That being said, there were some cute moments, both during the rock and country segments of the night, as the six remaining teams sang one song apiece from the respective Donny and Marie genres. Here's how they all did.
Pentatonix are my favorite group on this show, but when they introduced their first performance, of Steppenwolf's "Born To Be Wild," by saying, "Our group is so wild!"--well, I thought they were stretching it. (Okay, if you say so, Pentatonix--yeah, you wear neon fingerless gloves, so you guys are animals!) But this performance was still pretty cool. Mimicking the sound of a revving motorcycle engine at the song's start was a neat trick--it sort of reminded me of that guy from Police Academy--and they attacked the song with all the gusto with which an a cappella group can attack such a song. "You blow my mind consistently. That was incredible," said judge Sara Bareilles. "It's amazing, what comes out of you five. You sound so big and strong every time you come out," said Shawn Stockman. "You always have a couple tricks up your sleeves, and they're always entertaining and pushing the song forward. You guys rocked!" said Ben Folds. Well, no, they didn't ROCK. But this was yet another solid performance that didn't shake Pentatonix's standing as the team to beat.
For their country performance, Pentatonix went with Sugarland's "Stuck Like Glue," a cutesy ditty that translated well to a cappella. While the crew put their own quirky spin on it, with a reggae-pop toasting section in the middle that kind of reminded me of No Doubt's "Underneath It All," for the most part they eschewed their usual bells and whistles and kept their performance uncharacteristically simple. It was a strategy that worked. "That was the simplest arrangement I've seen Pentatonix do in this competition, and even that was fly. You showed diversity, that you can strip down for a moment," praised Shawn. "That really made me happy," gushed Ben. And Sara called it a "really sweet performance, as sweet as you guys have been. You made great choice in keeping the song simple."
This season's campiest group really set up camp with their rock 'n' roll performance of Twisted Sister's "We're Not Gonna Take It," although I was slightly disappointed that they didn't wear some Dee Snider warpaint and fringed red leather for the occasion. As usual, the guys' sense of fun was evident up there on that stage, warpaint or not (I loved it when they unison-sang, "And now we're going to the bridge!"), but the judges thought they maybe overdid it a bit, to the point where the performance got too chaotic. "You guys are having too much fun!" laughed Shawn, who added that he'd wanted more cowbell. "That was loads of fun. The original song was ridiculous, so you made it one more step ridiculous," said Ben, who like the Aires' "Broadway ending." And Sara said, "You took this genre and injected it with what makes the you so special, and that is your versatility onstage. It was fun beginning to end."
The Aires' country cover of Big & Rich's "Save A Horse, Ride A Cowboy" wasn't quite as fun for me. I know Big & Rich are a silly, wacky band, seemingly well-suited to Dartmouth's shtick, but maybe that was the problem: The wacky Aires, combined with the wackiness of B&R, resulted in an over-the-top performance that seemed like the Aires were making fun of country music. Their "Hee-Haw" getups and straw hats certainly didn't help matters. Ben thought their "theater was great," but that it came at the expense of their vocals. Shawn agreed that all their "hooting and hollering and jumping and kicking" made their singing suffer. And Sara said, "I thought you guys did what you do well, but this is your challenge: When you take on a big energetic performance, things come a little loose."
I love me some Tom Petty, so when I heard Afro-Blue planned to sing "American Girl," I figured they BETTER not mess this one up. I was actually pleasantly surprised by how their signature jazzy style worked with this classic rock anthem, especially since the group had been so worried about taking it on, but when they broke out into "The Star-Spangled Banner" mid-performance, in some sort of obvious attempt to court red state votes, they totally lost me. None of the judges seemed very impressed. Ben didn't like the national anthem interlude either, griping, "I don't think it had anything to do with the song," and telling them they "gotta stay true to finding your identity." Sara softened her blow by telling Afro-Blue they're "some of the most talented singers that the show has ever seen," but then admitted, "I felt I didn't exactly see you guys in this." Shawn also thought they seemed lost, telling them, "You might have been slightly intimidated by the song. I felt like you felt it didn't relate to you." Um, who doesn't relate to TOM PETTY?
Afro-Blue, who hail from Nashville, fared better with Lady Antebellum's booty-call ballad "Need You Now" for their second song. The lovely, yearning tune suited them perfectly, and the judges clearly thought the group had redeemed themselves with this. "I am emotional, watching you guys get emotional," sighed Sara. "That was really special. That's going to be a moment people remember about this show. I saw the deepest level of connection between you guys and between the message and the music." Said Ben, "You clicked into the song, and it was transcendent." Gushed Shawn, "I think everyone experienced tonight how it feels, and how fulfilling it is, to be a singer. You can't help but to shed tears. The beauty of your performance is we could tell it connected."
