* * *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.
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!