The Sing-Off 2011 Episode 3: Radio Hits and 60s Classics, Part 1

Hello! I am Zin! And tonight on the third episode of The Sing-Off the remaining groups from Episode 1 sing two songs each: one is a current hit, and the second is a hit from the 60s. I like the theme weeks, it forces them to do something outside the famed comfort zone. As a group they do “Somewhere Only We Know” by Keane.

A side note: In past seasons I have been careful to note not only who performed the song and made it famous, which is what Nick Lachey announces usually, but who actually wrote it. I am not doing that this season, because 1) I only have so much time to recap, and 2) most songs now are written by committee and the performing artist gets a credit for financial purposes whether they contributed anything or not. I am sad about this, because people who write songs deserve a lot of credit for them. But I am tired of looking these things up and finding seventeen names, everyone who wants a cut of the royalties in perpetuity.

I have to say that I will probably not recognize the first group of songs! Maybe if they have been on other singing shows. The second group, I will know them all! I am not sure which is an advantage or a disadvantage. There is something about knowing “how” a song should sound that maybe makes us reluctant to experience it in a new way. But hearing a song for the first time, especially a complex arrangement, can make it hard to pick up a lot of nuances. So I will have to just stay aware of my own limitations for both sets!

Vocal Point, the college group from Brigham Young University, is first up. If you remember, in Week 1, one of their members, Ben, had to go home to Australia because his father had taken a turn for the worse. I am not sure how much real time has passed in these two television weeks, but now his father has passed away, so he is still with his family. One of the group says, “I can’t imagine what it’s like to lose a family member as close to you as your father is.” That strikes me as odd, because in a group of nine college-age boys there must be more than one who has a deceased parent. Not to mention not everyone is that close to his or her father. But these are Mormons, after all. Anyway, they do “Never Say Never” by Justin Beiber. And they do a really nice job of it, too. They have good choreography and good percussion! It is a little overpolished, but that could be the nature of the song; it does tend to be the nature of college choral groups. There were a few moments that were downright outstanding! Overall, high pass. But they will not be in the finals. They are still a touch too choral for this competition.
Ben: “I will never again say I could not enjoy Beiber sung by a bunch of Mormons.” [wow, yeah, it way exceeded that description!] McKay, impressive kick there [it was! He is a star!] from his boy band experience. Great, they sung the hell out of it! Oh, Ben, you should not say that to Mormons!
Sara: She acknowledges the difficulty of performing with Ben MIA under those circumstances. Fun to watch, wholesome thundercats, entertaining. Parts felt stiff.
Shawn: “It’s funny to see a Justin Beiber song by a bunch of grown men.” Good performance. Keith, great hold on a long note, who knew someone so thin could have such big lungs. They do not take themselves too seriously, very entertaining.

Delilah is being billed as “the alum group” which is fair enough, the all-female group of mostly former competitors from past seasons. They do “What Do You Want From Me” by Adam Lambert. In practice they had trouble with the arrangement. But in performance I love the arrangement, they start out with a flat, straight-voice plaintive solo and one at a time joins in, then they end with solos again. It works really well, though I am not crazy about how the bass sounds (not her specifically: she is just fine, very good, it is instead how a female-only group bass sounds that bothers me) but that is an inherent limitation on girl groups and only my opinion! I think they did great but I do not think they will be in the finals; it is a shame, but this genre belongs to men. Or at least to mixed groups. Men can do soprano; women simply can not do true bass! At least I have not yet heard it! They come as close as is possible, though, so I give them a lot of credit. High pass.
Shawn: They gave people a window of how harmonies are built; Kendall was the key, everyone else joined in, and when Jo came in with the thunder bass, that is what it is about, the drama was there, the feeling was there, great job.
Ben: has heard that song a million times but he understood it better this time. They have depth on the bench since they are all-stars, this is why he does this gig, they are developing and innovating something with heart. [This sounds like faint praise to me]
Sara: so exciting how stunning a group of women can be. All powerhouse vocalists. [I propose a moratorium on the word “powerhouse” from here on in] Kendall took her time, set the pace, had me at hello. Jo, strong voice. Amy, powerhouse [see what I mean?] came in a little sharp. Loved it top to bottom, it is a Pink song Adam Lambert made famous (see, she understands about songwriters too!). Girl power.

