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Episode 2 Recap: How ‘The Sing-Off’ Got Its Groove Back

Lyndsey Parker
Reality Rocks

After a somewhat disappointing Season 3 premiere episode, "The Sing-Off" returned this Monday with eight more a cappella crews, and finally I had a reason to get excited about this show besides the participation of the always-awesome Ben Folds. This was a much better episode, with a few contestants who just might actually push the a cappella art form into that much-ballyhooed "Future" that Ben's always optimistically babbling about. And certainly when it comes to the near future, I think this week's hopefuls have better shots of making the "Sing-Off" finale than last week's batch.

(Side note: How amusing is it that My Chemical Romance's "Sing" has become THE unofficial vocal-competition anthem, used in "The Glee Project," the Season 10 "American Idol" promos, and now on "The Sing-Off"? Still, I'm just waiting for some reality contestant to tackle MCR's equivalent of "Bohemian Rhapsody," that is, the epic "Welcome To The Black Parade." Anyone who tries that has my vote.)

Anyhoo, here's how the competition stacked up this week. We've got ourselves a season now, people!

Dartmouth Aires - These guys stood out right away during the opening group number, thanks to that one awesome dude's Kid-N-Play/Gumby hairdo. And when they sang Stevie Wonder's "Higher Ground," they did indeed take the show to a whole new higher level. Frontman Michael put on a great show just on his own, but the Aires' overall performance had oodles of energy: lots of syncopation, lots of running around in Charlie Brown sweaters and madras blazers and neon green socks...I really can't understand how they didn't get winded and pass out by the end of the song. "You have a wonderful marriage of your physicality and breath control," judge Sara Bareilles observed. "You came out of the gate kicking ass and you stayed that way," marveled Ben. And judge Shawn Stockman was most enthusiastic, saying, "This is what I'm talking about! The art of a cappella is not just your voices, it's how you entertain people! I couldn't stop moving my feet under my desk." I think this group, which was founded in 1946, possesses just the right mix of tradition plus modern wackiness to keep the judges and viewers entertained in the weeks to come.

Pentatonix - The pre-performance footage of these guys annoying poor baristas as they sang their latte orders didn't endear me, but I was intrigued by the fact that they cited dubstep and electro as influences. So when they hit the stage in their H&M edgy-wear singing Katy Perry's "E.T.," I gave them a chance. I dug their cool dramatic intro--just voices in the ether, no beatboxing--and really, the best parts of the performance were when it was all singing voices, with an almost operatic effect. Ironically, despite their electronic music inspirations, it was their beatboxing that rendered the song's arrangement too cluttered and messy. Ben thought the song would have sounded better slowed down, but he was otherwise impressed, saying, "It was a really great ride...Kevin's effects were wicked awesome! You've got the club low-end that you're looking for." Sara called the performance "siiiiiick!" And Shawn thought the beats sounded so real, he "could've sworn y'all were cheating." I am intrigued to see what these kids come up with next, especially if they can invent something called "dubstep-a-pella."

Messiah's Men - This Afro-gospel, Minneapolis-based team certainly had the most touching backstory, as they consisted entirely of Liberian refugees who started singing in West African refugee camps to keep their spirits up. ("Ain't it amazing that in times of oppression, music can be that elixir?" mused Shawn.) Still, I found their rendition of Curtis Mayfield's "People Get Ready" too sedate. Sure, it was hard not to root for these fellows after all they'd been through...but following Dartmouth Aires and Pentatonix, they dragged down the energy in the room. Ben liked their "big sound" and "really interesting groove" and Shawn admired their "storytelling-type voices," but both judges admitted that the performance was far from technically perfect. However, Sara pointed out, "Music is transcendent and it sometimes gives voice to things that can't be said in words." A nice sentiment, for sure--but I just wasn't feeling enough of a messianic quality here. Sorry.

Sonos - Okay, here's when things got interesting! I was already sold on this group when I saw footage of them rehearsing Depeche Mode's "Enjoy The Silence" and performing on L.A.'s hipster/tastemaker radio station KCRW, and I was intrigued to learn that in their live shows they usually employ an array of cool effects pedals (which, sadly, would not be allowed on "The Sing-Off"). These guys were legit! I enjoyed their breathy, haunting, jazzy interpretation of the Chris Issak slow-burner "Wicked Game"--this sort of performance is what the show should be all about, I think--but the judges had mixed feelings. Shawn appreciated the "real ambitious" arrangement, but wanted more playful sexiness from the ladies (what a pig! just kidding) and thought the spacing in the harmonies made the overall song sound thin. But Sara, who (favoritism alert!) actually sang with Sonos member Chris in college and related to Sonos's tales of a struggling-musician lifestyle, actually liked the sparseness, commenting: "It was a really interesting arrangement of such a sensual song." Ben said the sparseness "left your three female singers a little bit, exposed, um, I mean vulnerable," but raved, "Your beatboxing is [wait for it] THE FUTURE!" I personally want to see a lot more of Sonos on future "Sing-Off" episodes. They're my favorite crew of the season so far, based on this performance.

