E Pluribus Unum
The motto of the United States of America translates from Latin as "out of many, one". It fits NBC's The Sing-Off perfectly — not because the limited-run series is a competition, but because the aim of a cappella vocal groups is for their parts to form a unifying whole. You could say the same for any artistic endeavor, I admit; we're not talking about a blend of script and cinematography or even different musical instruments here, though, but about a blend of human voices in the purest form of harmony.
I've long been fascinated by unaccompanied voice. Some of my favorite moments in pop music are the ones when the song "breaks down" to just vocals and (often) drums: Think, particularly, '80s tunes like Culture Club's hit "Karma Chameleon", James Taylor's lesser-known but lovely "Only One", and Mr. Mister's guilty pleasure "Kyrie" (performed on The Sing-Off Monday night). It's just fun, but more than that it's… honest, somehow, unadorned and yet still even more powerful. And if you think that part of that conceit's power comes from its contrast to the full-band sound that surrounds it, well, in the context of those songs you might be right. A cappella is also, however, a startlingly vibrant, diverse performance medium on its own.
For my 16th birthday, my friend PJ got me Bobby McFerrin's Spontaneous Inventions. I'd heard doo-wop, the close-harmony a cappella of barbershop quartets, and probably some collegiate groups in the vein of Yale's Whiffenpoofs by then, but McFerrin was something else — one man, live and totally alone on most of the tracks, making music with nothing but his hands on his chest and, mainly, that spectacular voice. I'll write more about him some other time — if I have any idols, he's one of them — but the salient point here is that Inventions opened my eyes to not just vocals but music itself in a whole new way. The next year, when I went to visit a friend at Oberlin College and check out the campus, I had one of the most amazing nights of my life at a concert featuring The Obertones, Oberlin's all-male, Whiffenpoofs-style a cappella group; in addition to making some great friends, I had my mind blown by the richness, creativity, and soul-stirring sound of not only the headliners but their special guests, a Yale group called Redhot and Blue [sic] after the Cole Porter musical.
I ended up at Oberlin, although while I still enjoyed their concerts the Obertones mystique wore off and, I wasn't alone in feeling, the quality dropped a bit after my first year. Still, I remained a steady presence at their gigs as well as those of the all-female Nothing but Treble, the co-ed Yeohimbines (which formed while I was there and later became In-a-Chord), and the various collegiate or professional a cappella groups that visited campus (from the goofy Four Guys Standing Around Singing to the finely honed, eclectic Bobs). Variation in quality, and certainly in the character of the group, is understandable among collegiate a cappella outfits that are virtually guaranteed to change each year and have full turnover quadrennially thanks to graduation; it's certainly why (spoiler alert from last Wednesday) the storied Whiffenpoofs — whose alumni include both the legendary Porter and a lovely fella who played Snoopy in my high-school production of You're a Good Man Charlie Brown (I was, of course, Linus), although not Bing Crosby, who made "The Whiffenpoofs Song" famous — were booted off The Sing-Off in this season's second episode.
Frankly, I thought it was a little weird that The Whiffenpoofs were selected for the show at all, precisely because of their status as grandaddy of all collegiate a cappella and the wider industry that has sprung from it. The fact that the group might have been disappointing (which it was) and get canned in an early round (which it did) would seem to me to be a situation to avoid. I also don't like that host Nick Lachey — wait, wait, you've read this far, don't leave — constantly proclaims the contestants to be "The six [or whatever we're down to] best vocal groups in the country!" instead of the less disingenuous (and less disprovable) "Six of the best vocal groups in the country." You can have hype and hyperbole without flat-out sounding stupid, folks; call it linguistic statistics.
All in all, though, it's great to have The Sing-Off back. I enjoyed it last year, agreed with the judges' ultimate choice, and was happy to see that Glee (whose doo-be-doo-be-doo transitional soundtrack is provided by a cappella greats The Swingle Singers) had spawned interest in this kind of music. Moreover, it gives me a chance to post the above, which I started writing last December — yes, it's that old, and I have incomplete posts even older — in nearly its original context, as a considerable preamble to a review of this season to date.
