Tag Archive: music

singofflogoA few thoughts going into Monday’s Sing-Off Season 4 Finale (this is being written before Monday’s show and does not take into account any of Monday’s performances).

Each of the three groups left has a different strength.

Vocal Rush has my heart; Ten has my head; Home Free has my ear.

Vocal Rush is full of youthful energy and exuberance. They have several strong leads and can pass the melody among them without a loss of momentum. I always find myself rooting for them. Sometimes the energy gets a little out of control and affects the harmony, but I have to really be listening for it, in most cases, for minor tuning issues to affect how I feel at the end of the performance. Which is usually wonderful.

I would be happy, and not surprised, if they won because they have an infectious sound and lots of potential. I would also not be surprised because, as a young group, they will bring the Glee and Pitch Perfect crowd to concerts and to iTunes.

Ten has experience, a mature depth to their choral sound, rich harmonies, and the ability to mix their voices to sound like even more than ten. I was surprised to learn in one of the background videos that none of them read music, and learn all of their parts by ear from the arranger (who is also the percussionist). They have been playing up their Gospel/Soul roots and it has been effective in showing off their style.  I’m not the biggest fan, personally, of the gospel-revival “come to Jesus” arrangements BUT there’s no doubt that when they build a song up to that frenzy, it’s infectious (and also in tune).

I would be happy for Ten if they won. They will be great in a tour with other artists (either the SingOff tour or with other Soul groups). I do not think they will win because they are not quite commercial enough for Sony.

Home Free has tight, seemingly effortless harmonies, a smooth-faced, smooth-voiced lead, a kick-ass bass and a country swagger. I really love listening to them even though country is not my favorite genre.  They have shown some growth and imagination in their arrangements; varying the style and drama within the song. I would like to see more of that variety and more of a build up to the climax of a song. That might be the only thing keeping them from being this year’s Pentatonix (more on that in a minute).

I would be happy if Home Free won. They show off the best of what a small a cappella group can do. I think they stand a fair chance of commercial success because Country music is hot, and Country fans are loyal. They may even have a rabid band of followers from the fair/festival circuit already.

One final note…

Since the P-word keeps getting brought up this year, the inevitable comparison to Pentatonix will surely show on the finale since they will actually be performing. None of this years groups are as good or as exciting at PTX. We have not seen Shawn Stockman stand up and laud anyone for “being sent from the future to save a cappella.”  However, I think Home Free, and not VoicePlay, are this years closest equivalent because of the tight harmony (basically a quartet with a percussionist). Sure, PTX and VP each had four men and a woman, but in PTX, Kristi does not (usually) sing lead; she fills in the middle harmony. VP was much more “all about the girl”, almost like the guys were her backup singers. PTX has a lead but it always feels like an ensemble no matter who has the melody. Home Free has much more of the ensemble feel along with the close harmonies, but a much different energy.

Until next time…


Well, what’s left?

As I have admitted, I watched episode 2 before episode 1. So I saw Pentatonix earlier than the others. Their first song alone had me falling out of my chair in amazement, bewilderedness, and above all, a HUNGER for more. How they do this and why they move into my first position will come after the analyses of the songs:

“E.T.” – (Signature) (iTunes, YouTube)
I was not familiar with this song. This added to the feeling that I can only define as, “I have never heard a sound like this.” A lyric tenor, a baritone with a high lift, and a woman with range hard to place. They each have their own sound and yet can get into tight harmonies in the same octave that personally I think is on par with the sound that Lennon and McCartney stamped all over the Beatles. But then you add in a very deep bass with a sense of harmony not merely rhythm and a beat box that produces sounds that you just don’t hear in Acapella that adds not just sound but dramatic character and you have an entirely new sound. More on these tight harmonies later.

