When "The Sing-Off" Season 3 premiered two weeks ago--amid host Nick Lachey's frequently and incessantly repeated hype that this would be the "biggest season ever" that would "kick off a musical revolution"--I was actually disappointed. Few of the eight crews that competed on that episode truly impressed me. But then last week eight, more superior a cappella crews sang, and I got excited, convinced that the season had turned around. But now it seems like my elation was premature, based on this week's episode. Stop toying with me, "Sing-Off"!
So last night, the six crews that survived week one returned, which was a bit of a buzzkill in and of itself. But the real bummer came at the end of the night, when my favorite team, and certainly the most interesting team of the bunch, was sent home by the judges. This was the first seriously bad decision of the season, and actually one of the worst decisions in "Sing-Off" history. Usually I think Ben Folds, "the musical brain that keeps us entertained," can do no wrong...but he and fellow judges Sara Bareilles and Shawn Stockman really messed up this time.
Also compounding my disappointment was a new decade-specific theme last night. While the six crews still did their usual remakes of modern-day hits, they also each performed a 1960s song, and the results were not very groovy, man. Along with some bizarre, fuddy-duddy song choices that didn't exactly scream "'60s" to me (Sinatra? Frankie Valli?), the singers' "Brady Bunch"-esque period costumes (fringe, bellbottoms, pukey earth tones) lent the whole production the feeling of--to quote Adam Lambert on "Project Runway"--an eighth grade production of Hair. It's not like "The Sing-Off" was the edgiest show on TV begin with, but this theme pretty much killed off any coolness it might have had.
Actually, the coolness really got killed at the end of the evening, when it was elimination time and the coolest crew got cut. Here's what went down--way down--on "The Sing Off" last night...
It didn't surprise me when one of these clean-cut, all-American kids 'fessed up to being in a boy band back in the day. All of the Vocal Point members did a decent job pulling off their silly boy-band choreography during their performance of their first song, Justin Bieber's "Never Say Never." Overall, they were convincingly boy-bandy (ex-98 Degrees member Nick Lachey probably approved), but...and I never thought I'd say this, let alone put it print...they just didn't have that Bieber swagger. Still, it was a valid effort, and member Keith's long note at the end was something that the Biebs most likely would not be able to pull off vocally. ("Who knew someone so thin had such big lungs?" Shawn told Keith later.) "I'll never again say that I could never enjoy Bieber sung by a bunch of Mormons. Never say never!" laughed Ben. "You guys are so much fun to watch. You're like a bunch wholesome Thundercats. There were parts where it felt a little stiff, but it's part of your whole charm," rationalized a too-sweet Sara. "It's very funny to see a Justin Bieber song done by a bunch of grown men," chuckled Shawn. "It was a good performance. You didn't take yourself too seriously." True...but I wonder if voters will take these guys seriously if this team makes the finale.
For their second, throwback number, Vocal Point covered that hippie king of '60s counterculture, Frank Sinatra. Yes, you read that right. Of course, Frank was making music--successful, popular, iconic music--in the 1960s, but "The Way You Look Tonight" still seemed like an odd choice to represent the decade of free love. In the end, though, the song suited Vocal Point; these nice Mormon boys probably knew it was best to steer clear of druggy psychedelia, and I must say, in their suave suits and fedora hats, they looked a lot less foolish than the crews who chose to dress up like the cast of "Laugh-In." Vocal Point's swingin' '60s number was so old-Hollywood-goes-Broadway, I almost thought Tyce Diorio had choreographed it, and the judges loved it. "I'm swooning! It feels so polished and it's so theatrical without being a caricature. You guys are such a cute little Rat Pack," said Sara. "That was some swanky singing, y'all. It was so smoove," agreed Shawn. "It was what the song required, slick and masculine at same time." And Ben raved, "You're covering a side of the '60s that was really a big part of the era, but you didn't just cover one of the styles, you started going through them like an encyclopedia! I thought I was listening to a big band up there." Wow, who woulda thunk that one of this season's squarest crews would end up seeming like one of the hippest on '60s night?
Already one of the most promising crews of the first bracket, this all-girl allstar team comprising former "Sing-Off" contestants stepped it up even higher on their first, modern song, a beautiful and hauntingly arranged rendition of the aforementioned Adam Lambert's "Whataya Want From Me." Starting with just one vocalist, alone onstage under a single spotlight, the song grew, layer by layer and singer by singer, until all of the Delilah girls were onstage for the song's dramatic chorus. The effect was powerful, and as their soaring vocals blended, their rendition owed as much to the more feminine original by Pink as it did to Adam's famous version. And might I add...this is not an easy song to sing. (I know. I've tried it in karaoke, against my better judgment.) "You kind of gave people a window into how harmoines are built. The drama was there, the feeling was there; you captured us with the feeling of the song," praised Shawn. "I understood the song better that time than when I heard it a thousand times before," said Ben, risking incurring the wrath of thousands of Glamberts. "This is the reason that I do this gig--you're innovating something, but you're doing it with heart." And Sara gushed, "I'm so excited that everyone's getting to see how stunning a group of women can be. This was a Pink song that Adam Lambert made famous, but...girl power, baby!" Girl power, indeed. Maybe these ladies do some Spice Girls if there's a '90s week.