Urban Method (“All Vocal Hip-Hop” says their website) does “Just Can’t Get Enough” by Black Eyed Peas. I love their choreography and the use of rap, they completely change the sound. Excellent! I am thinking they are in the top cadre for this season!
Sara: so good, loved arrangement, gave each individual a moment to shine, they all sparkle, Liz had a sultry entrance, very cool, Tony did great bass work. Troy, the second lead, is a superstar, fantastic vibrato and expression.
Shawn: They show different ways to interpret a capella, unique niche, unlike anything they’ve ever seen on the show, a lot going on. Richard and Tony did great with the rhythm and bass foundation, good job.
Ben: he dug it, love the rap punk rock attitude, they sell it, theatrical, personality. Produced well. Music of the studio, makes it unique, pulling off ambitious sounds. [When he talks about “produced” and “studio” it makes me nervous for their long-term prospects on this show because those are not good things necessarily; they are not part of an organic sound]

Afro Blue, the college jazz ensemble from Howard University, admit they do not do pop songs so they have to figure out how to bring it to their jazz sound. They want the audience to recognize the song but they want them to know it is an Afro Blue version! I am afraid that is going to limit how far they can go on this show, like it did for ?// last season. They do “American Boy” by Estelle. They start with really nice scat, they do big changes in rhythm; they do an excellent job, even though this is not my favorite style; they are clearly very good at what they do.
Shawn: They took him back to the Harlem Renaissance [which he, and I for that matter, is way too young to have experienced in the first place], when black folks were snazzy and fly and Count Basie, he went there. Danielle took control of the performance, lovely voice. Loves the opening, nothing wrong with that performance.
Sara: they went through so many different dimensions. Beautiful opening, loved when boys came forward, amazing move where they switch feet really fast.
Ben: blown away, how do you remember all that stuff, blend is amazing, the arrangement stellar, people think of jazz as elite [this is hilarious, since it started as music of people who had nothing but talent and it has become snooty] they are driving the point home for the good side of the force. And they are nice which does not always go hand in hand with excellence. [Wow, is that a dig or what.]

YellowJackets from University of Rochester are having time issues. “If we had a month for each song we would be fine but we have a week for two songs.” They do “Dynamite” by Taio Cruz. The first lead does not work; it is too choral. Then finally a real voice kicks in, but I am not sure who it is. I still liked it, but the leads are much too classical for this competition. I would love to see them do Palestrina, though!
Ben: They sell every inch of it. Jamal has an interesting voice [I think he is the one I thought did not work, too classical] Lead needed more stomp, second half of the chorus too. Aaron has a beautiful voice, Danny knocked dynamite off [I think he was the one I noticed]. Pitch tolerance is wide [I am not sure what that means].
Shawn: Jamal was interesting, kept a monotone then got operatic. Mix classical with pop. Need more bass. Overall, a fun performance.
Sara: All heart. Danny and Aaron at end were so. Cute Couple. Issue was that the groove moved. voices are sweet, melodic beds on choruses were massive, sounded like a track, good job.
I think they are in trouble.

Kinfolk 9 see themselves as underdogs. They are focusing on blend, to make up for years not spent together. They like to break into sections to rehearse, then put it together. They do “Price Tag” by Jessie J. The girl lead is very weak. They add a rap as harmony which I like a lot. The leads are off though. I think they are trying to prove they are not all about Moi but I am afraid they are proving they are all about Moi.
Sara: wonderful moments, good job. We noticed you’ve been working hard. Did not grab from the beat go; Jenna Li has a lovely voice, but needs to be more unabashed, not careful or nervous just own it. The energy expanded in the middle and was joyful.
Ben: Serious improvement from first week, when it was all about Moi, the group came together this time. Daniel, grooving fellow, bass was grooving, beatbox locked in.
Shawn, solid performance, improved from first week, bottom was smooth, not to many highs or lows though, could have used more dynamics.
I think they are in trouble.

For that round, I think Kinfolk 9 (who were next to last the first week) and Yellow Jackets had the weakest performances.

