Still, while some teams had me feeling the rhythm, others ultimately had me feeling the blues. Here's how they all did...
Each team had to do two performances this evening--one contemporary hit, one classic R&B staple--and the Aires' first number, a cheeky cover of R. Kelly's sexxed-up party anthem "Ignition," was undoubtedly polarizing. I personally loved the over-the-top, pelvic-thrusting silliness of it, with lead vocalist Xavier even sort of reminding me of a loverman version of Tay "Chocolate Rain" Zonday. What I have always adored about the Aires is their campiness, their fearlessness, and their total sense of abandon...but it's those very things that have time and time again garnered stern criticism from the judges, who tend to think the Aires sacrifice vocal quality when focusing too much on their at-times-chaotic theatrics. Judge Shawn Stockman seemed torn, and confused, at first saying, "There were so many uncomfortable moments" and "You guys normally don't do the 'sexy' thing," but then adding, "You did it in a way that was playful. It was very strategic, how you did it." Judge Sara Bareilles was red-faced and face-down on her desk after this flabbergasting performance, laughing, "I don't even know what just happened! That was so insane. You guys have me all flustered!" Ben Folds called them "always entertaining," but once again found fault with their bottom end (and he wasn't referring to their shaking booties). Then Ben suggested Darmouth Aires cover all chapters of R. Kelly's "Trapped In the Closet" saga--which was like the best TV talent show advice ever in the history of everything. Can we have a all-"Trapped"-themed night on this show? Please?
For their second song, the Aires did "Midnight Train To Georgia" by Gladys Knight & The Pips. My guess is most viewers preferred this performance; it was more traditional, less cheesy and wacky, and certainly less "uncomfortable." But I personally missed the chaos and quirk that typifies most D.A. performances. It was like all the fun had been sucked out of them. Sure, lead singer Michael belted it out like a Motown pro and his teammates backed him up superbly, but I spent the whole performance waiting for them to cut loose and clown around and flail all over the stage. And I was disappointed when they didn't. Shawn loved this number, saying, "I believed that performance" and "You locked into that actual song." Ben liked their "timeless style," and Sara loved their "restraint" and "earnestness." But timelessness, restraint, earnestness are not things I expect, want, or need from the Dartmouth Aires.
Urban Method, a group influenced by modern hip-hop music, should have had the edge in the first round, doing the Keri Hilson/Ne-Yo/Kanye West hit "Knocks You Down." But once again, the group's two weak-link female singers knocked them down. Mike was as usual the star of the show, delivering a great rapping verse that sounded and felt like legit hip-hop, but the girls seemed like country singers or maybe long-lost Delilah members, and it just didn't work with them in the mix. I have NO idea why the judges keep advising Urban Method to feature the girls instead of pushing Mike to the front. Anyway, Shawn told Mike, rightly, "The cool thing about you is you give those raps your own flair and your own style. You never NOT deliver." Said Ben, "It's always really, really solid. Richard, you are one of the best beatboxers on the show. And I like when your arrangements are slightly bizarre. You're stars." Said Sara, "I have been blown away by your depth and complexity and by how much you guys are evolving on this show!" But she also said she liked it when the group was willing to let certain members "sit out for a second." Did she mean the girls? If so, I say just have the girls just sit it out in their "Muppet Show"-style balcony next week, so Mike and Richard can really shine without them.
Later the Method did the Isley Brothers' "It's Your Thing," and once again the performance suffered because of those two girl singers. (Yes, I mean the two Caucasian ones. Sorry, but their voices do not work for hip-hop. At all.) This performance just didn't seem cool enough for a group trying to create a "defining moment in hip-hop" and position itself as young, edgy, and envelope-pushing, but there were moments, courtesy of the male group members, that were still fun. Shawn dug this, saying, "I wanted it to keep going! I thought there was about to be a party! It felt good!" (But Shawn saying, "You're ahead of your time--you're taking hip-hop to the next level"? Um, that was a little much. Calm down, Shawn.) Ben liked how they made a two-chord song more dynamic by "reharmonizing" it and "going crazy" at the end, and he also said they left him wanting more. Said Sara, "I thought that was a strong showing," but when she praised the ladies for "stepping out and finding your voice," I once again had to disagree. Why can't these judges be a little mean once in a while, and just tell it like it is? The cold, hard fact is Urban Method would go much further, on this show and in the real world after this season, with a revamped lineup.