“Your Love is My Drug” (Pop) (iTunes, YouTube)
A pounding rhythm and bass that sounds like an electronic track. Tight harmonies between the two high voices. Again placing a voice like Chris Colfer is not easy. And these voices just blend. You actually lose track of who’s on back up vocals because they stay the same regardless of the lead. And then the surprise. The beatbox not mearly sounds like he spins down the record, but the whole group follows in one motion. All the sound comes to a record stop. The song then goes VERY free form. Again… a sound I have NEVER heard. Now this was the song that Pentatonix has singled out for getting too far from the original. The judges didn’t take well to it. Shorter digression:


It is better that this hits Pentatonix here for two reasons: It’s earlier and it’s not as well known a song. You take Grapevine, and the later Pentatonix performed Video Killed and these are very huge classics. I think one can say that the average listener of “Your Love” has likely heard the other two songs and either loves them or hates them. The converse doesn’t hold and that works in Pentatonix’ favour. The average fan of Grapevine or Video Killed is more likely than not to have NEVER heard “Your Love is a Drug” which will afford them more leeway with audience buying them for the songs they know that do follow the three Rs.


“Piece of My Heart” (60s) (iTunes, YouTube)
This was a huge risk on the group’s part. Janice Joplin is a land mine of expectations. Not the least of which is taking a song of Feminine empowerment and giving the lead to a man. This was about as far as Pentatonix has gone from their core sound. The song works okay for them but they are at their best when they are bringing a song up a notch into a new realm.

“Video Killed the Radio Star” (Guilty) (iTunes, YouTube)
I honestly don’t know where to start with this. The magic of the backing vocals changing between people effortlessly shows here. This is the song where you really get the feeling that there are more than 3 primary voices in the group. Again the beat box brings in new sounds to an old classic while giving the utmost respect and reference to the original.


So what is it about Pentatonix that puts them in first place in my eyes.
Well my battery is almost dead but when I return there will be what I call a nearly endless arsenal of weapons of music construction.

Let’s go with the obvious ones First:

1) Avi Kaplan – Not merely a bass but one who has melodic control. The Bass is often relegated to the background. A strong bass is the foundation. An unbelievable bass is one that adds character.

2) Kevin “K.O.” Olusola – A beatbox that produces sound that add character and compliment to the music. Rhythm is more than just adding drum sounds. It’s adding the right drum sound or not-a-drum sound at the right time. K.O. finds sounds that compliment the songs to provide not just the rhythm, but the tone of the piece.

1&2 together) Often the bass does one thing; the beat does one thing, and sometimes they go into unison. Avi and K.O. have a penchant for creating and performing collaborations. Bass and Beat worked together to create a specific sound that would be “Wrong” if not done that way together.

1 & 2 – Did I mention they both sing on occasion to fill in parts?

3) The remaining 12 vocalists, all three of them.

In the early eighties a three sister a capella group called “The Roches” did a rendition of “The Hallelujah Chorus.” This wasn’t the best performance in the world or the cleanest voices. But the three voices were so matched in their harmonies that the lead changes would disguise the backing vocals flipping parts. You were never quite sure who was on which backing harmony and as a result you mentally heard more voices than there were.

Listening to “Video Killed” you really lose track of who is doing the backing harmonies.

4) Scott Hoying – A strong Baritone with a controlled tenor lift, bass drop, and soft falsetto. More often than not Scott is the front man on melodies. Hoying’s ability to move between ranges lets him instantly mesh with either of the other two vocalists on backing vocals.

5) Mitch Grassi – A high lyric tenor with an almost Chris Colfer sound can be a curse. In this case while it can be; it isn’t. Pentatonix makes very wise choices as to what will fit Mitch’s voice both in backing and in lead. Again, like Scott, his range makes his blends in the back effortless.

6) Kirstie Maldonado – Experienced with complex harmonies, a soothing alto and a powerful soprano prove as always that the biggest things can come in very small packages.

4&5&6 together) Bouncing off each other’s range, they effectively create harmonies that truly weave their voices. You’re never really sure who’s doing the backing vocals. I mentioned earlier concerning Lennon and McCartney. One of the strongest things they gave the Beatles were those intertwined vocals. They were unmistakably one and only one band. I think these three do this for Pentatonix.

Did I mention that they also sometimes fill in on the beatbox and the bass?

There truly is no sense of ego here. Everyone does all the heavy lifting, everyone will back away from the spotlight. Everyone has a job and knows it’s a team effort.

