Monday, December 13, 2010

STILL AIN'T GOT NO BAND: Guest Sing-Off analysis from our good friend and frequent commenter Marsha:
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First off, thanks to the ALOTT5MA crew for letting me do this. Given that we have a professional a cappella staffer (and lots of educated acappellaheads) among our commenters, I’m nervous to do this, but happy nonetheless.

Getting a few important bits out of the way:
1. Thank goodness for improved sound quality this year. It really shows in the big group numbers, where everyone is mic’d correctly and you can hear the soloists AND the blend.
2. Thank goodness for the end of brackets. Though it didn’t really change the outcomes I would have chosen this year, it has the potential to do so, and I find that annoying.
3. Shut up, Nicole.

As for that opening number, 21 Guns is not a song I’m terribly familiar with, and while it was well arranged and sounded good, the choreography was tonally off to me, perhaps because the Backbeats soloist looked like she was in some sort of glam camo outfit.

On to our competitors. I thought the “right” group went home tonight, in the sense that they’re not going to win this thing, and they never really left their comfort zone, but I think they are head and shoulders above the rest musically, and I love what they do. I’ll buy any album they produce, and I’d absolutely buy a download of “You Make My Dreams.” Their bass is incredible – it’s so hard to do what he does. He’s got to keep a jazz group from flying off into the stratosphere, not just on rhythm but also on pitch. His sound is fabulous, his pitch is perfect, and his “push” into the rest of the blend is just right. Groove has amazing blend – again, so hard in vocal jazz. I think they might not have gone home if they hadn’t had the pitch (and lyric, I think) problems in “Changes.” I got chills towards the end on a few of the chords in “Changes,” and I think the judges gave them kind of a bum rap. It’s a very tough song, and it suffered from not really being rock compared to Def Leppard and Bon Jovi. That said, if you’re gonna go out, go out on an arrangement as amazing as “You Make My Dreams.” They could have done this straight and had fun, but they made it their own and made it a much more interesting song. The bridge was amazing and the end transcendent. I understand why they went home, but they can sing for me any old time.

The group I’d have sent home before them was the Backbeats. I’m thrilled they used a new soloist on “You Give Love a Bad Name,” but if they were trying to bring the fun, they didn’t bring it. They just brought a new kind of intensity. They always feel kind of leaden to me – they don’t come together and soar the way GFT or Committed do. The percussion on both songs was strong – Courtney may be the best female vocal percussionist I’ve ever heard, and she’s one of the best overall. But the big sin here was on “Love Shack.” I don’t mind that you reward them for loosening up, but how do the judges not notice that they’re flat? They shouldn’t trade in their musicality to have fun. This was sub par for me, and should have sent them home. They’re not going to win this either, so they should go home on Wednesday.

Also going home Wednesday will be one of two: Talk of the Town or Street Corner. “Satisfaction” was very enjoyable, and they do try to break out of that box a bit. I did like that they managed to sound a bit different than usual here, and that they did different things – the foot stomps and all, and a great arrangement. Perhaps most importantly – the choreography was messy. No perfect sync, which would have been stupid on Satisfaction. I thought “Easy” was right back to the wheelhouse, but I love the falsetto and the really strong bass line – these guys are pros, and they are very, very good. I like what they do, but there’s nothing new or special here. The judges, alas, are still worshipping Jerry Lawson – I’m going to be annoyed if this ends up a coronation. If they don’t do something different next week, they should go.

Street Corner needs to do something about the thin sound they’re showing. (The “Ring of Fire” arrangement in the clip wasn’t nearly as good as I wanted it to be for lack of a great bass soloist.) I know Isaac will kill me, but “Creep” is the only song tonight that I’m not familiar with at all. The soloist sounded labored for the first half, and it took a while for this to stop feeling weighted down. Once the soloist moved to the higher register, much much better. They have great blend, but their percussion is weak and seemed to be lagging behind a bit. The guy doing the bass line was excellent - very much the anchor, but not overpowering. I completely disagreed with the judges about “Come On Eileen.” While I liked the jazzy opening, this song needs more on the bass. We finally got it when the faster percussion came in, but not enoughI really disliked the arrangement – way too scattershot, and it jumped around so much that there was no anchor to the song. If you’re going to do the section where it speeds up, you have to start slower – this thing was like a runaway train that no one could brake. It was hard to appreciate any of the musicality. I thought it was not their best effort, and that the judges are being way too soft.

