Archive for December 10th, 2013

jewelWelcome back.

I was pleased in the first hour of the show to do a fairly good job staying up to speed with the judges. I’ve had episodes where I’ve been right on the mark and a few that left me utterly scratching my head. I figure it won’t be the last time for either of these situations.

Jewel has made a very fresh addition to the show. Adding a country charm mixed with a solid understanding of music, performance, the industry; Jewel is not afraid to speak her mind. Throughout the show she gives a truly honest feel for her opinions and at times does not resist to be a dissenting voice between the other Judges. I enjoyed Sarah Bareilles, but I always felt that she was pushing more fluff than substance. In the case of Jewel, her compliments seem very genuine and her critiques seem even more educated.

To answer these, let me get into the analysis and review

The show rolled from hour one directly into hour two. The big exception of course in the second hour was the tease concerning who would face off against, “Princeton.”

One nice moment during the show was a tip of the hat to visiting winners Pentatonix who were in the audience to attend the taping of the episode. Many fans of “The Sing Off” but not necessarily the group may have been surprised to discover that Kirstie Maldonado isn’t actually a blonde. Personally, I’ve always wondered if that was her idea, the group’s idea, or the producers to make her blonde for the season 3 competition. Also on a personal note; she looks far better with more natural dark hair.

Back to the competition.

tenGroup 6: Ten – “Tell Me Something Good” – Rufus and Chaka Kahn

Rolling in from Dallas, 10 professional backup singers came together to form a group to compete on The Sing Off. Several of the series competing groups have come from this origin. The back story on Ten notes that as a group they have never performed on stage before. This was the case for last year’s winner (oft mentioned) Pentatonix, however, in the case of PTX the core 3 vocalists had been performing together for years. Ten projects a high level of gospel inspiration going all the way to their faith in God above to help carry their group and their voices to the top.

My review: The gospel influence and sound of Ten is apparent from the first measure. They demonstrate some very experienced and complex jazz harmonies.  Sadly, for 10’s accumulated experience; their group’s lack of experience is their downfall.

  • There was a ‘laggy’ feeling to the ensemble parts. You’d expect much sharper group dynamic.
  • 10 gospel singers run the occasional risk of running into the “Wall of Sound” issue.
  • In general there was a lack of cohesion to the entire dynamic.

The judges:

  • Ben Folds: Amazing, Everyone has great voices but every song has a story to be told and this story was lost. He referred to that as the group’s crack in their armour.
  • Shawn Stockman: All powerhouse singers but noted the cohesiveness was missing.
  • Jewel: Disagreed entirely with Ben and Shawn. Said the group hit the first chord amazingly and the harmonies were very tight. Jewel also noted that she felt the store and thought it was great.


elementGroup 7: Element – “Burn” – Ellie Goulding

In a throwback to such memorable past season groups as Delilah and Pitch Slapped; Element is the sole all-female group in this seasons competition. 10 strong singers from around the US converged on New York to emphasise that female groups can hold their own in a male dominated niche of music. The also stress that as an all female group they are aware of the limitation of their voices for certain ranges and plan to use clever arrangement to make up for it.

My review: And indeed the group did make up for some of the range shortcomings with a very good arrangement. I felt their entry was a little tenuous but once they got rolling they were in strong voice. There were some great harmonies and unisons among the lead singers which gives potential for a lot of variation going forwards. their beatbox could easily stand with some of the greats from past seasons. My biggest concerns:

  • Similar to Delilah, have they given us their most powerful from the start and can they keep it up and make the dynamic changes or will they weaken moving away from the style.
  • Low to high was a very small space. I think they started to strong and didn’t leave themselves to far to reach without overpowering. They may have peaked in song too soon.

The Judges:

  • Jewel: Loved the electronic sounding beat loop. Clever and smart arrangement. Rushed the pocket of building up. Power doesn’t come from rushing or getting louder it comes from intensity. Noting the limitations of the female chest voice range, she applauded the group working well with their ranges.
  • Shawn: Loved the look of the group, called them beautiful. Commented that they didn’t leave themselves enough room to build. Started the floor too high.
  • Ben: Noted the fact that it was an all girl group in an all male area. Complimented the creative ways the group used to get through it. Sees the potential dynamic in the group. Wishes they’d started the song as one voice near a whisper and worked from there.