And then there’s the sound they create. It is not evolutionary it is revolutionary. Pentatonix takes the genre of A capella to a new realm. The judges describe them as ‘delivered from the future’ to ‘teach us how it should be done’

Pentatonix for me is the clear winner, because they are ALREADY working at a level that I’d expect from a group with a recording contract.

By this point episode 6 has run and I was clearly wrong. This post will continue on the previous ones and take apart my #3 and #2 groups. The following post will be an examination of my pick for the winner. In a few days I’ll have the Post episode 6 evaluation. What I got right, wrong, and where I think the judges fouled out. My notes for the next two posts do not take episode 6 into consideration.

On the record: Of the remaining three groups; I would buy albums from any of them. I would love to see ANY of them perform live. That being said, I have to take them down one at a time.

Urban Method. I feel bad taking them down in third because they are just so damned good. They really haven’t done anything wrong. And it is so refreshing to hear a rapper brought into Acapella where they really belong anyway. Urban Method has a great mix that doesn’t rely on any one of their parts. One of this hidden weapons of this group is Vocalist Troy who can pull the spot light as easily as Myk on Rap. A very tight group.


The songs so far on a one by one:

Love the Way you Lie” (Signature)
This duet was amazing. I think the female vocal could have had a little more strength. Not so much in power but in confidence. The Rap was so powerful against it that it almost felt overwhelming. The backing vocals in this are amazing. Great buzz to the bass. The blend in the background just lets the piece ride.

Just Can’t Get Enough” (Pop)
At first I truly thought there were going to be NO rap vocals in this. The Bass literally shook me. The secondary male vocals are outstanding.Much better blend between these two. Musically very tight. Hard tradition to the funk. The backing gets a bit muddy here. This is still a stunning song.

Dance to the Music” (60’s)
This is a complicated song. With a great deal of syncopated vocals. This one has minimal rap. Urban Method did a stunning job of making this song sound like the original but still stamped with their own sound. This was about as far from their base that I heard them travel. This was a show of stunning diversity.

Poison” (Guilty)
Flawless cover of the song. Poison rap fit in perfectly. Voices were perfect for this song. Didn’t depart too far from the original. Female backing vocals really blend well on this one. This is a single to buy. Fantastic all around. Their best showing.

There really isn’t one bad song in this lot of 4. So how do they wind up in third on my list. Again, Urban Method is FANTASTIC. But there is almost nothing truly new to what they are doing. They are just doing it better than anyone else who is recapturing a sound. They have chosen a sound that’s been lost to Acapella. Funk, Rap, Urban… this was the sound of South Philly outside the doowop sound that would birth groups like Bel Biv Devoe who Urban Method is paying tribute to.

Urban Method is an amazing rebirth tribute to an Acapella sound that does not get enough airplay or groups in the industry and I do hope they turn out many albums. However, as I’ve said… they haven’t given me the something “New” that I think can come this season from the other two groups.

Deciding between Afro Blue and Pentatonix is in its own way a nightmare. Both groups are so amazingly different that there has to be a reason one will stand in the long run over the other. I watched the first two weeks and called my #1 group on the first performance and so far am staying with them. Both groups were singled out for one song going “Too far” from its base and being too complicated and over thought. Both groups pulled it in the following week by raising the bar to the next level.

My number two is going to have to be Afro Blue. I really love this group. Honestly they have made some complex jazz very accessible. The blends are effortless. They use scat, jazz, samba, and a whole array of mixed styles. And as I was recently reminded. They are a college group. They don’t sound like it. But they are. And Howard should be VERY proud.

The songs so far one a one by one:

Put Your Records On” (Signature)
A sultry lead voice with a fantastic female backup blend. The bass and rhythm sounds like something out of an after hours jazz mixer. The simple breakouts just make you want to lay back with quadrophonic headphones by a pool or in some exotic location and drift along for the ride.Even when this could get a bit spread out, the group keeps the blend together. This is very nice.