Unfortunately, Delilah didn't bring the heat to their '60s song, Martha & The Vandellas' "Heatwave," and that almost got them eliminated. I didn't think their performance was as bad as the judges did--they all looked adorable in their Spector-girl bouffants and Mary Quant frocks, and their voices blended nicely enough. But maybe they blended a little too well. It was just too obvious for a girl group take on a girl group, so the results were underwhelming. "This is the heart of your challenge, because it's a song you can't quite outsmart," explained Ben. "You're stuck with a lot of alto range. I think it's amazing you even got through it. It was not quite up to what you've been doing." Shawn thought Delilah's four sopranos were what caused the problem: "With very high voices, there was nothing in the middle to give it that warmth." And Sara agreed that "there was just something about the arrangement that was missing for me." Deliah were lucky that they'd already made such a strong impression with their first performance, because this was not what the judges wanted from them.
These "rap-a-pella" renegades didn't impress me much with their copycat take on Eminem's "Love The Way You Lie" their first time out. So this week I was hoping they'd do something a little more outside the box. No such luck. Instead they covered the Black Eyed Peas' "Just Can't Get Enough." (The Depeche Mode song by the same title would have been way cooler. Maybe if there's an '80s theme later this season?) The group's energy was high, but I still couldn't stop myself from unfavorably comparing their vocals to the original BEP version. The judges, however, just could not get enough. "You all just sparkle like Katy Perry's fireworks. I was sucked in from moment one!" raved Sara (who I'm beginning to think might be a bigger softie than "Idol" judge Steven Tyler) "I like you guys because you show the different ways you can interpret a cappella. You have a unique niche unlike anything we have seen on this show," said Shawn. And Ben said, "You've got sort of a punk-rock attitude in the way you come across and sell it. You're music of the studio, and that's one thing that makes it very unique, almost 'producer rock.'" I agree that Urban Method are unique for this show, but I question how unique they'll sound if they win and release an album in the real-world pop marketplace.
For their retro number, Urban Method did Sly & The Family Stone's "Dance To The Music," which unfortunately Sly himself was probably unable to see since he's reportedly homeless and I assume the van he lives in does not come equipped with a TV set. Anyhoo, this performance had the oodles of energy that the fun 'n' funky song required...but with their outfits that might as well have been picked up from the "1960s Hippie" rack at the Halloween Superstore, it came across as very hokey. But hokey, schmokey, the judges of course loved it. "If you're gonna do a Sly & The Family Stone song a cappella, that's how you do it. It moved the way it was supposed to move," said Shawn. "I really did forget we were listening to an a cappella song and not a band; it sounded like there was a band behind you," said Ben. And was naturally Sara was the most effusive, saying, "That was my favorite performance by you so far. It was out-of-the-box, and I loved it." Then she compared one of the singers to Fat Albert. I think that was supposed to be a compliment. Hey hey hey!
This intriguingly jazzy team brought their trademark complex arrangement style to Estelle's "American Boy," complete with beatboxing that actually sounded like scratchy turntable vinyl, and the performance was actually downright sexy in parts--a real rarity on this cheesy little show. Even Nick Lachey was inspired to weigh in, declaring, "I don't mind saying, that was ridiculous!" Shawn agreed: "Woo!!! You took me there to when black folks were so snazzy and fly, with the big bands and Count Basie. I went there!" Sara loved the arrangement's "many dimensions." And proud music nerd Ben said, "People think of jazz as an elite thing that will drive people from listening to it, but you're using it for the good side of the force!" I concur. I like Afro-Blue and all that jazz.
This was another group that simply seemed less cool when it got to the '60s round. Their vocals were fine on their Marvin Gaye/Gladys Knight song "I Heard It Through The Grapevine," but their pimpadelic "Good Times" get-ups and wedding-dance party moves weren't doing them any favors, and there was just too much going on. "The arrangement was definitely picking fights. I just thought I put a bag over my head and went through a car-wash backward for a second!" is how Ben described the performance, sounding not unlike nonsensical reality judge Paula Abdul. "I think you overthought it a little--but you're amazing, and we all know that." The other judges were nicer--Shawn thought they captured Marvin Gaye's "smooth/masculine mix," and Sara praised them for being "so committed to whatever choice you're making as a unit"--but I think Afro-Blue made the wrong choice here.