Group 8: Voice Play – “Feel This Moment” – Pitbull

When I saw Voice Play online they had a female guest singer that really gave them some stunning depth. Again referencing last season’s top group; they had a strong PTX vibe about them. The have a tenor with a clean falsetto, a strong midrange, and a fantastic bass. Adding in a surprisingly good beat box it’s hard not to see some PTX in them.

My review: The group appears to have added the female to the line up for the purposes of the competition. This is positive because it gives them the ability to have some sounds that they otherwise wouldn’t have. It also separates them from groups that are all of one gender. Their piece was a simple dance hit where they kept running thru different arrangements, styles, vocal tricks, and harmonies. Many of the “Vocal tricks” right down to the group ending on the sound of an album being slowed to a stop were HIGHLY out of PTX’s playbook. So much so that when the group finished, if you watch carefully, you can see Ben Folds steal a look back at where Pentatonix is seated from when  introduced earlier in the show. I loved them to pieces and I only had two small nit picks:

  • The female vocalist has an almost character like voice. It’s not generic; but I feel it could be grating or annoying in the wrong arrangement.
  • The vocal stunts were like watching all of PTX performances at once. I really hope that wasn’t the end of their show. PTX excelled by using their surprises in a limited manner. Now if Voice Play has just opened one can of surprises, then they may be the group to beat.

The Judges:

  • Shawn: Percussion kept the piece moving. Felt the take off was slow but then became a good performance.
  • Jewel: Loved the character of the female voice. Not being a generic voice will help it stand out. Jewel felt it was smart to add her to the group. She noted it was a dance track so it felt like the same section was just repeated with different styles. Did say that it was interesting to hear.
  • Ben: One of the great moments were the harmonies. Midrange can suffer and this didn’t. The piece felt really good. He wished that there was more of a consistent line through the piece.



Group 9: The Filharmonic- “Treasure” – Bruno Mars

6 first-generation Filipino American boys trying to recapture the “Boy Band” sound of the 90s. Very energetic and full of personality and post pubescent bravado, The Filharmonic has an infectious manner about them.

My review: I am not a Boy Band fan. I think the last Boy Band that I really got into was “The Monkees” which probably says a lot about me. The Filharmonic blew my mind. They came out of the gate in a hard sprint and didn’t let up. They completely captured the style and new the sounds of the voices in the group and how to make them work best for the performance.  The harmonies were obscenely tight and the lead vocalist clicked into what he was doing vocally as well as how he performed. Finally, the piece fit their niche perfectly. I could easily hear their performance as a produced single. I honestly had nothing bad to say about them.

The Judges:

  • Jewel: Appreciated the fact that the performance came at her. She called it her first love note. Loved the bass lines and the group’s personality.
  • Ben:Found it absolutely fun and entertaining. Grabbed it from the first note. Did say that he noticed them get a little ahead of the beat.
  • Shawn: Strongly appreciated the style from his Boyz II Men background. Admitted that this style is not loud but smooth especially in the harmonies. Also credited the bass for locking in and keeping a groove. Thought the bands charisma was natural and fun. Noted there were some imperfections but didn’t mention what they were.



Group 10: acoUstiKats – “Blurred Lines” – Robin Thicke

It seems that The Sing Off likes to have two different college groups. I saw a video from this group ahead of the performance. I was surprised that they didn’t have a Wall of Sound to them despite their size. The AcoUstiKats showed a surprising sense of harmony and a lack of glee club cleanliness that set them apart from collegiate groups. Their bio tended to swing more towards smarmy fraternity ‘guys’ than really giving the feeling of a serious group.

My review: The group did in fact repeat the good sides in performance. Good balance, no real wall of sound. The group obviously carries its character into its performance. My issues:

  • The song was a weak pick as it tended to throw around more of the Frat-Boy mentality when their music seems to stand above that.
  • In the free form section it got a bit chaotic and lost it’s cohesion.

The Judges:

  • Ben: It was fun. Very good. The fun was controlled an a way that was reasonable. However it did get rushed when the fun occurred.
  • Shawn: Noted that the vocalist Ron showed about 3 octaves. Fun to watch
  • Jewel: Giggled. Commented that she needed an acousti-shower. Pleased that the obviously trained lead vocalist could drop the training to be looser in pop stylings.

At the end of the second half my picks from top to bottom:

  1. Voice Play
  2. Filharmonic
  3. Element
  4. AcoUstiKats
  5. Ten

My call is that Ten will edge out Princeton. (At least it is honestly my hope to see Princeton sent home this week. Apologies to any fans of the Footnotes)

The judges call three safe… grill two, then pick the 4th safe eliminating the 5th.