American Boy” (Pop)
Scat… And two people together followed by everyone else. This is a “Wow”. And it just keeps going. Even as backing. A different lead singer giving the group a very different tone. The Andrews Sisters would be excited with a touch of Boogie-Woogie here. Again, blends that just happen naturally. A touch of Beat record scratch to modernise and you are hooked.

Heard it Through the Grapevine” (60s)
This was the song singled out for getting too complicated. I will agree, about halfway through AfroBlue tries to take the song in a new direction. We lose the original driving nearly heart beat bass line that makes many folks remember animated dancing raisins. This requires a digression.

A cover of a song is different from a reworking of a song which is different from a new interpretation of a song. The more classic the original the more eggshells you are inevitably walking on the further you move from base. A one hit wonder is much like a cult classic film. The important thing is that you must approach the original with “Three R’s”: reverence, respect, and reference. This is why ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic has been able to continue to churn out satire after satire since the 1970s. Reverence is needed because the original has its position in history. Respect is because the listener has a personal attachment to it. Reference because the listener has specific hooks that give that attachment. An example would be like singing “Take On Me” shifted down 3-5 keys so that the singer didn’t have to hit as high a note. That note is the expectation and challenge to every self-styled Karaoke guru. Removing it is changing the song.

This specific issue is what I think killed Sonos in Round 3. Their reworking of the Jackson 5 lost everything that made that song enjoyable and at the same time gave it a sultriness that when compared to the “kids” that sang it made it feel not merely dirty, but full on into uncomfortably awkward.

This can be a double edged sword. The Deltones did an almost exact cover of “You Can’t Hurry Love.” As much as it did the honour; the danger is that this competition is not for a Cover group. There has to be some responsibility in taking ownership of the work with a signature.

In this competition every song is a cover. So the stakes are high in picking the right song, giving it a signature, a twist, but not twisting so far it breaks.

In the case of Grapevine, Afro Blue was given the warning of going too far into their jazz complexities that the song might be lost. Afro Blue took this advice and brought the whole competition up a notch.

I Wanna Dance With Someone” (Guilty)
I always felt this song was inane. Giving it a slight samba beat almost seemed to give the song a sense of understanding. Back from Grapevine was the driving rhythm that makes this a very infectious song. This time, all the women got a few bars of solo. And the blends were stunning. There were still dips into Jazz, but now it was more metered into the style of the song. The interpretation gives this song an entirely new life. This is what sells old songs in new records. This is one of their best pieces to date.


Up next. My number one group. I picked them in their first week and I’m sticking with them all the way. Pentatonix

At the time this was written, Season 3 of “The Sing-Off” has eight groups left. In my previous post, I knocked off Delilah and The Yellow Jackets as the groups that will be eliminated on tonight’s episode. This leaves my pick of six going forwards after tonight.

In this post I will give my bottom three in a rough order and then in the last of these 3 posts list my top 3 and my current order. Of course any performance by any group can change things. But at this point I think trending can be a good indicator of expectations.

The bottom three of six that I have eliminate the remaining two college groups: Vocal Point and the Dartmouth Aires as well as The Collective. I will hazard at this point that I do like all 6 remaining groups. The bottom three is actually much harder for me than the top three.
The reason they are hard is that I am all over the place in the bottom three with one group that I’ll list last in this set.

First, then is Vocal Point. This is a great men’s sound. And I must admit some horrible prejudice going in knowing they were from Brigham Young. But first week and “Jump Jive n Wail” won me over. And this was without a strong Baritone in the middle. The sound was a touch tinny but this was okay. They had a great beat box and a good arrangement of voices. Then came “Never say Never.” Good funk, good sound. Then “The Way You Look Tonight” which took me completely off guard. I was not expecting Sinatra. At this point I thought that Vocal Point was headed for top notch contender. They were a force to be reckoned with. Finally they brought in “Footloose” as a guilty pleasure. And Vocal Point lost me. Footloose made me realise that every song they do is “Safe.” Safe isn’t bad; but safe is only going to sell albums to a small sector. Last year was won by Committed who did ‘safe’ but completely made it feel unsafe in places. Footloose and Sinatra were amazing but had no “sex.” Footloose also showed that glee club underpinnings that is always a danger to college groups. I was thrilled to hear their Baritone back in the group and it rounded out their sound but may have contributed to the sound taking a step backwards.