Two of our final three groups should be On the Rocks and Committed, unless one of them does something terrible next week. If On the Rocks wanted to show musicality instead of entertainment, “Pour Some Sugar on Me” was not a good choice, but they really killed the “rock out” aspect of this. The bass and percussion were excellent, but they lost the pitch 2/3 of the way through and missed a great opportunity for a key change at that point too, which *would* have showed musicality. (Hated the choreography, by the way.) It’s a crowd pleaser, but nothing new here. “Kyrie,” on the other hand, was a strong arrangement, and Ben’s absolutely right that they played the cheesy song straight to good effect. Unlike “Come on Eileen” they managed to use all the parts of the song that are iconic without making it feel disjointed. The harmonies were very tight, and not buried under schmaltz. They showed not just musicality but versatility. It’s sometimes hard for an all-guy group of 15 to stay as tight as they do, and combined with their obvious fun-factor, they’re top 2 for me at the moment.

And then there’s Committed. Again, I completely disagree with the judges here. “Every Breath You Take” isn’t a rock song like Bon Jovi – it’s softer and kind of creepy. But Committed came at it with an almost hip-hop beat that I thought brought it to a new level . The soloist was perfect, and so was the counter soloist. The unusual chord structure they used to head into the bridge was so beautiful and really tight, and I loved what they did with the ending. I loved pretty much everything about this, and don’t get the criticism that it didn’t rock – it rocked about as hard as this song can rock and still be recognizable. The judges often have trouble with whether they want the groups to “make the songs their own” or “move out of their comfort zone.” Committed tried to do both, to great effect, I thought, but the judges thought they did neither. For “I Want it That Way” I thought, at first, that this was almost cheating – after all, the original is for 5 guys who sing like an a cappella group, mostly. But really, it’s harder to do well in a competition like this when the song is basically written for you. TOTT has the same problem with “Easy” – the more in your wheelhouse it is, the more creative you have to be. They did a great job with this, introducing more complexity than was in the original. And those harmonies are so, so tight – they can’t seem to sing a wrong note. I hate this song, but I love them. Still #1 for me.

I would have liked to see Backbeats go home and Groove get one more show to try to step out of the box a little, but such is life. I’m glad America got to hear a few Manhattan Transfer-esque arrangements before they had to go.

Thanks, all – see you Wednesday!


  1. isaac_spaceman11:45 PM

    Completely hazarding a guess here, but don't the kids today know "Every Breath You Take" more from the Puffy/Faith Evans Biggie tribute (which itself is pretty ancient, I guess) than from the 80s original?  So the hip hop beat would not surprise me. 

  2. Saray4:56 AM

    Marsha, that was a great recap!  I really appreciate your perspective on the show, and I look forward to your comments.

    My points before I get on an airplane for winter break (yes I survived finals):

    1. I actually thought Committed should have gone home.  Their tuning is bad and I don't like their song choices at all.
    2. Pete Hollens, who sang the solo on Kyrie, graduated from UofO in 2003.  (He's also a friend.)  But still - I have no problem with groups like OTR bringing back all-stars from their past, but I do have a problem with them being marketed as college dudes.
    3. Talk of the Town makes me fall asleep.
    4. Nicole: not everything is about sex.
    5. Courtney Jensen is amazing, but the Backbeats haven't really gelled at all this season.  I think it's probably a symptom of being formed for the show.

  3. cremes8:23 AM

    I was with you until you panned Street Corner Symphony and praised On The Rocks. OTR is shaping up to be a young version of TOTT; they do one thing though they do it well.

    Jerry from TOTT lost his pipes about 15 years ago. The praise they shower on this group has gone from sweet to embarrassing. They should definitely be on the bubble.

    I agree with you wholeheartedly on GFT. I would buy anything they produce. Their musicianship is at a whole different level from every other group. I know I couldn't listen to their style exclusively but they brought such a unique flavor to the show; they will be missed.

    I have nothing to say about BB other than to agree their percussionist is quite good. Otherwise, dullsville.

    Also, it's in the bag for Committed. There is no way they don't walk away from this as the winners. I'd like to see them in the final two with SCS. I'd be pleased with either group as the overall winner. The judges seem to agree. Their attempt at scolding them for Every Break You Take was rather transparent.

    Finally, Nicole, shut up.