3 safe:

  • Filharmonic
  • Ten
  • AcoUstiKats

Well this is a surprise. I suppose I should be happy to see I’ve misread the judges and I’m not just parroting their opinions. But to be honest; this feels wrong. Even taking what the judges had to say; they seemed to like Voice Play the most out of the 5 groups this hour. Also, Ten was a surprising entry in the top 3 safe. They really gave Ten the most critique of the lot.

Honestly at this point… Element and Voice Play were in my top 3, I really would hate to see either eliminated.

And then add in: Element

Voice Play is at the bottom of Part 2 but will face off against The Princeton Footnotes in the “Ultimate Sing Off”?

My spouse and I were utterly reeling. This made no sense. Voice play had an issue; but not on a par to put them at the bottom of these other 4 groups. For the first time; we began to feel… odd about this season.

Upcoming Voice Play will face off against the Princeton Footnotes in the “Ultimate Sing Off”…

Knowing what we’ve seen in the hour, this should be an embarrassment. Voice Play is just too good. They’ve been talking about how each group will have minutes to bring their best chance to change the Judges mind and keep them.

What occurred next was in fact an embarrassment. However, I feel the embarrassment belongs squarely on the shoulders of Mark Burnett.

Both groups sang the song “Bye, Bye, Bye” simultaneously as if in an arm wrestling match. An actual ”sing off’ which each group doing some very complicated choreography and arrangements. I’d almost believe that it looked as rehearsed and produced as one of the opening numbers. Actually that’s not correct… I honestly feel that’s what I watched. We were utterly in disbelief that either of these groups could muster that kind of performance in the suggested time offered.

Both were polished and gave performances better than some of the groups that were voted to stay in. Ben Folds went so far as to say “If you’d performed like that during the show, you wouldn’t be here trying to stay in.” In general, Vocal Play did what Vocal Play does. Princeton wasn’t even Princeton. They gave a performance that was fiery, raucous, and seemed beyond coached.

In general this “Ultimate Sing Off” I have to say feels like it cheapens the show. I can not bring myself to believe that this isn’t prepared. It was suggested that all the first hour groups might have to prepare their half and all the second half groups have to prepare theirs. (Similar to the farewell song of seasons past)… This would explain the choreography and arrangements for each group but doesn’t explain the times that the two sides harmonise together.

Further, with all the press from Burnett about how this is a ‘feel good’ show and how it ’embraces the holiday spirit’ this section undoes that. Instead of groups competing with themselves to be the best they can be; it now becomes a head-to-head battle for elimination reducing this down to the ugliness that you get on Survivor.

Throughout the previous three seasons it was made clear that even though the groups are competing for an end prize, there is a love and respect between the groups and a sense of family that extends among them all. This one section removes that allusion and makes it seem far more vicious. Personally, I don’t think that’s what the fans of this show are about. Even if it did occur in “Pitch Perfect.”

Looking ahead here are my odds going into Wednesday’s 2nd episode to survive “Party Anthems”

  • AcoUstiKats 5:1
  • Calle Sol 3:1
  • Element 7.5:1
  • Filharmonic 5:1
  • Home Free 10:1
  • Street Corner Renaissance 10:1
  • Ten 20:1
  • Vocal Rush 10:1
  • Voice Play 5:1

If I had to call the Ultimate Sing Off for the next episode (which I guess I should) I’m going to go with Street Corner Renaissance edging Ten. I love SCR but Party Anthem could be a stumble for them.

  • Single Best Thing in Episode 1: Jewel
  • Single Worst Thing: The Ultimate Sing Off
  • Single Nice Thing: Hi Pentatonix! Kirstie looks awesome with black hair. (And they will perform in the finale episode!)

Tomorrow it’s another episode! See you there!

Please feel free to leave comments in the blog. I’m always happy to hear any opinion whether it agrees or not.

Ratings: (18-49) 2.4 /  8.4(M)

Additional Reviews:

(And here I am on a Tuesday evening desperately missing “Face Off“)

singofflogoNow that was a hell of a title.

I have to admit, the promotion for this show left me stunningly confused. “Shorter season,” “Two week Special”, “Holiday special”… Well, it would seem that we’re back to a 7 episode run that will be multiple episodes in a week. This feels a might bit rushed and pressured. We know that the actual production time is much longer. So, there may not be any instrumentation on the voices, but there is definitely a tonne of behind the scenes being cut to remove some of the reality of what goes into this show.