The Sing-Off is again hosted by Lachey, who apparently had or has a singing career that began in a so-called boy band, and is judged by singer/songwriter Ben Folds, late of indie rock act Ben Folds Five; Nicole Scherzinger, sometime lead singer of The Pussycat Dolls; and performer/producer Shawn Stockman, a member of the talented but typographically distressing Boyz II Men. Last season began with eight a cappella groups from around the country of varying sizes and styles, while this season expanded the pool to ten:
• Yale's Whiffenpoofs, as noted above;
• The Backbeats, a new LA-based ensemble with former members of rival college groups (including prior Sing-Off contestants);
• Committed, an all-male combo from Oakwood University in Alabama that previously focused on church music;
• Eleventh Hour, a high-school vocal band of from Kettering, Ohio;
• Groove for Thought, an ensemble of (mostly) music teachers, with a jazz bent, from Seattle, Washington;
• Jerry Lawson & Talk of the Town, an unaccompanied R&B quintet from Oakland, California, featuring the original lead singer of The Persuasions;
• Men of Note, alumni of New Jersey's Cherry Hill High School;
• On the Rocks, a self-styled vocal fraternity from The University of Oregon;
• Pitch Slapped, a co-ed a cappella company from Berklee College of Music in Massachusetts;
• Street-Corner Symphony, a recently formed pop-oriented doo-wop combo from Nashville, Tennessee
[Update: When I first published this, I decided to hold off on including my specific thoughts about the three episodes to date because the fourth was just starting — and then, as I sat with the laptop open to jot down my thoughts on each performance, the power went out in our neighborhood about 15 minutes into the show. I'd hoped to see that episode before rounding out this post, but the more time passed the more I realized that was silly; as it turns out I could barely get online for the next few days anyhow. My writeup on things as of this post's original publication date is below, with belated remarks on the penultimate episode in another post.]
Each installment of The Sing-Off begins with the entire company of contestants doing a number together, usually full-sounding but rather flavorless, looking for all the world in their mash-up of color-coordinated wardrobes like a marching band (with mikes instead of brass) populated by Special Guest Villains and their henchmen from the old Adam West Batman series.
One thing that struck me early on, and it was true for last season as well, is that I'm old and/or out-of-touch enough that I don't know some recent popular songs I'm clearly supposed to recognize. I do have a couple of Top 40 stations programmed on the car radio, and I'll linger if I like what I hear, but otherwise I mostly find out what the current hits are via performances on The Late Show or Saturday Night Live or as appropriated for TV dramas, commercials, and movie soundtracks. I don't think I'd heard more than the first few bars of Train's ubiquitous "Hey, Soul Sister" until it was done on Glee; of course, it popped up on The Sing-Off in short order.
The first episode, which was built around the groups' "signature songs", followed the ensemble "I've Got the Music in Me" with Eleventh Hour's rendition of Justin Bieber's "Baby". As I said, this bunch is still in high school, and while they're impressive for their age their relative inexperience is an obvious hurdle. So is the fact that their signature song is Justin Bieber's "Baby".
Next came Lady Gaga's epic but overexposed "Bad Romance" as performed by On the Rocks — which apparently was a viral hit on YouTube. I haven't seen that version, so I don't know if it was popular for the quality or just the novelty of an all-male a cappella ensemble doing such a song, but the Sing-Off rendition was eh.
Groove for Thought's signature song was Stevie Wonder's "I Wish". It came off as a little too "easy listening" but was a good showcase for what they do.
Someone needs to tell Pitch Slapped that just because a pun is available you don't have to act on it. And I'm aware that coming from me that's a bit of the pot calling the kettle black. Their performance of Cobra Starship's "Good Girls Go Bad" — don't know the song, only know the group because of Snakes on a Plane — was, like On the Rocks' and The Backbeats', smack in the middle of what collegiate a cappella does these days, for better and worse. When I was at Oberlin, at least, The Obertones rarely used vocal percussion, but shortly after graduation I noticed the a cappella groups I'd catch on occasion relying on it more regularly, and now it's apparently a standard thing; a little bit goes a long way, though, and unless you're doing a hip-hop number it can be awfully intrusive. None of which is a particular criticism of Pitch Slapped, who were sent home by the judges in lieu of the more deserving (or less deserving, as the case may be) On the Rocks.
Jerry Lawson & Talk of the Town brought their vintage R&B doo-wop style to The Drifters' classic "Save the Last Dance" to round out the performances from the first five.
The Whiffenpoofs kicked off the second section of the premiere with Mika's "Grace Kelly". I'm not familiar with the original singer or the song, and so I have no basis for comparison in terms of fidelity or originality, but what we got was all over the place; I appreciated the traditional tuxedos, lack of beatbox, and full sound with accomplished arrangement, but while the lead singer had moxie he also had an almost unbearably precious, borderline helium-voiced delivery.