  4. RandomRanter9:26 AM

    Interesting about OTR using grads, although I will argue that last year the SoCal Vocals was entirely grads (although that was certainly made clearer.)
    I keep hoping that by year five of this thing Nicole will be more than color commentary. 
    If anyone's getting coronated, I feel like it's going to be Committed, but that may be because they have managed to blow me away every week.  Interestingly I am not a fan of their "holiday" song.  It's not bad, but the opening annoyed me.  Whereas Groove for Thought I hated first ep, liked a lot second ep, and enjoyed last night although agreed that they weren't going to win, so I was okay with their going home. And I loved their holiday song.
    I think the issue with TOTT is going to be to find a nice way to say you do what you do great, it just isn't what's going to win this show. 
    I find both Street Corner and Backbeats are enjoyable, but it really kind of shows that they haven't performed together long. Not in jarring ways, but when compared to the other groups.  One of them may have an unexpected breakthrough though.

  5. Heather K10:00 AM

    Other than the Backbeats I am really loving the teams this year-even when like with Groove for Thought it isn't really my jam.

    I do wish the show gave more allowance for groups that aren't all shiny poppy commercial, but it is what it is, and if that is the case they really need to start including TOTT in judging that direction.  I love TOTT but either they needed to have them come on the show as like a star highlight one episode (with perhaps a Golden Oldies theme or something) a la Nota's performance OR they really have to have them compete.  It is my really only frustration with this season at all (well and Nicole's sexy talk and, I'll say it, I coulda used me some more Whiffenpoofs).

  6. Genevieve10:29 AM

    The arrangement of 21 Guns was AMAZING.  Everyone in our family knows it well and we had to rewind and listen to it three times, it was that good.  And violins came in sounding so exactly like the real violins - I don't know who it was, but it blew me away.
    The set for that song was evoking the set for American Idiot, with the ripped-lyrics-collages and the video screens.

    TOTT did a good job on Satisfaction (though they just put it into their wheelhouse rather than doing rock), but I'm quite tired of them otherwise.  It's all so samey.
    I guess I'm alone in liking The Backbeats' "Love Shack," but it just made me happy, with the costumes and the dance moves (referencing but not copying the B-52s).  They could have used deeper bass, though.
    "Kyrie" may have been the best number of the night, and really changed my view of how good OTR is.
    Marsha, I agree completely that I hate the original "I Want it That Way" but love how Committed did it.

  7. Marsha10:30 AM

    Thanks, Saray! Interesting that you and I disagree so much on Committed - their sound really works for me, and I like what they're doing with the arrangements. But I completely agree with you on the Backbeats. If not for Courtney, they'd be gone already. It's just not working.

  8. Marsha10:32 AM

    STS has potential - they're just not living up to it. TOTT is already doing the best they can, and Backbeat needs a lot longer to gel as a group. What can I say - I love the big-group-of-guys sound, and OTR is doing well with it. If they hadn't shown some musicianship on Kyrie last night, I'd likely have downgraded them.

    I agree that, much like last year with Nota, Committed has been on top from the begininng and isn't likely to end any other way. Of course, with voting, who the hell knows.

  9. I understand the frustration with TOTT, but I must admit I also enjoyed them more than any other act last night. I really liked their version of Easy.

    Groove For Thought had been my least favorite act just because I'm not a big fan of that jazzy sound - and I do think they botched the lyrics at one point in Changes -  but they won me over with their outstanding version of You Make My Dreams (although it helps that I'm a sucker for Hall and Oates). I would have sent the Back Beats or On the Rocks home instead.

    I wasn't as impressed with Committed as usual last night, but I still think they end up winning it all.

  10. You're not alone - I loved the Backbeats' "Love Shack."  I thought it was a lot of fun, and well done. 

    I feeel the same way about TOTT - it's all the same, and I'm bored when they're singing. I know they're legends, but it almost feels like they made some deal, like "we'll be on the show, but we have to make it to the final four or we won't do it." 

  11. Really? I thought the male lead on Love Shack was incredibly weak.  He just seemed ... off.

  12. Genevieve11:40 AM

    I enjoyed him at first, but he didn't have the deep resonance of the original at all.

  13. tortoiseshelly12:34 PM

    I didn't care for much of anything last night, with the exception of Committed's "I Want it That Way," and Street Corner's "Creep," both of which I thought were far and away the best performances of the night. 