All of the judges loved these girls' high-decibel, high-octave performance of Aerosmith's "Dream On," but when I heard it, my only reaction was flashbacks to Danny Gokey on Season 8's "American Idol" rock night. My ears, my ears! Yes, I appreciated wind in the girls' hair and all the Joan Jett-ish black leather, but lead singer Amy's screechy scream was just too much, too forced. Shawn, Ben, and Sara were thoroughly rocked, however. "That was ROCK AND ROLL! I saw a female Steven Tyler up there!" Shawn declared, erroneously. "I thought it indeed rocked. Amy, you really handled that fan," said Ben. Sara called Amy's lead "sick" and told her, wrongly, "You have one of those rare female voices that translates to rock well," but she was the one judge who wasn't 100 percent on board, admitting, "This was not one of my favorite performances." It wasn't one of mine, either.
Doing the Band Perry's "If I Die Young" was a chance for Delilah, who'd frequently been in the bottom two, to rebound. Instead, they died a slow, sad death on that soundstage. Their vocals were a mess from the start, and as their performance unraveled, so did their confidence. They just wilted, and they looked positively defeated, and just a little relieved, by the song's end. "I thought you guys put a lot of emotion [read: sadness] and thought into this, but you came out of gate with some pitch problems," said Sara. "You never lack emotion, I never not believe you, but it was hard to connect when I heard so many [errors]. Technically it was not as sound as I wanted it to be," concurred Shawn. "When you hit the first chorus per it was like, WHOA. And in the later chorus, it kept haunting you. It was under for what I'm used to from you guys," said Ben.
Rapping and Whitesnake usually do not go well together. I was curious why this "rap-a-pella" group hadn't gone with a more obvious rock song, like Run-DMC and Aerosmith's "Walk This Way" or whatever. But taking on the car-hood-rolling '80s anthem "Here I Go Again" was a risk that paid off for Urban Method. They really made the song their own, as they often say in this biz. "You KNOW that was good! That's why I love this show; things happen that you would never guess. You took a big chance, you almost rewrote the song, but you brought out the song in a way I could understand. You made me like the song," said obvious Whitesnake hater Ben. "You guys are tenacious as well, you're so hungry and it shows. I like how you take risks. You flipped that song on its ear and turned it into something completely different!" said Sara. "I love how you arranged it but somehow kept the original flavor," added Shawn. Overall, this was an awesome performance. Clearly these guys know what it means to walk along the lonely street of dreams.
I was less impressed with UM's cover of Carrie Underwood's "Before He Cheats." It just totally lacked the crowbar-wielding, tire-slashing, car-keying sass of the original. And once again, I thought it was a mistake to put the group's girls front and center. Shawn, however, totally disagreed with me on all counts. "You guys did your thing! It was so nice to see you taking over that song the way it should be taken over," he said. Sara said, "You've found your gift again. You dignified the song instead of saying, 'We don't know anything about country.'" Ben dug it too. But I think was just disappointing. Next time there's a country night, Urban Method, do "The Devil Went Down To Georgia" instead!
Oh gad. Sanjaya got a lot of flak on "Idol" for his cover of the Kinks' "You Really Got Me," but that performance was a Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame-worthy tour de force compared to VP's mess of a rendition. They tried to be sexy, they tried to have swag, and I was left utterly unconvinced and even a little embarrassed for them. This was painful. I have NO idea why Shawn told them, "I love that you took the rock 'n' roll thing seriously." (Um, they were being SERIOUS? Gawd, that just made it worse!) Sara told them, foolishly, "You have this overall stage presence/charisma thing that seems so effortless for you. I know how hard you guys work, and it shows every time you take the stage!" Ben praised them, incorrectly, with "That had a lot of rock in it" (whaaaaa?), but then criticized their choice to add some hair-metal flare to the song. "I'm not sure that was a choice I would have made. It was not one of your performances that I would want to hear on a record." You said it, Ben.
For their country performance, Vocal Point did "Life Is A Highway," a song that everyone seems to think is by Rascal Flatts when it was in fact originally in 1991 by Canadian rocker Tom Cochrane. Anyhoo, I wasn't feeling this either. The dumb cowboy hats, matching plaid shirts, and attempted line-dancing had me wishing they'd do another Kinks song, even. I will say, though, that lead vocalist Keith could go the country route as a solo singer, if he wanted to, and pull it off. Keith received most of the judges' praise. "Keith, that was very legit country. I believe that you drive pickup trucks and stuff. It didn't sound like you were making fun of country. You had an identifiable timbre of voice and personality," said Ben. Sara thought VP were "so frickin' cute" and loved their energy, but thought they seemed like they were rushing. Shawn said, "My favorite part was you starting the car," referring to the sound effects at the beginning of the performance. That was my favorite part too. It was all driving downhill from there!
In the end, the bottom two teams were, surprisingly, Afro-Blue and Delilah--not Vocal Point. Considering how often Delilah had been on the chopping block before--and how roundly their country performance had been panned, while Afro-Blue's had garnered such glowing praise--I knew it was the girls' time to go. And Delilah seemed to already know it too. But at least they went out blazing with girl power, belting out Destiny's Child's "Survivor" as they left the stage.
Next week, the five "Sing-Off" teams will take on classic songs, or something like that; Nick Lachey was pretty vague. I am still rooting for a Pentatonix/Dartmouth Aires finale, but we'll have to see if all can bring it next Monday.