Men of Note's signature song was Billy Joel's "The Longest Time", which I'm fond of singing a cappella myself (sometimes entirely by myself, sometimes, back in the day, with friends). It started out too crisp and stiff, got weird and kinda messy, then got too soulful; whatever points I'd have given for creative interpretation were canceled out by deductions for trying to do too much in too short a time. The group was deservedly the judges' selection to go home from the back half.
Street-Corner Symphony would likely kill with such throwback doo-wop, based on what they did with its contemporary, Tears for Fears' new-wave "Everybody Wants to Rule the World". These smooth, laid-back fellas had a great blend in a nice take on the song; the lead had a bit of a breath problem, but overall it was aces from their harmony to the total unison at the end.
Next up was The Backbeats' performance of Beyoncé's "If I Were a Boy", another one I didn't know. I agree with the judges that it was a solid effort with attitude and emotion, but can't judge it in a greater context.
Last but certainly not least was Committed doing Maroon 5's criminally catchy "This Love". It was easily the night's best number, a truly awesome reimagining of the song that according to Scherzinger sent Stockman into "musical orgasms"; he did indeed seem floored, as was I.
The second episode challenged the groups to interpret a recent hit song, again with one group eliminated from each half of the show — bridged by a performance from last year's winner, the Latin-inflected Nota. I knew barely half of the eight songs selected, not counting the opening number, Kings of Leon's "Use Somebody".
On the Rocks covered T.I. and Rihanna's "Live Your Life". "I'm gonna be looking for where you transition from entertainer to artist," Ben Folds told them, and he had a good point. There was lots of spectacle, and the sound effects were well done, but the lead vocals kind-of got lost and the rap was lackluster.
Train's aforementioned "Hey, Soul Sister" is just harmless enough that I don't overly mind it getting stuck in my brain, although the lyrics make me scratch the skull around it — I couldn't tell you the last time I heard Mr. Mister on the radio, the stereo, and name-checking a band known for enjoyably tacky soulless pop in a song called "Hey, Soul Sister" is just weird, y'know. But Street-Corner Symphony up and delivered a great, creative arrangement with a great blend and a reedy but clear lead that were more than worthy of the selection.
Eleventh Hour's take on Bruno Mars's "Just the Way You Are" (not to be confused with the Billy Joel single of the same name) suffered from the lead lacking power and volume for most of the song because of how low she had to sing it to reach the high notes later. They were the right choice to leave.
Duffy's "Mercy" was the perfect modern song for Jerry Lawson & Talk of the Town; Stockman rightly called it "another classic performance by a bunch of classy guys." Nobody else in the auditorium can compete with the gravelly resonance of Lawson's voice, which was not only a nice change from the other groups but from Duffy's own nasal ultra-vibratto on the original. I worried that the judges might be afraid to call the quintessential quintet on any missteps; so far, though, there really haven't been any.
Something called "Breakeven" from something called The Script was The Backbeats' choice, rendered with emotion and mood but, as the professionals say, a little pitchy.
Committed's lead vocalist on One Republic's "Apologize" was a bit flat sometimes, which was particularly frustrating since they otherwise had a great arrangement, great blend, and great vibe.
Groove for Thought covered Mike Posner's "Cooler than Me" and, in a mellow way, I thought they kinda blew everybody else away. They too had a great arrangement and great blend, with tight harmonies — Folds called them, "to use a technical word, sick." You can almost hear the intelligence at work, appropriate for a group of music teachers (and, as a recent addition, one of their daughters), which might be a turn-off for some, but adds diversity to The Sing-Off for me.
Finally, The Whiffenpoofs served up Michael Bublé's "Haven't Met You Yet", which probably defeated the presumed purpose of tackling a recent hit song pushing some of the contestants out of their comfort zones. The song itself is so bland, and the ensemble itself so traditional, that there wasn't much for them to do with it; like I said way earlier, it almost doesn't compute to hear that The Whiffenpoofs have been voted off an a cappella competition, but I can't argue with sending them home.
The third episode mixed things up by having the six remaining groups perform twice apiece, with only one eliminated, interpreting first a supposedly classic rock song and then a "guilty pleasure"; I've qualified and quotation-marked those categories for reasons that will soon become apparent. Since I'm not a Green Day fan — Billie Joe Armstrong sounds so affectedly, petulantly earnest that I just can't stand it — I was unfamiliar with the song, "21 Guns", performed by the whole entourage as the opening number (except insofar as it recalled Mott the Hoople's "All the Young Dudes").