    I'm bored by TOTT, and while I really liked GFT last week, not so much this week. I definitely think they can sing, don't get me wrong, and I can appreciate that others here admire their style and talent, but for me they suffer from trying to overdo it. I had some friends in a college band - all of them extremely talented musicians, but they had this thing for writing songs that only other musicians would appreciate (e.g. took massive amounts to skill to play). Which, yeah, that's great and all, but what about the rest of us? I kind of feel like GFT is doing the same thing. Also, I thought the girl singing lead on "Changes" sounded great in the beginning, but by the end she kind of reminded me of the lady who used to lead my church choir and the whole song came off rather middle-aged. 

    I also thought OTR did a nice job with "Kyrie" and thought "Love Shack" was fun, but I would have been okay with Backbeats, TOTT or GFT going home. 

  14. tortoiseshelly12:35 PM

    Ugh. Why do I always use e.g. when I mean i.e. and vice versa. 

  15. gretchen12:50 PM

    I predict that Backbeat sticks around through the next cut to keep at least some women in the competition. 

    I loved Changes, even with the problems.  I'd love to hear a clean version.

  16. tortoiseshelly12:55 PM

    Also, thanks to Marsha for taking the time to write the commentary. Great job!

  17. Marsha2:04 PM

    Thanks, Tortoiseshelly!

    @gretchen - it's sad, but not altogether surprising, that the only women left in this thing are from the Backbeats. There's a huge bias towards men's voices in a cappella generally - our ears are designed that way, first of all, and the usual goofy a cappella antics come across much funnier to most people when done by men rather than women. (Imagine if women had done the def Leppard choreography from last night - NBC would have gotten calls for showing that in the family hour. From men, it's cute.)

    I would have preferred it if backbeats had gone home alst night and GFT had been the ones kept in to keep some women in, but sadly, Ben didn't ask me.

  18. Jenn.2:26 PM

    I'm finally caught up.  First of all, I've loved all of the commentary here, so thanks, y'all!  None of the eliminations have been very surprising, I thought.  The error in Changes was sufficiently major that, barring a huge screw-up by one of the other groups, they were going to be out of it.  

    I'm in the tank for Committed, and would love to see Talk of the Town go next, as Jerry's voice seems completely gone.  Then Backbeats (even though it's a shame not to have any females in the remaining groups).  After that:  Committed wins, and the lead from Street Corner gets a recording contract in Nashville.  The producers are glad to have a pack of Oregon dudes who can actually sing but mostly specialize in entertainment into the end.

  19. Heather K3:38 PM

    he should ask you.

  20. Dan Suitor5:47 PM

    I think, given the surprisingly adequate (and rising!) ratings they've gotten out of The Sing Off, the question is this: do you think NBC brings it back, and will they do it in at different date or in a different format?

    For me, at least, it seems like part of The Sing Off's success is that A.) it's good, slightly campy fun at a time of the year when  there's not a lot else on, B.) there's a built-in audience comprised of people who actually sing whether in college a capella groups or high school choruses or church choirs, and C.) the Glee effect.

  21. Saray8:16 PM

    That arrangement of Kyrie is recorded on Sing 2 (Sing is a compilation a cappella album put out every once in a while.)  You can check it out here:

    The recording is fantastic.

  22. Saray8:17 PM

    I've been trying to hear what you are hearing, but I will admit that their religious tendencies might be throwing me off.

  23. I wouldn't  be surprised if they continue trying to make this an annual holiday-season tradition (it aired around this time last year as well). It seems like great family-type programming for this time period when just about everybody's in reruns, but I don't know what kind of ratings it would get in sweeps-type situations. It seems better served for the summer or holiday season.

  24. Marsha12:43 PM

    It works perfectly in December - 5 episodes in 15 days and done, mostly recorded in advance, with the right-before-Christmas finale allowing the college groups to appear live. they could do it in the summer as well, I suppose, but I think people's interest in a cappella would wane if done over a longer period of time. I also think the ratings are completely a result of the timing - there's nothing else on right now.

    I'm actually surprised there isn't more of this kind of thing - kinda like winter intersession classes at some colleges. A fun short-run show aired twice a week in December is brilliant.

  25. Dan Suitor1:42 PM

    It's mostly because of the overhead involved. The start-up costs on shows are relatively higher than producing additional episodes, and so it makes sense to work longer seasons of shows in order to leverage the greater number of episodes against the initial investment.

  26. Genevieve2:22 PM

    Thank you, Saray!!