This traditional college crew seemed a little cooler doing Taio Cruz's "Dynamite" this week, trading in their namesake mustard-colored university blazers for leather motorcycle jackets (albeit bright taxi-yellow ones) and displaying a slight sense of humor a la the past seasons' Whiffenpoofs and Beelzebubs. They had a lot spunk, looked like they were having fun, and didn't seem so hand-wringingly earnest this time. "I'm feeling it. How can you not feel it with these guys? You feel it with every inch of these guys," Ben said, somewhat awkwardly and disturbingly. Ben did think the second half of the song "needed more stomp," though, while Shawn wanted more bass to add some "boom." Sara loved them--"You guys are all heart; you're so adorable onstage," she sighed--but she also offered some criticism: "My issue with this was that the groove moved a little bit, and I'm sure you felt that as well." Well, at least the YJ's had some groove this week.
"Can't Take My Eyes Off Of You," by Frankie Valli, was the Yellowjackets' lame '60s song choice (though not as lame as Nick Lachey's introduction of the song as being "from Jersey Boys"). It's like the guys took off their leather jackets and lost all their power, kind of like when Danny Zuko put on a letterman sweater. Fortunately, one of the boys, Aaron, played the "hand-kissing card" and won some Brownie points with the smitten Sara. "I'm blushing!" she said, while making goo-goo eyes at Aaron. "That was just so sweet. You guys are just so fantastic." Joked Shawn: "Aaron, you kiss-up! But seriously, it was great. It didn't sound like voices, but real instruments." Ben even compared the vocal percussion to an "old Wurlitzer organ drum-machine." The way all the judges were acting, you would have thought Aaron kissed all of their hands, and maybe their feet. But I wasn't feeling it. I had no problem taking my eyes off these guys.
These struggling L.A. musicians and admitted a cappella newbies, who almost went home in episode one, disappointed in their first song, a limp cover of Jessie J's "Price Tag." The coolness factor and realness and rawness they exhibited before was gone, mostly because of their contrived hanging-on-the-front-stoop shtick, which just didn't work. "There were a lot of really wonderful moments in that...but you guys didn't grab me from the get-go. The beginning was a little big weak," griped an uncharacteristically critical Sara. "The whole vibe of it was smooth--not too many high or lows. I could have used a little more dynamics," said Shawn. But Ben saw something in these kids, praising their "serious improvement" and telling them, "This changes my opinion on what you do. The group really came together this time." Ben seemed to be setting them up for a real underdog story arc, and certainly the best was yet to come from Kinfolk 9 in the next crucial round.
Kinfolk 9 really threw down the 1960s gauntlet when they closed the show with "Let It Be" by the ultimate superstar act of the era, the almighty and often untouchable Beatles. With frontman Moi--one of the best singers in "Sing-Off" history, and certainly one of the hippest with his shaggy rocker-boy persona--leading the Kinfolk choir, the group really took this song to church, and it was magical. Certainly the episode couldn't have had a better finale than this. "You turned a Beatles song into a gospel! Moi, you almost had a little tear fall out of my face for second! You took it to another level," raved Shawn. Said Sara, "Moi, you are so emotive and expressive! One of the best things is when you can see a performer lose themselves in the message and the feeling of the song." And even Ben continued his turnaround, calling this Kinfolk 9's best performance yet.
And then...the judges SENT KINFOLK 9 HOME. Seriously? I was already filled with dread when the bottom two were Delilah and Kinfolk 9, two of this bracket's best teams who delivered two of the best performances of the night. But I was hoping "Let It Be" was enough to save my boy Moi. Maybe the judges just didn't think Kinfolk 9 were ready, compared to the other more experienced and polished crews. Maybe they thought Moi, who they always singled out for praise (and who stood out among all the singers during this episode's opening group number of Keane's "Somewhere Only We Know"), would be better off going solo. Whatever the judges' reasoning, I think they blew it. Kinfolk 9, while imperfect, were at least interesting and somewhat modern, and their swan song choice, Beck's "Loser," only proved just how cool and deserving they were. Kinfolk 9 are not losers in my eyes.
Maybe things will improve next week, when the other six "Sing-Off" crews give it a go, since all of my favorite Season 3 teams (Sonos, Dartmouth Aires, and Pentatonix) are in the second bracket. That itself seems unfair, but I will save my complaining for when those teams are also forced to sing '60s ditties. I hope they choose more wisely (how about some Kinks, Stones, Who, or Pet Sounds?) when it's their turn. And more importantly, I hope the judges choose more wisely when it comes to next week's elimination.