The other college group is the Dartmouth Aires. Of the college groups, the Aires have done the best job of keeping away from the “Wall of Sound” even when they play footsie with the glee club sounds. The Aires also have a lot of versatility in having multiple strong lead singers. Week one’s “Higher Ground” had some fun with an almost “Hair” like rendition. “Animal” got very far from the glee sound and sounded like something uniquely original to an album. In escaping glee it tripped close to Wall of Sound but had some amazing dynamic and arrangement to keep it safe. “Pinball Wizard” really wanted to succeed. It had some amazing bass. It also suffered from when great singers face off against rock vocals and while enunciation is great, you have to make sure that you don’t loose too much grit. The lead singer also didn’t quite hit all the notes you wanted. Judge Shawn Stockman identified this one as a bit “Flarpy” (flats and sharps). “Jessie’s Girl” showed that each vocalist is a hidden treasure for the group. The lead kept surprising me by going higher and higher.

As much as I like the Aires, both they and Vocal Point again suffer from the same problem that took North Shore out earlier. There isn’t a sound that steps them away from other groups doing the same thing that would make me think of getting albums especially from them.

That third group that’s been knocking me around is “The Collective” I group the Collective with the two college groups because I don’t think they’ll make the final 3 considering who they are up against and at the same time, I can’t tell if they’ll beat these two college groups or fall to them. Collective has a great sound. AS pointed out… well produced. But at the same time; this has been a blessing and a curse giving what is probably the most variety of quality of any of the remaining six. Their great has been great; their not so great has been very not so great. “Rolling In the Deep” was an amazing creation that just made me intrigued by their sound. Great beatbox and haunting vocals. The chording however seemed a bit ‘splayed.’ “Rocketeer“, never really took wings. It had a lot of potential to really rock, but it always felt about a step behind where it could be. The lead vocal also sounded scared of the song. “Hold On, I’m Comin’” was fun. Technically it was right where it was supposed to be. This is a plus for not having distracitons; this is a minus because nothing about it made me have a ‘Wow’ moment. Then came “I Will Survive.” I was really worried as it came in because I found the vocals too light. But in retrospect; they were amazing. The vocal blend is settling in. The two female voices work VERY well together. My concern is this came too late. They really need to do something beyond amazing to break the top 3 at this point.

Next post. This leaves in alphabetical order: Afro Blue, Pentatonix, and Urban Method. I have a definite order for these three… see how close or far I am.

I’m really not a fan of reality shows. So of course I feel dirty when I find ones that I get entirely invested in. For the second season in a row I am very actively following “Ths Sing-Off“. The basic premise of the show is competing A capella groups. This season it was 16 groups going for a prize of a Sony recording contract and $200K.

I suppose we’re at the halfway point because we’re down to eight groups. I want to assess the groups that got dropped last week and where I think the remaining eight rank.

Last week we said goodbye to the classic doo wop of “North Shore” and the “University of Delaware Deltones”.

I have to admit; initially I was very surprised that “North Shore” got dropped. In retrospect I’m actually very much in support. While I enjoyed what they did to Huey Lewis’ “Power of Love” I have to admit that Huey Lewis has always been Doo Wop and this was an example of “North Shore” once again pulling a song to them rather than really pushing their style into a different sound. I think this was also the detriment that finally took down “Jerry Lawson and Talk of The Town” last season. Make no mistake; both these groups are professional, tight, and amazing to listen to.

The problem and this will form the basis of my evaluation throughout is that the prize comes down to that Sony Contract. The winner needs to have unique marketability to break thru and sell albums. I feel that both these groups, as outstanding as they are, are not unique in sound. I can find at least five groups that do these vocal stylings and it’d be very hard to remember which group is which. And I want a winner that is going to sell me a record on name recognition alone after I hear them.

