But which a cappella group is the best in America? Of that, I am not so sure. On this week's premiere episode, eight of the 16 teams vying for that title gave it a go, and while the judges (Ben, Sara, and Boyz II Men's Shawn Stockman) seemed impressed by all of the groups, I was a bit disappointed. Yes, there were plenty of stellar singers in the bunch, but where was the quirky creativity of my favorites from past seasons, the Whiffenpoofs and Beelzebubs? Considering all the hype this year, I was hoping for something more--those "groups from the future" that Ben bragged about. Oh well. Maybe there will be more unique options next week. Until then, here's what Season 3 has to work with...
The Yellowjackets - The Yellowjackets, founded in 1956 at the University of Rochester, are obviously one of the token old-school, dyed-in-the-rugby-wool college teams of the season, from their traditional vocal arrangements to, well, their traditional yellow jackets. Really, the only thing that made these guys seem remotely interesting or cool was their pre-performance footage of them visiting poor children in Kenya. Inspired by that experience, the YJs performed the World Cup anthem "Wavin' Flag" by K'naan, but I wasn't quite waving my own flag for them. The boys had tons of good energy and team spirit (when they whipped out red and green pennants for the final chorus, that was a nice touch), but their sluggish vocal arrangements and old-fashioned image bogged down their performance. However, the judges loved the 'Jackets. Shawn called them "ridiculous," and he meant that in a good way. "That was powerful! I felt that you believed the music and what you sang," Shawn said. Ben said, "It was a group effort, and the choir part of it really made you feel the chorus"--although he did gripe a little about the group's confusingly fluctuating tempos. And Sara mused, "I look at your faces, and it's really emotional. I see a brotherhood here." But she too cited some imperfections, saying she would have liked "more intricate counterpoints in the arrangements." I agree: Even by the conservative standards of a show like "The Sing-Off," the Yellowjackets were a bit too staid for me.
Fannin Family - Okay, then the Fannin Family came along, and suddenly the Yellowjackets seemed like the Ramones. The Fannins actually might be the dorkiest of all the dorky groups to ever grace the "Sing-Off" stage. Basically, imagine if the Duggars formed a singing group, and that those Duggars lived in Hortonville, Wisconsin (a town which may in fact be home to at least one cheese factory). I think there were about eight Fannins, they all looked alike and definitely sounded alike, and they all drove around in a "FanVan" that was not nearly as nifty as the Partridge Family bus. Fourteen-year-old Maria, the youngest Fannin and the lead singer of the group, was actually really impressive, with a nice smoky tone during her performance of Selena Gomez's "Who Says," but her brothers and sisters were not up to her standard. All three judges raved about Maria's vocals, but Ben complained that the lack of multiple gene pools to cull from had caused these modern-day Von Trapps' overall sound to get muddy, and that brother Chris was singing out of his range. ("You can't help it if your parents didn't sprout a bass," Ben amusingly pointed out.) Shawn said they had "harmony quirks here and there," which was his nice way of saying they were pitchy. Sara was the most positive, saying that the group had "something very wholesome and innocent, and that's refreshing." Maybe so, but I was not a huge Fannin fan. Maria really should consider dumping her siblings and going solo.
Afro-Blue - This was the first group to really grab my attention, and one of my favorites of the night. The jazz-influenced Howard University students brought the funk to "The Sing-Off," as their cover of Corinne Bailey Rae's "Put Your Records On" had a cool, scatty vibe to it--just the right balance of modern and traditional that the show needs this all-important season. Self-described "music nerd" Ben loved this groovy group, praising them for "making jazzy stuff sound accessible instead of freaking people out." Sara told them, "You guys show a lot of promise for a lot of versatility. I can't wait to see what you do next!" Shawn rattled off a list of buzzwords from his notes--"class, style, slick, smooth, effortless, fun"--and told lead vocalist Christie, "Your voice feels like warm butter on grits." Time to kiss the grits, people, because Afro-Blue's sound is pretty yummy.
Delilah - This was another group with serious potential...and the "Sing-Off" pedigree to impress longtime viewers. Consisting mostly of veterans from past "Sing-Off" groups--including Noteworthy, Voices Of Lee, Eleventh Hour, and last year's totally robbed and awesomely named Pitchslapped--this all-girl group certainly looked like pop stars (their hotpants and miniskirts added a little bit of needed glamour and sex appeal to this otherwise tame show). But as supportive Sara, who gave them a standing ovation, pointed out: "You're more than just a bunch of beautiful women choosing to sing together. You guys are just the kickass a cappella group!" Delilah's cover of Bruno Mars's "Grenade" was explosive (no pun intended), especially when titanic-lung'd leader Amy sang a solo. "Amy, what boyfriend did you channel to sing that? I believe that cut through my darn heart. It was strong, and it was sexy," Shawn raved. And Ben worded it best, as he almost always does, when he told them: "There's no novelty to this. An all-female group, or one person, or a bunch of toothless loggers can all pull music off, if you put your head to it." These girls sure are easier on the eyes than toothless loggers, and that probably will only help their cause, but thankfully, their voices are just as pretty. And I think together they'll be stronger than they were in their past respective "Sing-Off" groups.