And now the 60s songs I actually know! They all talk about how unfamiliar it is. This makes me smile. But come on, if you are going to be musicians, you should know a lot about every era. You can not be a musician if all you know is your favorite stuff.

Delilah does Heat Wave by Martha and the Vandellas. The hair styling, clothes are perfect! They pause at one point and it is disconcerting, it sounds like a mistake. The second lead is meh. Overall, I am not terribly impressed with this number.
Ben: this is the heart of your challenge, a song you can not outsmart. Up until now you have been able to find something to change. Here they had all the stuff but were disadvantaged because they were stuck with the alto range, it is amazing they got through it, but it was not up to what they have been doing. [Yikes, this is maybe the harshest critique I have ever heard Ben give. I agree with him completely]
Sara: they have physicality, stellar vocals, personality, something about the arrangement was missing.
Shawn: another shout out to Jo, who stays cute while singing bass. The second verse was shaky, they have four sopranos, there was nothing in the middle to give it warmth. But the choreography was good, the hand gestures were very 60s-esque, it was worth watching.
They are in trouble!

Urban Method does “Dance to the Music” by Sly and the Family Stone. Percussion solo is great! Bass solo is great. Guitar not as successful but ok. Horns are amazing! Love the scream in there! Really, really good, and they did not use any rap. They are definitely front-runners for me.
Shawn: that is how you do it. Shout out to Troy, channeled a boy and a man. It moved the way it was supposed to move. So many goodies, coordinated with horn section and moves, great performance.
Ben: showed singer side, it is by nature a static song with one chord, they grabbed onto it from the beginning and did not let go, with band backup, inventive, hit it tonight. Their best performance yet.
Sara: also her favorite of their performances. Drives home they are a versatile group, out of the box, loved it, loved the unexpected moments, hey hey hey from Mike like Fat Albert. Awesome.

Vocal Point does “Just the Way You Look Tonight” in a very Sinatra style including the fedoras. Nice arrangement, coordinated gestures, changed rhythms several times, horns as backup. Very nice.
Sara: she is swooning. Feels so polished and theatrical without being a caricature. Earnest and intentional, sold it, she loves it. They make a cute rat pack. Jake as Sinatra lead is great.
Shawn: really good, Jake did some swanky singing, smooth, what the song required, slick, masculine, playful, great performance.
Ben: covered many styles from samba and slow swing, it was like listening to a big band, a quite sick performance, really good.

Afro Blue does “Heard it Through the Grapevine” by Marvin Gaye, which is a little nerve-wracking because those of us who were around twenty years ago see raisins. The opening felt like something went wrong. They did a very complicated modulation which might have been perfect but it sounded muddled; at the very least it was labored, felt like they were working, not effortless. Some harmony did not sound right to me, but that could be the jazz chords. I would give them a low pass on this one, but they are safe for this episode for sure.
Ben: the arrangement picked some fights, some stuff worked brilliantly, other stuff went over our heads. Put a bag over my head and go through a carwash backwards. Something he used to do in the 60s. [that is a new one to me, but it sounds like something that would have happened in the 60s] Soulful, well executed, overthought a little, but amazing. Nice effort.
Shawn: Being able to sing sweet and smooth, it worked. The modulation was effortless. [I disagree; the first thing I thought at the moment it happened was, wow, that was hard work]
Sara: they committed to whatever choices as a unity, pleasure to watch. Bass is amazing, Trent has a sweet soulful voice and a big smile, a charmer. Loved the half time groove, wanted to hear it go back to the 60s at the end as bookends, but really well done.

YellowJackets perform “Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You.” They do horns really well, using the mikes, at first I thought they were using rolled up paper, like programs, but no, they just know what they are doing. It sounds like they are using claves? Terrific! They go over the top on performance, the lead running around the stage, kneeling, going over to Sara and kissing her hand, but they still handled the song very well.
Sara: she is blushing, verklempt, she truly looks flustered. Aaron, so sweet, loves the look the choreography, the use of the wood block [aha, not claves], the bandleader, it was seamless, felt polished.
Ben: trumpet and trombone was a great start. Percussion sounded like an old Wurlitzer drum machine. Falsettos were dead on.
Shawn: Aaron, you kiss-up! Seriously great. Instruments sounded like real instruments. Rises and falls like original, sounded great.
If they were in danger from their first round, I think they redeemed themselves.