The Collective - A Nashville group assembled by Jeremy Lister from last year's contenders Street Corner Symphony, these guys faced a major challenge, since they admitted they're all solo singers and totally new to the a cappella game. They also made the mistake of performing the oversung "Rolling In The Deep," a song that should be banned from all reality shows unless, of course, Adele herself is the guest performer. (No one, and I mean no one, sings that song as well as Adele.) Frontwoman Ruby did have the goods--she should still seriously consider a solo career--but overall, the performance lacked Adele's power. "Ruby, you owned the lead; that's what held our ear," Ben raved, although he said there was "more code to crack" to get this crew into true singing shape. "When the chorus came, I didn't feel lifted," he griped. Shawn loved Ruby's "quivering alto" and thought she was "off the hook," but also admitted he "didn't get blown away completely." Sara said it was "a good blend for new group" and thought that Ruby was "mesmerizing," but agreed that "something was missing." The Collective hasn't quite collected itself together yet.

Soul'd Out - A "real-life 'Glee,'" i.e., a bunch of fresh-faced suburban high school kids, Soul'd Out really didn't have any soul. The youngest team on the show just came across as amateurish, not to mention as irritating as about 16 Rachel Berrys. Their silly song choice, "Aquarius/Let The Sunshine In" from Hair, only made them seem more like cast-offs from a school play than professionals ready to compete on national TV. Small-town girl Sara related to them and said they were "well on their way," and Shawn said they "held their own," but Ben was the one who really told it like it was. "The first half hung in there pretty well," he began nicely, "but the second half was tough. That was a rough one. It tore apart at the end." Looks like Soul'd Out bottomed out, but hey, they're still very young, and they'll have other chances.

North Shore - These bowling-shirted Boston dads/daddy-o's were on a mission to "to prove doo-wop isn't dead," bringing the show back to the good old golden days when they used to sing streetcorner doo-wop "with a gallon of Zinfandel wine." Perhaps I would have enjoyed their performance of Dion's "Runaround Sue" if I'd had my own wine jug to chug from. Yes, these guys did the art form proud--they have a long history of performing everything from doo-wop to disco--but they were just way too hokey and old-fashioned for me; I was having some serious Sha Na Na flashbacks, and not in a good way. But the judges were way more appreciative. "I am in love with you all. You feel like family!" sighed Sara. Ben found them "really relatable" and thought their total lack of beatboxing was "refreshing." And Shawn said, "When doo-wop is done right, it sounds so crisp and clean and timeless. You guys did it right. You showed the youngsters what it takes." Eh. I have respect for North Shore, don't get me wrong--but I'll take Sonos or the Dartmouth Aires any day of the week, sorry.

The Deltones - Seemingly hopping on the anti-bullying/"It Gets Better" bandwagon, this band of jolly misfits shared stories of being lonely and friendless before finding each other. Aw. But then they freely admitted that their team consists of rejected singers from other University of Delaware a cappella groups. Uh oh. This did not bode well. However, their heartfelt performance of "Feels Like Home" by Randy Newman was nicely churchy and passionate, and when they sang the line, "If you knew how much this moment means to me," it was believable, if a little imperfect. "My heart is beating fast. I feel like I got transported!" Sara cried out. Ben liked the group's fragility, saying, "What might have been interpreted as nerves was just very nice vulnerability." And Shawn summed it up with: "I really felt the sincerity. I heard little quivers here and there, but sometimes a song isn't about how perfect it is, but how good it felt." This felt pretty darn good to me.

Ultimately, the judges had to cut two more teams, and I think they again made the right decision by eliminating Messiah's Men and Soul'd Out. The former team had heart but no fire, and the latter just seemed to be floundering, out of their depth. But when Soul'd Out sang Ozzy Osbourne's "Mama, I'm Coming Home" as their exit song, I liked them just a little bit more. I wish they'd seemed that cool during their actual performance.

So now, after this second week, we are down to 12 teams, and my eyes and ears are on Sonos, Dartmouth Aires, and Pentatonix, along with last week's Afro-Blue, Delilah, and Kinfolk 9. All of them have something unique to offer, but it'll be in the coming weeks when we'll find out which one has a real (wait for it) FUTURE on this show, and hopefully in the music biz.

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