.” Such a clean, full sound from these guys. the group’s focus on visual presentation—and particularly the level of commitment to body language and facial expressions that facilitated their success on YouTube—translates exceptionally well to the TV screen, and the camera people do an ice job of complementing the performance by honoring both the soloists and the full group’s motion—there’s just so much to see. Sick sound. Out of this world visuals. On the Rocks came to play.
Shawn says they pulled off the unorthodox song selection and made it fun, interesting and fresh. Ben says that they were wildly entertaining, which hid the pitchy-ness of the performance. Nicole praises them and makes a really forced pun about taking the group on the rocks. Forced to the point that it really doesn’t make sense. Host fail.
Groove for Thought is revealed as a Seattle-based group with a jazzy-style that includes a father-daughter pair. several of them are music teachers, who cite their ability to arrange music on the fly.
The group performs Stevie Wonder’s “I wish.” Exceptional stage presence on the part of the soloist, but the group just looks small on stage—it’s a harsh reality small-sized groups are going to face on television, relative to bigger squads like On the Rocks. a lot of it can come down to how you work the stage, though, and I don’t feel Groove for Thought is really getting it done. the guys look better at ease here than the ladies, who are a bit too artificially smiley and kind of take away from the visual presentation. the good news is that there’s a nice full sound from the group, particularly on the bass end. Top-notch solo. Fine choral finish with some a neat “shutting down” sound effect on the close.
Ben praises the energy of the soloist and says they made it their own in such a way as to avoid competing Stevie Wonder and succeedon their own merits. Nicole loves their jazz sound. Shawn says they were solid.
Next up is Pitch Slapped, a co-ed group from the Berklee College of Music in Boston. the group is shown playing a variety of instruments, living a life centered on music. I remember talking with the parents of one of the group members at last year’s International Championship of Collegiate a Cappella Finals, and recall the pride with which they exclaimed their daughter was “the good girl who goes bad.” It’s pretty amazing to think that millions of people are watching the same group do that same song eight months later on network TV.
And so, it’s on with Cobra Starship’s “Good Girls go bad.” While I think the live stage serves the group’s theatrics better, the song was still a lot of fun and played well enough to the cameras. the soloists show off a lot of charm and the group swells with volume. the good girl’s transition to bad is, just like it was at the ICCA finals, a great visual. There’s a clap-filled breakdown where the guys square off with the girls in a fun visual with a big sound. I think the group was striving to establish its identity from the get-go—edgy, fun, high energy, and powerful. I think they did sell themselves a little short on showcasing their musicality, though—that’s just not what this song was built to do.
Nicole says the girls are hot, but that she wanted to hear more of the instrumental accompaniment. Shawn says the group had a top and a bottom, but little in the middle. Ben more clearly expresses that he wanted more dynamics, and that he looks forward to hearing them perform as more of an ensemble down the road.
Next up, we learn about Jerry Lawson and Talk of the Town—Jerry as a long time recording artist, Talk of the Town as a group that covered the stuff he put out with the Persuasions, before fate came along and put the two musical forces together.
The group sings Ben E. King’s “Save the last Dance for Me.” What can I say? So old school, so slick, these guys are clear cut professionals. While I feel this calls into question the fairness of them being in this competition, I’m going to put that aside, and bask in how good they were. Lawson owns the stage. the bass sound is simply lovely. This versions sounds so reminiscent of the original. This is a good thing and a bad thing—on one hand, it’s a testament to their musical prowess, on the other hand it means that the guys are old school enough that they’re not showing us anything new. There’s an unspoken novelty factor in this competition—the audience gravitates to groups who innovate and blow our minds. despite the group’s overwhelming talent, I worry the act might not have all that long of a shelf life if they can’t freshen things up as the competition goes on.
Shawn calls Jerry an inspiration and lauds the style and class that only experience can give you. Ben says the performance gave him chills and goes on to explain that Doc Pomus wrote this song for his wife after he contracted polio—he literally couldn’t dance. This is a small part of why Ben Folds is so cool—knowing factoids like that. I’d also argue that, intentionally or not, he gave the group a hand by making the song all the cooler with that revelation. Nicole calls the group the godfathers of a cappella.