“The University of Delaware Deltones” – were sadly being more and more out-classed as the competition went on. You could tell there was a young sound that really hadn’t found their unique voice. Episode 4 brought a reasonalble but unoriginal cover of “You Can’t Hurry Love” which left them pretty low ranked in my list and in my laser sites for the following show. For “Guilty Pleasures” they went with Roxette’s “Listen to Your Heart.” I think as far as the show theme; this alone was a bad decision. It’s a reasonable adult contemporary gold song and doesn’t lend itself for doing something that will make the audience go, “Oh cool.” Further; the Deltones suffered from two consistant problems of College groups. First is the Glee club sound. They sound like an academic group singing together for fun and mild entertainment; not a professional career. Secondarily, when a group gets too large they suffer from “Wall of Sound” With their performance this week, there was lead vocals and just one giant chord behind it that was overly heavy. And with a song as delicate as this Roxette number; there needed to be far more delicate treatment of the backing.

So what’s left and who’s going first?

First off, I think “Delilah” is done this week.

I saw week one after week two. But when I finally got to week one I was BLOWN AWAY by “Grenade.” Presentation, style, music, power, and to be very shallow; not hard on the eyes at all. Delilah came out with an explosive performance to prove that “Sweet Adelines” don’t have to be sweet anymore. Delilah has an amazing lead vocallist and a bass that reminds me of one of my very favourite all female acapella groups “The Mint Juleps.” Week 2 brought us “Whataya Want from Me” and “(Love is Like A) Heat Wave“. The former showed fantastic dynamic but gave me the feeling that not all of Delilah were “Lead Singer” material. They also proved that they were stronger on the hard than the light. “Heat Wave” was my first Delilah disappointment. There was really little departure from the original apart from occassional flourish. Again… I missed the lead singer from Grenade. While the the other vocalists have good voices, they don’t have the same power and presence. Heat Wave simply left me bored. Finally, in “Flashdance“, Delilah stayed close to the original and didn’t so much depart as not replicate. For an all-female group I was VERY surprised that the backing chords didn’t feel like they were missing parts. Delilah also surprised me in that this rendition didn’t have the punch I was expecting from the song. Again, the song felt like it suffered from a lead that just couldn’t deliver the impact. I think Delilah has amazing potential; but I think they needed a year to gel and figure out where their power and pizazz were in the group before returning to “The Sing Off.”

If two groups go this week, number 2 is the University of Rochester Yellow Jackets. The YJ are fun. There is no doubt in my mind about that. However, of the remaining three college groups I think that the YJ are the ones with the weakest sound and frankly can’t compete with the remaining four non-college groups. The African tribute “Wavin’ Flag“, while appreciated and a huge departure from their typical sound, I don’t think quite connected. Frankly, it was too caucasian-sounding and a bit sharp in places. Opening week nerves are understandable but in competition that will be remembered. “Dynamite” was a good entry; but a bit too character-driven and in the words of a rude soprano, “A little high” for the lead singer. This entry also really succumbed to “Wall of Sound” which is going to be a handicap for any group over 12 people. Remembering even if you cut standard voices into first and second chair: That’s 8, 10, or 12. And 12 point harmony is VERY hard even for polished groups. YJ is NOT giving the impression of much beyond 3-4 part heavily doubled up. “Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You” was one of their strongest songs. The backing chords split well, and there was good balance in the soft areas; but in the heavier bits it did fall back into “Wall of Sound”. Kudos to good use of a lyric tenor. It’s a hard voice to work for because it is potentially a very effiminate voice style, and it’s difficult to find songs for all-male groups that don’t emasculate it. Then we end with “Wannabe“. Honestly, I think the group knew they were in danger with this one and wanted to push on the fun button of the judges. I was amused by them letting the song fall apart in organised chaos and then come back from the brink. Unfortunately, it never got away from the Wall of Sound. So I just can’t see them really pulling back or finding a more dynamic sound. YJ has a fantastic and infectious presence. To break out of that horrid glee club curse they are going to have to thin their numbers and find a unique sound that matches their unique style of presentation. As it was well put by the judges… will I love them as much when I can’t see them; only hear them?

Six more will go on… Next post: who’s left and how I think they will rank.