Urban Method - All right, here's when a bit of novelty came into play. This Denver group made a big to-do about the fact that they are the first "Sing-Off" contenders to have a rapper in their mix, claiming to be "edgy" and "on the street" and christening their hybrid sound "rap-a-pella." But I think the rapping kind of hurt them, simply because they chose to cover a RAP SONG. If they'd sung, say, an Adele or Kings Of Leon tune and then added some freestyling to it, that would have been cool. But by doing Eminem and Rihanna's "Love The Way You Lie," not a very outside-the-box song choice, they came across as just some copycat act. (Marshall Mathers is tough to top, you know.) Shawn loved what Urban Method had to offer, saying their sound reminded him of his childhood days of rapping on Philly's streets, and declaring, "I'm glad that someone was actually smart enough to do it on 'The Sing-Off'; I consider it cool!" Sara was impressed by their star quality and theatrical tendencies. Ben liked the fact that the group was put together by a recording studio owner, explaining: "The producer aspect is really important; sometimes a great band comes along that really is informed by the studio." But I want to see more inspired and creative song interpretations, not just rap remakes, from these guys before I make up my mind about them.
Cat's Pajamas - These fellas dubbed themselves the "hippest of the hip, the coolest of the cool." Um, no. Untrue. But these former cruise-ship crooners were certainly the most professional of the bunch: Currently taking up residence in Branson, Missouri, the family-friendly entertainment capital of the country, these sharp-suited showboaters currently play 200 concerts a year for America's tourists. Their showbiz experience showed--they had oodles of confidence, their voices blended seamlessly, and they looked like they'd spent a good chunk of their Branson earnings on their shiny suits. But there was something soulless and not all that wonderful about their "Some Kind Of Wonderful" performance. Ben advised them, "The next step is to take risks and be more vulnerable--the artsy part. There is an art covering other people's songs. How powerful would it be if you put part of yourself in the song?" Ben's fellow judges seemed similarly unmoved. Said Shawn: "You guys are definitely entertainers...but again, how does it translate to the listener?" And Sara said, "I want to see versatility here. I want to see what you guys look like in jeans and T-shirts--and I don't mean that in a weird way. You're just so slick!" These cats were definitely on the "Sing-Off" fence.
Kinfolk 9 - These ragtag, rough-around-the-edges chancers provided a direct contrast to the very polished and professional Cat's Pajamas. A collective of struggling L.A. artists trying out a cappella for the first time, they possessed everything the previous group did not--heart, soul, passion, pathos--but none of the gloss. Their performance of OneRepublic's "Secrets" was a little off and far from perfect, but hey, at least it was interesting. And lead vocalist Moi, with his vaguely emo/rocker look, was about as cool as this episode got. "I can see this is very emotional for you guys. I get the sense there is a lot riding on this for you," Sara sympathized. Ben thought the gang needed a little time to get it together technically, but said they showed a lot of raw promise. And Shawn astutely observed, "I can sense the hunger, I can sense the desire, and sometimes you can overshoot. But isn't it amazing that struggle tends to bring out the best in who you are? You can always fix the technical stuff, but you must reserve the feeling and keep that feeling alive." I actually think Kinfolk 9 could be this season's dark horse, if they're given time to grow.
Vocal Point - Another rah-rah college team, these scrubbed-clean Bringham Young University kids aimed to have "the most fun that nine clean-cut Mormon guys can have onstage." Some of their fun was unfortunately spoiled when one of their team members, their baritone, had to miss this first episode to fly home to visit his terminally ill father--but that just gave them a readymade sob story and had the whole audience rooting for them from note one. Their performance of the swing standard "Jump, Jive, An' Wail" was hokey as heck, but definitely good Mormon fun, and they proved they could perform well under adversity. They received a standing ovation--"earned by the high note at the end," noted Ben, who also loved the group's "wicked" basslines. Sara and Shawn were equally enthusiastic, with Sara gushing about "that classic, collegiate doo-wop a cappella that I really love," and Shawn telling them, "You did your thing, you held it down, and you kept us entertained!" It will be interesting to see how Vocal Point fare once their full lineup is back intact.
In the end, the judges had to cut two teams, and I think they totally made the right choice by sending home weakest links the Fannin Family and Cat's Pajamas. (Good first decision, Sara!) The Fannins just had no zip or zing (their lame swan-song choice, "Tomorrow" from the musical Annie, was additional proof of that), and the cookie-cutter Cat's guys will be better off just staying in Branson, to be honest.
So far, my eyes and ears are on Afro-Blue, Delilah, and Kinfolk 9, all of whom have something very unique to offer. But next week we'll get to see the other eight teams, including one that claims to have some sort of electronic/techno shtick (I'm kinda-sorta fantasizing that they'll wear Daft Punk robot helmets to match their blazers). Hopefully that is when things will get really interesting. But as long as Ben Folds is on, I'll be heartily digging into this guilty-pleasure cheese.
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