We’re halfway through the show and it’s time for someone to go home. And it’s—
Nothing against Eleventh Hour, but I’m very surprised to see them (and to a lesser extent, Groove for Thought) survive over Pitch Slapped. It’s a real shame.
Pitch Slapped gets to sing its swan song, which is a modified version of “Kiss him Goodbye.” “You’ll never love us, the way that we loved you…kiss us good bye”–ooh, Pitch Slapped, I love you a little less for the lame reworking of the lyrics. Maybe NBC made you do it—I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt for now.
The second half opens with The Whiffenpoofs, straight out of Yale. a Whiffenpoof member says the they’re the first a cappella group in history—“we invented it.” Umm—you were the first collegiate group, buddy, but you oughta check out your history—there are references to a cappella as early as the 16th century, and old as your group may be, it still started about 300 years later. the smug heel-ery continues from these guys.
The Whiffenpoofs take the stage clad in their trademark tuxedoes, standing in the trademark collegiate a cappella arc to sing Mika’s “Grace Kelly.” They open the song chorally with one member conducting. the soloist steps forward, oozing douchebaggery until something strange happens. About three seconds into the song, that very same sololist transforms from smug and evil to indescribably good. Holy smokes, do you hear those high notes? Do you hear the breath control? the group more than holds its own, mixing up the dynamics and going through some simple, dignified, but effective choreography. a perfect fusion of old school sound with new school attitude—excellent song choice and performance. I’ll be honest—I didn’t want to like the Whiffenpoofs. despite that fact, that was quite arguably the best showing of the night thus far. It will be interesting to see if the group can continue to toe so many lines as the competition carries on.
Ben calls the solo sassy and says the lack of VP was refreshing. Nicole says they look like penguins. Shawn praises the varied dynamics, which did a great job of making the performance dramatic.
Next in the queue are The Men of Note, alumni of a high school a cappella sensation of the same name that have banded together to make a run at The Sing-Off. They’re shown practicing with their high school music teacher, Christine Bass, then playing all kinds of sports, and then serenading random girls at the mall. I remember when I first heard of the Men of Note—they had won an International Championship of High School a Cappella quarterfinal that my then-girlfriend produced. They took her aside and serenaded her with “My Girl” before the show. Hide your ladyfriends, y’all—these guys are out to steal girls’ hearts.
The guys come out in green, black, and denim to sing Billy Joel’s “The Longest Time.” Nice clean sound from the group, with a good bass line when it hits, but the arrangement just sounds a little simple, a little thin. despite his obvious talent, I’m also not loving the soloist—his voice sounds a little too classical, his enunciation a little too clear. This is a song that thrives on soul, and he just doesn’t have the heart of a Billy Joel. Cute, fun, song, but not up to the level of what we’ve been hearing on tonight’s show.
Nicole says they’re good, but she wanted to hear a thicker, tighter sound. Shawn says they remind him of his early days with Boyz II Men. he says the guys started out sounding stiff, but loosened up as it went on, and praises their competitive edge. Ben notes that they have a lot of tenors, which creates arrangement issues, and that the song sounded rushed. he says he hopes they’ll slow things down next time (note, he talked about what he wanted to hear from Pitch Slapped “next time” too—could be a bad omen).
Streetcorner Symphony is up next, and their vignette tells us about how they’re a bunch of guys who like to hang out in Nashville and who value chilling out with each other as much as they do performing. one of the members talks about his would-be career as a recording artist, cut short when his label didn’t release his stuff. They emphasize their place as southerners, and a desire to fuse southern style with a cappella grooves.
The group comes out in orange and black and takes on Tears for Fears’ “Everybody Wants to Rule the World.” really peculiar song choice for a group that wants to sell its southern-ness. There’s nothing particularly southern about the sound either. the guys serve up some very cookie cutter post-collegiate all-male a cappella. Not that that’s a bad thing—they’re silky smooth, super clean, and have a full sound and nice blend. but again, it’s cookie cutter—for all their talk of wanting to be different and unique they sounded a bit too generic for my tastes. Best thing about this was the solo. the group sounded a little out of sync going into their final choral note.
Ben says they were really good; the dynamics were great, the groove was great. he doesn’t think they have strong basses, but that gave them the freedom to be musical. he calls them on his pet peeve, though, their vocal percussionist’s cymbal sound. Shawn praises the group’s honesty. Nicole gives the group credit for creating their level of sound with just six people.
