* * *Many of you know that I am passionate about a cappella; after performing for over 15 years and working for Varsity Vocals (the people who bring you the International Championship of Collegiate A Cappella or “ICCA”) it’s pretty much just ingrained at this point. Adam kindly asked me to write some recaps/commentary about the shows as they air this season, and I hope to bring you a bit of insider perspective. General caveat: I do know some of the performers in this season, and am friendly with many of the behind-the-scenes producers and arrangers for the show. I’m going to try not to get too technical or, well, horribly snarky, but the jaded part might take over. Many, many thanks to Marsha for covering this beat for the past three seasons.
We roll right from The Voice into an big group opening number, and I know I’m already screwed: the song is “Some Nights” by fun., which I declared last year to be the most overdone song in a cappella. (Seriously – I made an agreement with a friend that he would donate $1 to the charity of my choice for every “Some Nights” cover from a different a cappella group that I could find on YouTube. I stopped at $160 because I couldn’t take it anymore.) For a show that is routinely called the most honestly earnest of the singing competitions, I suppose that’s fine. There’s lots of pops of color in the clothing, as expected, along with snazzy college blazers. Yep, it’s definitely The Sing-Off!
Out comes Nick Lachey, king of bad acapuns to tell us that this show features “no guitars, no bands, just voices.” Nick introduces the judges: back for Season Four are Ben Folds and Shawn Stockman (Ben jokes he was stored with the set for the past two years.) Jewel joins the judges this year in the role of “female judge.”
First up is Vocal Rush, from Oakland, CA. They’re a high school group, and have won the International Championship of High School A Cappella for the past two years. We get a shot of their director screaming in the audience (hi Lisa!) and then they sing “Bottom of the River” by Delta Rae. I've heard them sing this before (in competition) but it is better than ever: sultry solos, a phenomenal female vocal percussionist, and an awesome step dancing breakdown in the middle. I spot Sarah Vela back in the group, their former Best Soloist from their ICHSA run in 2012. I hope we’ll get to see her solo this season – she’s stellar. Ben says in the judging they used “bilabial plosives.” Oh boy. It’s gonna be that kind of a season.
Up next: Home Free, who literally pops up out of a cornfield to tell us that they’re from Minneapolis, MN. They are a 5-man professional a cappella group who says that what sets them apart is that they sing country a cappella. (This is a...shall we say, recent development. Home Free was definitely not a country a cappella group before they were accepted on the show.) The guys pull off a nice country rendition of “Cruise” by Florida Georgia Line, with the bass taking the Nelly rap part (ok, that part was weird.) The harmonies are tight, the vocal percussion is crisp. This is packageable a cappella. Ben feels the bass in his butt. Jewel points out that the bass jumped up into the Tenor 1 range during the breakdown – something that is very hard to do. Shawn thinks that country music has a lot in common with R&B in terms of style. Home Free will do well; they have a nice niche to fill.
Ivy alert! The Princeton Footnotes, a 50-year old group, sounds exactly what you think an Ivy League all-male a cappella group would sound like, even though the first thing they say in their package is “we are not a stuffy group that fits any stereotypical Ivy League mold.” Fat chance, they are wearing blazers and bowties and matching shoes. The Footnotes sing “I Knew You Were Trouble” by Taylor Swift. It’s not particularly compelling, and the arrangement is problematic because there’s not enough center – there seems to be no baritone or low tenor filling out the sound. Not my favorite of the night so far, but the judges manage to say nice things.
Next, we go to Puerto Rico to meet Calle Sol. They’re kind of like the female Nota (Season One winner). The four women in the group are dancers, so we’re up for some decent performances, I hope! The group sings “Pon de Replay” by Rhianna. They are definitely rocking the choreography, but the group suffers from its structure: four women plus a bass plus a vocal percussionist means there’s a fair amount of tonal space missing in between parts. The judges highlight how their Latin sound is unique in the competition and especially like the “pitched” percussion (there was a woodblock noise!)
Final in this first group of five is Street Corner Renaissance (not to be confused with Season Two runner-up Street Corner Symphony), from Los Angeles, CA. They are a doo-wop group made up of older men who had long careers in other industries but sang together as kids and have gotten back together to sing. Hilarious man says “we don’t have a beatbox, we don’t have someone going ‘poof de poof de’” and I love him. And we get...One Direction? Smart choice to sing “What Makes You Beautiful” in their style as it makes them relevant to the younger age demographic. I’m charmed. Shawn gets up to hug them. Shawn has emotions!
And it’s (finally) time for the first elimination! [Insert “neer neer neer neer/bong bong bong” deliberation music here.] In the bottom two: Princeton Footnotes and Calle Sol. Battling in the Ultimate Sing-Off™ later in the show for the last spot: Princeton Footnotes. Moving on!