In my previous post, I had the chance to review 6 of the 10 groups that would be competing. Would we see another Pentatonix? Would we have another Fannin Family? Could a college group not sound pristine with a wall of sound? Could a classic Doo-Wop group modernize?

To answer these, let me get into the analysis and review

The Sing Off came back with a bang and much like “Family Guy” made no bones about being away for ‘too long.’ The show launched right out of the 2 minutes over finale of “The Voice” into it’s always big production number. A nice change is that each group gets a carve out to give a taste of their style and sound. You could tell that the Judges were thrilled to be there as they quietly mouthed (or sang) along from their box. There were fireworks. I figure if we can’t eliminate groups, 2nd degree burns are a good start. Both Shawn Stockman and Ben Folds were like giddy kids getting to see Santa again after missing him the previous year. (Not too far off). This year had one noticeable change. Jewel in for Sarah Bareilles. More 0n Jewel as the recap continues

For me, the thing that told me it was back was not the opening number, but the fun little opening theme to the show. It’s simple but captures the feel of the program. This of course was promptly followed by 98 Degrees own Nick Lachey making his fourth appearance as host. Initially I found Nick a little abrasive but he’s got a good feel going this year so he feels like part of the family.

The first episode (as is tradition) features “Signature Songs” I assume these are songs that are free pick from the groups to show what they think best represents them. (Assuming NBC can get the clearance for a performance. Pentatonix lost this one in season 3 as they couldn’t get clearance for their audition piece “Telephone”) The new season also adds a new wrinkle. “The Ultimate Sing Off.” At the end of the show the bottom group from the first half will sing against the bottom group from the second half for a chance to survive until next we… um…err… the next show. (Did I mention the schedule confused me?) I’m not going to go into detail here on the “Ultimate Sing Off” but I assuredly will later.

Onto the competition.

vocal-rushGroup 1: Vocal Rush – “Bottom of the River” – Delta Rae

Vocal Rush is a group of 12 high-schoolers from Oakland, California’s ‘Oakland School for the Arts.’ They’ve won the international championship for High School a cappella for the two years they’ve competed in it since the groups inception in 2011. Vocal Rush is the youngest group on the show for this season.

My review: The performance honestly surprised me. The song had a noticeable complexity which surpassed my preconceived guesses. The dancing in the group invoked a little too much show choir for me, but that’s not necessarily going to count against them. The two things that I noticed the most working against them was:

  • A noticeable bit of unevenness on entries. You could here a lot of separation in voices.
  • Male voices don’t deepen and richen (typically) before 18. The male voices were very thin.

The judges:

  • Ben Folds: Good soul, very focussed, Strong beat box, Great lead
  • Shawn Stockman: Shows strong maturity for age, excellent dynamics (swell) Liked the dancing Lead sold the song.
  • Jewel: Beautiful performance, Good swell, Good musical influences (Reminded her of Nina Simone bringing righteous anger)


home-freeGroup 2: Home Free – “Cruise” – Florida Georgia Line

5 Country singers from Minneapolis (and the road by way of RV) Home free travels the country performing at fairs and festivals trying to make a name for Country a cappella music. The performance of this piece was seeded to YouTube a week or so before the show. I had the chance to view this one in advance.

My review: I am assuredly not a fan of country music. I will respond to the occasional cross-over piece or mainstay. (I actually like “Thank God, I’m a Country Boy” though I’m not sure if it’s country or cross-over. That’s how far out of the country-loop I am) Home free to me played like Pentatonix – the tricks + Country. They have an amazing bass who (thanks the style) gets to run free a lot more. A good beat box which is not expected in the style at all. The vocal stylings were potent and strong. Tight harmonies… A contender for the series.

The Judges:

  • Ben: Felt the bass, loved the lead vocals by Austin, Great focus on the song
  • Jewel: Bluegrass tight harmonies that lend well to a cappella. Noted the bass range going from bass to tenor 1. Loved the lack of vibrato.
  • Shawn: Country is the White Man’s R&B. Tim is a natural “freaky” bass. Not trying to be a bass, simply is a bass. Loved Rob’s beard. Wants to hear more from them.