Kinfolk 9 chose “Let It Be.” Moi is the lead again. It’s quite choral, but gospel, and the song allows it. I still think Moi is a little over the top physically, but his voice is fantastic on this piece, he does an amp in the middle that is amazing, he can really sing. Maybe he can crouch and squint all he wants if he sings like that.
Shawn: Turned the Beatles to gospel. Moi, the backup took it to another level. Layered and warm and powerful.
Sara: Moi is emotive and expressive, best thing is to see a performer lose himself in the song, it was so natural [I disagree]. Gospel choir, amen. Well done.
Ben: Moi, outstanding performance, sings with a lot of soul. To really hit him in the chest they need to open up a little more, but it was their best performance yet.

Time for judgment! It seems like they are considering past performances, so we have:

Urban Method – Week 1, “Love the Way You Lie” was terrific; “Just Can’t Get Enough” and “Dance To the Music” were great this week. Top in this group.

Vocal Point – Week 1, “Jump, Jive and Wail” from Week 1, “Never Say Never, “Just The Way You Are Tonight,” all solid, all very good. At some point they will be too collegiate but for now they are a solid in.

Afro Blue – week 1, “Put Your Record On” worked though I did not care for the style; this week, “American Boy” cooked with same disclaimer, and “Heard it Through The Grapevine” was ok. They will be safe, though eventually they will be out.

YellowJackets – Week 1, A Waving Flag was really good but maybe carried on emotion, it was very choral; This week “Dynamite” did not quite work, but “You’re Just Too Good To Be True” was great. They could be in trouble. I think they are going to eventually fold for being too collegiate.

Kinfolk 9 – Week 1, “Secrets” was good but they were next to last in their bracket; this week, “Price Tag” was better but still weak, though “Let It Be” was off the charts. They could be in trouble.

Delilah – Week 1 they did Grenade and the lead was terrific, but they were still in the bottom for their bracket of four (more as a natural limitation of the female voice than because they did not do well); this week they were strong on “What Do You Want From Me” and weak on “Heat Wave.” I think they are limited simply because they are all-girls, it is not their fault. They could be in trouble.

Possibilities are YellowJackets, Kinfolk 9, and Delilah. I suspect it will be Delilah who is out. Because Kinfolk 9 have improved and have more room for improvement with time; Delilah have intrinsic limitations that they have not been able to overcome so far.

But no – Kinfolk 9 is out! I am surprised! I am disappointed! They do “Loser” as a swan song with Moi as lead. He really is pretty great. You can visit their website and wish them well!

Ok, I have thought about this. I was pretty unhappy last night! I thought Delilah or even YellowJackets should have gone home. This is the first time I have disagreed with the Sing-Off judges!

But now, I have considered. I think while “Let It Be” was amazing, but it is an amazing song that I love and it got a lot of bump from that. And, the big problem: Kinfolk 9 boils down to Moi plus backup. The backup could be anyone. When he was not the lead, they were pretty bad. Now, maybe that was coincidence, and if they tried again they would be better. But fact is, they had two weak and one strong performance, and the strong was mostly due to the lead. They are not yet a group.

And these are not people who formed a group because they love a capella music; they are solo artists who did this as a way to get exposure. If that had been a major factor, they would have been sent home the first week. But it does make me feel a little better.

I am glad I heard them! I think I will download “Let It Be,” it was that good! I still listen to “Romeo” and “Come Sail Away” from last year, and I will add it to that. And I hope Moi gets something out of this, because I do think he has a wonderful way of singing, though I still could do without all that emoting. And I think he needs a makeover; he looks too Bobby Sherman for me, though he sings much better.

Next week, the other six groups will do the same themes, and we will see what happens!

ETA: I just discovered Ben Folds does a blog on the NBC Sing-Off site! It takes a day or two for the current episode to go up, but it is worth it!

2 responses to “The Sing-Off 2011 Episode 3: Radio Hits and 60s Classics, Part 1

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