Up next are The Backbeats, a Los Angeles supergroup brought together by Kenton Chen with alumni from the USC SoCal VoCals and Trojan Men, BYU Noteworthy, and UCLA Awaken. the group talks about competing against one another in the past and working together now, against a backdrop of them hanging out together on a beach.
The group wears black and blue and sings Beyonce’s “If I Were a Boy.” the group does two things differently from most anyone else—picking a slower song, and putting a female soloist front and center for the duration. This was strangely uneven to me. Excellent solo, and very good work on the dynamics. the blend was hit and miss, and the overall sound came across a bit spotty. there was a ton of motion in the background, but the cameras caught little of it, so it’s hard to fairly evaluate the visual presentation. All in all, I think it was thefemale soloist that did the most to set the group apart here—offering them a unique identity, and helping to sure up a pass to the next episode. nonetheless, the sound came across as more collegiate than I would have expected—not as polished as I would have hoped for from this caliber of singers in this kind of show.
Nicole says that the Backbeats set the bar and that the soloist shut it down. Ben says it was moving, and praises the song selection, arrangement and dynamics. Shawn gives the soloist credit for the range she demonstrated.
The last group up is Committed, a group of young men who started signing together in high school and have carried it on to their collegiate career. They say they’re committed to God, committed to music, and committed to each other. Guess the group name was a good call, then.
The guys sing “This Love” by Maroon 5. Choral opening, then the guys break the song down and groove. Deep bass sound, great overall sound and energy from the group. Very good charisma and vocals from the soloist. Fun visual presentation—seems like the guys are constantly on the move, but the camera angles cut them short again. I wish the people editing the second half of this show would let the choreography speak for itself more, the way they did for On the Rocks and Pitch Slapped in the first half. All in all, this was far from the strongest performance of the night, but the energy level and confidence of the young men allowed them to thrive in the closing spot where other groups may have floundered. Solid outing.
Shawn praises the guys for their heart. Nicole says they gave Shawn a musical orgasm. Ben labels them outsiders, taking a different musical perspective and unlocking fresh sounds. he says the bell tones were killing it.
And we’re on to the final eliminations—this time it’s Men of Note going home. I hate to see the guys leave, but I think the judges did get it right for the second half. Their swan song is Rihanna’s “Take a Bow,” and they also adjust the lyrics, singing “we put on quite a show, very entertaining. Now we’ve got to go.” I really hope someone is making the groups change the lyrics, and now that two groups otherwise respectable groups have done it, I have to assume that’s the case. Super lame.
In the next episode, the remaining groups will sing chart-topping hits and we get previews from each of them. Sounds like Eleventh Hour is singing “Just the Way You Are” by Bruno Mars, On the Rocks has “Live your Life” by TI, Groove for Thought will do Mike Posner’s “Cooler Than Me,” Jerry Lawson and Talk of the Town take on “Mercy” by Duffy, the Whiffenpoofs sing Michael Buble’s “Haven’t Met You Yet” (another excellent song choice for the group, given the parameters), Streetcorner Symphony sings Train’s “Hey Soul Sister,” and committed performs “Apologize” by Timbaland featuring one Republic.
As the closing music plays, it’s fun to see most groups dance along and have fun while the Whiffenpoofs and Talk of the Town clap more stiffly. Conflicting styles are alive and well, despite the eliminations.
We’re still very early in the show, and the second outing will be quite telling. I would contend that Jerry Lawson and Talk of the Town and On the Rocks remain the front runners. if the Backbeats can pull it together and live up to their potential, they could be in the finals mix as well. the story of this show, though, was the breakout performance by the Whiffenpoofs who just might live up to their own hype—they certainly won me over tonight, and if they can keep pulling rabbits from their top hats (you know the ones that came with the tuxedoes at the formalwear store) they just might be in it for the long haul as well.
Continue to follow us here at the a Cappella Blog, where we’ll review each and every episode of the The Sing-Off!
The a Cappella Blog will return to posting every weekday on Monday, January 3, 2011.
- Event Review: The Sing-Off Season 2, Episode 2
- Event Review: The Sing-Off Episode One
- Event Review: The Sing-Off Episode Two
- Event Review: The Sing-Off Episode Three
- Event Review: The Sing-Off Episode Four
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