Group 3: The Princeton Footnotes – “I Know You Were Trouble” – Taylor Swift

The Princeton Footnotes have an Ivy League Legacy that dates back to the early 1960s and…um… The 13 man singing…um… Sigh. I prescreened a song from the Footnotes and was sadly underwhelmed. I really try to enter in with an objective view; but the prescreen song was what I expect from Ivy League, College Glee. A lack of soul and personality. In the pre-performance group spotlight one of the members commented, “We each have our own little quirks.” Unfortunately, this read to me like, “See our tenor over there? He collects stamps!” Then I saw what they were performing. If you haven’t seen the a cappella performance of this piece by YouTube sensation “Walk Off The Earth with KRNFX” please watch it, because that is truly a canonical version of the song. And WOTE isn’t actually an a cappella group by nature. Needless to say, going in, this is the WRONG song for an Men’s College group. The problems?

  • Out of the get there were chord collisions
  • The lead vocalist was horribly tinny (along with most of the group)
  • Dynamic was “Wall of Sound” which readers from season 3 know I hate.
  • And the most offensive, inserting, “We love you, Ben” into the lyrics.

The Judges:

  • Shawn: Taylor Swift would never have imagined this version (A polite insult to the group), tenors/baritones held the core (suggestion others didn’t), Leads weren’t loose, too uptight.. But blames them coming from Princeton for that. (Not a good eval)
  • Ben: Good opening chord. Came unglued in the harmonies. Had an arc.
  • Jewel: Love’s Swift’s writing. (Does not relay that to the performance) “Melted down a bit”, notes that while there were tenors and baritones, the three basses which are the tonic of the chord didn’t lock it in and weren’t tight.



Group 4: Calle Sol – “Pon de Replay” – Rihanna

6 professional musicians from Puerto Rico who bring Latino a cappella along with some very fiery dancing. 4 women and 2 men (The men are the beatbox and the combined bass, bari, tenor) Calle Sol (Sun Street) hope to bring Latino music to a cappella and break into US audiences.

My review: The initial entry felt full enough to not sound like a cappella music. The women all share very strong chemistry and harmony. The dancing was energetic but left the attention on the men which are definitely a touch weaker than the women. The downsides:

  • While the beatbox had some great melodic percussion instruments (Block and cowbell) at times it seemed a little messy.
  • The vocal male was spread too thin and is neither bass nor tenor leaving the midrange feeling a bit thin and empty.


  • Ben: Really fun and really unique sound. This can be an asset and a liability. Noticed the lack of a full sound.
  • Jewel: Everyone got a chance to shine. Female vocalists had a very good showing. The Plena rhythms were very impressive. Loved the melodic percussive instruments.
  • Shawn: Prime example of how a cappella lends to any style of music. If they can meet the challenge of filling the middle and the midrange, they have the potential of a greater height.



Group 5: Street Corner Renaissance – “What Makes You Beautiful” – One Direction

Every season of The Sing Off needs at least one good ol’ fashioned Doo-Wop group where the age of just one of the members is likely to exceed the total age of all the members of another group. SCR from Los Angeles brings in that old school sound. The concern with the Doo-Wop group in this series is that they play from a niche. They sing the old songs, they sing them one way.

My review: I saw this performance much like I did with Home Free. I was stunned to discover that this song is from a young English-Irish pop boy-band and is only about a year or two old. The original is assuredly not Doo-Wop. SCR on the other hand completely made this song their own. The song felt like a classic that was in my dad’s set of 45s. I don’t know if this kind of stunt arranging will get them thru the competition, but I want albums from them. Honestly, I just want to hug them.

The judges:

  • Shawn: Hug them was exactly what Shawn did. Each one at a time. You could tell this was his roots and his respect and his love. His comment upon sitting down, “Children, take notes.” he added that this was swag, it had texture, the harmonies are classic. This style will ALWAYS sound good. He pointed out the falsetto was smooth and enjoyed it immensly.
  • Jewel: Doo-Wop is about the feel. It’s not about tight or technical. They testified. The arrangement was just perfect.
  • Ben: The group had an honesty that gets lost in singers. He liked them


So… at the end of one half here were my picks from top to bottom:

  1. Home Free
  2. Street Corner Renaissance
  3. Calle Sol
  4. Vocal Rush
  5. Princeton Footnotes.

The judges call three safe… grill two, then pick the 4th safe eliminating the 5th.

3 safe:

  • Street Corner Renaissance
  • Vocal Rush
  • Home Free

And then add in: Calle Sol

Princeton Footnotes is at the bottom of Part 1 but will ‘Fight again?’ in the “Ultimate Sing Off”

In all it was a good mix of groups.

Tomorrow: the 2nd five groups, the Ultimate Sing Off, How the Judges did. And how the series looks going forwards in my less than edumicated opinion.