For their rock song, The Backbeats chose Bon Jovi's "You Give Love a Bad Name". I repeat: For their rock song, in an episode that also asked its contestants to perform a guilty pleasure, The Backbeats chose Bon Jovi's "You Give Love a Bad Name". You won't get any argument from me that the song isn't really a pleasure of any kind, but clearly the Category Cops were on vacation, especially since The Backbeats' guilty pleasure ended up being The B-52s' no-embarrassment-necessary "Love Shack". All that said, "Love Shack" was faithfully go-go pop fun, and the Bon Jovi cover was probably more enjoyable for me than the original — although even less rock and more knowing cheeseball, done in a jazzier wah-wah style that I'd have expected from Groove for Thought.
Street-Corner Symphony's first effort was a stripped-down arrangement of Radiohead's "Creep". It was haunting, but it didn't quite have the oomph it seemed like it wanted. When lead singer Jeremy went into rock-frontman mode, the old adage that there's nowhere for your voice to hide in a cappella was in effect; most songs tend to get tighter, more showtune-like, in these kinds of performances, and when you break through with raw, rock-oriented vocal it's really exposed because the backing vocals don't provide the kind of cover that guitars and reverb and fuzz can. Later the group offered up their take — well, takes — on Dexys Midnight Runner's irresistible "Come on Eileen". Ben Folds rightly joked, "It was like a 'Come On Eileen' medley," thanks to the frequent stylistic changes; they'd have earned the A for effort unquestionably if they'd spent just a skitch more time at each tempo, but as it was, as virtuoso as it was, it sounded a bit more haphazard than eclectic.
Once again, Jerry Lawson & Talk of the Town made a song their own with their version of The Rolling Stones' "I Can't Get No Satisfaction". As David Letterman says, "That's all you need right there." They took the R&B right back from rock-'n'-roll and schooled everybody in the joint, turning in the most rocking performance of the night in the purest rock song on the ledger while still sounding totally like themselves. Just as good was their cover of The Commodores' "Easy" for their guilty pleasure. It was, indeed, easy like Sunday morning — and high, so high, too, literally when that falsetto came soaring in, with the bass anchoring it all expertly.
Another confounding song selection was Def Leppard's "Pour Some Sugar on Me" as On the Rocks' rock choice. I finally liked them with this performance, and I'm not even that fond of the song; they had a nice full sound with fun choreography — you don't often hear Ben Folds (or anyone else) utter on network TV (or anywhere else) the phrase "The posterior hump maneuver was awesome." Later they nailed — paging Soul Sister, whomever she may be — Mr. Mister's "Kyrie" from the driving percussion to the key change to the mock gravitas.
Groove for Thought's interpretation of David Bowie's "Changes" fascinated me, and not entirely the way a train wreck does, contrary to the prevailing judgment on this number. There were some glitches at the end, true, and they surely didn't "rock out" the way they said they were going to — which the judges called them out on, although I wonder if it isn't unfair to let Jerry Lawson & Talk of the Town filter everything through medium style of a cappella R&B revue and not let the jazz group be a jazz group. Everything good about what Groove for Thought does was unquestionably evident in their take on Hall & Oates' "You Make My Dreams Come True"; this was 100% pure ear candy, proof that if you're not watching this show, you're missing out on tons of fun. I'm not sure that they merited dismissal over On the Rocks, based on past performances, or even The Backbeats, although I'm also not sure it matters since at this point for me it's a three-way race among the other three combos.
The Police's "Every Breath You Take" is certainly a better song than the couple of so-called "classic rock" choices I've knocked, but while classic it's not all that rock itself. Committed did a fine job with it until the bridge, and they were again pitchy at the end; the real double jeopardy, though, came from them choosing a rather low-tempo tune, and a lyrically creepy one at that, then making it too peppy. Their version of The Backstreet Boys' "I Want It That Way" was smooth, but I have no emotional attachment to any boy-band stuff even from a guilty-pleasure perspective (just not my era or interest), so it wasn't anything more than fine again.
And that brings us to where we were when the lights went out. My thoughts on the fourth episode are forthcoming, hopefully to be posted before the season finale Monday night from 8-10 p.m. on your local NBC station (or Hulu or On Demand and all that).