The men and women of Ten, from Dallas, TX, who have been background singers for years but have never performed together on stage. (How does this happen, you may ask? The magic of television, of course!) Ten is performing “Tell me Something Good” by Rufus and Chaka Kahn and hot damn, this is great for a new group. They sound like they've been performing together for years. The arrangement is layered and rich. Shawn says they are “powerhouses” but thinks they need work gelling their harmonies.
The only all-female group of the season is up next, and it’s one with lots of a cappella background. Element’s Emily Goglia won best soloist with the SoCalVoCals at ICCA Finals 2008, Emily Borromeo, Manjula Raman and Katelyn Miles were all in the Higher Keys at Brown, VP Rachel Chalhoub is in at least one other a cappella group right now, and bass Jo Vinson was on the Sing-Off previously as a member of Delilah. (Just goes to show you how rare female basses are!) The package highlights the women’s New York roots and strong musical backgrounds. They think that “because we’re a female group, we’ve got a lot more to prove.” I think they have the same amount as everyone, but whatever. Element performs “Burn” by Ellie Goulding in super sparkly dresses, because apparently that’s what The Sing Off wardrobe department thinks all-female groups should wear (Delilah had some crazy outfits in Season Three). Jo’s bass is, as usual, outstanding, but the performance isn’t very strong otherwise – the drive that usually moves this song was absent. Jewel says that women’s voices generally have fewer octaves to work with in chest voice and so there’s less to work with in terms of strength. This is especially true in The Sing-Off world of popappella. I yell at the TV when Shawn says “first and foremost, you all look beautiful.” I wish Shawn would tell one of the all-male a cappella groups that they look beautiful.
Next is Voiceplay, a formerly all-male group from Orlando, FL who has added a woman to the mix. They sing at Universal Studios a lot, and they have tons of experience relating to audiences of all ages, which could be a very good asset on this kind of competition. Their arrangement is using a lot of the same tricks that Pentatonix arrangements use, which makes sense as they have a similar gender makeup. The performance is a little Disney-fied, but strong overall.
Covering a new ethnic niche, we have the Filharmonic up next from Los Angeles, CA – a group of six Filipino guys. Joe Caigoy was in Fermata Nowhere with Avi Kaplan from Pentatonix when they won ICCA Finals in 2009. Three of the other guys have also competed in ICCA with different groups. They are clearly being packaged as “cute guys” and the heartthrobs of the competition. They sing “Treasure” by Bruno Mars (of course) and the sound is energetic and fun. Caigoy sings directly to Jewel and she eats it up. Shawn points out the locked-in bass line and their charisma. They’ll definitely be moving on – they are being painted too well not to. When we come back from commercial, Nick Lachey is awkwardly telling us that his wife is half-Filipino so he should be able to join the Filharmonics. Weird.
Finally, we have the last group – The University of Kentucky AcoUstiKats. This is when everything derailed for me: the entire package was about how they sing to get girls. They “get the privilege to sing to some of the most beautiful women in the nation at the University of Kentucky” and I think that’s when I tweeted “I hate everything” while watching the show last night. Then there’s footage of them serenading Miss Kentucky. Vom. They warn America that it’s about to get an acousticrush and then launch into “Blurred Lines” by Robin Thicke (really, could it have been any other song? Nope.) There’s a lot of frattiness and booty-shaking. Shawn claps on one-and-three. I hate this song. Jewel: “I giggled...I need an acoustishower after that I think.” Nick: “We’re gonna have to take an acousticommercial here in a minute.” Jewel: “Oh my heck.” I miss Sara Bareilles.
Time for the deliberating. The bottom two groups are Element and Voice Play. (Really? Voice Play? They were too good for this.) Voice Play will be singing in the Ultimate Sing-Off for the last spot, which is surprising from a musical standpoint but not from a TV standpoint – you couldn’t eliminate the only all-female group on the first show.
And now, the shiny new feature of the show: The Ultimate Sing-Off. The bottom two groups will compete singing the same song (Pitch Perfect-style) back and forth. It sounds terrible but actually works really well: both groups alternate parts of “Bye Bye Bye” by N’Sync and it sounds incredible. (For insight on how the arrangers make this happen, see Producer Deke Sharon’s blog here - yes, they arrange the song for every group remaining in competition.) The judges deliberate, and choose the group going home: the Princeton Footnotes, which is absolutely the right call.
I’m looking forward to Wednesday, and Thursday, and next Monday, Wednesday and Thursday and the Monday after that (hi, holiday schedule!) From what we’ve seen so far, I’d say that Vocal Rush, Home Free and Ten are the groups to watch. That show was two hours long and while it was paced nicely, I need a nap. See you all on Wednesday at 8pm when I will hopefully figure out how to write about a cappella in significantly fewer than 1,900 words.