I thoroughly expected Vocal Point to thoroughly annoy me doing "Every Little Step" by Bobby Brown, but for some reason, I enjoyed them. It's like that, it's like that. I couldn't help but admire how they jumped into the song with such enthusiasm and playfulness, and there was such a fun Dartmouth Aires air to their performance. Shawn was so enthusiastic, he gave them a standing ovation and raved, "Man, that was impressive! You had the New Edition thing going on, all the steps. Truly, truly impressive--good job!" Ben, who claimed to be wearing Bobby Brown-esque parachute pants under his desk, said, "That was really good! Wow, that you did all that choreography and sang at the same time is really impressive. Thumbs aloft, gentlemen!" Sara agreed, "My jaw was on the floor with the fact that you guys tackled that enormous bout of choreography in addition to delivering a supercool arrangement of that song. You guys are just a riot."
For their second act, Vocal Point did "Ain't Too Proud To Beg" by the Temptations, and while their energy was still up, this was not nearly as entertaining as their first effort. Putting a fresh spin on a Motown oldie is never easy for any singing group, but Vocal Point were especially challenged in this regard, and their shtick therefore came across as a little dinner-theatery. "It felt like you were trying a little bit. I couldn't lose myself in the performance. It felt disjointed," said Sara. Shawn said he wanted more grit from the performance--which was odd, since expecting grit from Vocal Point would be like, well, expecting class from Ke$ha or subtlety from Lady Gaga--but I understood his point. Ben told them they'd been "playing it safe for a little while" and that they'd plateaued as the season went on. "You started out with some promise that I keep waiting to see come back," he told them. It remained to be seen if the VP guys would even get a chance to bring it back next week, but things were not looking good for them.
After first planning to sing the relatively edgy Ne-Yo club hit "Closer," Afro-Blue switched to the more sedate "We Belong Together" by Mariah Carey. I think this was a bad decision. Afro's performance of the midtempo Mimi ballad came across as way too old-fashioned for the "contemporary" segment of the show, and it was just plain dull. Lead singer Christie actually sounded great and delivered a believably passionate performance, but overall, the number lagged and dragged, with Christie seeming like the only valuable player in this game. Sara singled out Christie for praise, saying, "I love you! Christie, great lead! I'm really glad to see your emotional connection to the song. By the end of the song, you were soaring." Said an equally impressed Ben, "I feel like we're really getting somewhere now. You're not just a jazz group now; you're a group that has jazz at your disposal. I completely believed it the whole time." Said Shawn, "I think you guys are starting to understand the method behind arranging. Sometimes you don't have to do a lot to be effective. It's about not letting the song own you, but you owning the song. And you guys did that." Too bad they just owned such a boring song.
For their second go-'round, Afro-Blue went with "Best Of My Love" by the Emotions, and it was much more energetic. Ironically, Afro-Blue seemed cooler, younger, and more modern when singing an oldie; go figure. They weren't as tight as they could have been--it seemed all the dancing and vibing caused them to go astray a bit--but it was a good effort overall. Ben admitted "there were some holes in the chorus," but praised them for "upholding an American tradition, one of the great American art forms: jazz music." Sara called them "total powerhouses," but agreed with Ben that something was "missing" from the chorus. Shawn said the performance "came undone in certain spots." So it was beginning to look like this number would be Afro-Blue's undoing.
If there is any justice in this gawd-forsaken reality TV world, Pentatonix will win "The Sing-Off"--and then actually sell records after the show is over. They are so far beyond anyone on this show, from ANY season, it ain't even funny. Their performance of Usher's "OMG"--absolutely not an easy song to sing--was actually sexy, even if one of the religious group members was uncomfortable with the lyrics and wanted to change the words to something more G-rated. The performance still had sass, sex appeal, and yes, SOUL. I was so, so impressed, as were the judges. "I'm tired of saying that you're good! I can't say anything bad. Avi did something with his voice that will.i.am actually needed EQs and outboard gear in the studio to do. Those two dudes, Kevin and Avi, are freaks of nature!" said Shawn. "You set the bar really high for yourselves, so our expectations have been through the roof the whole ride--and you don't disappoint! You keep finding ways to inject your personality into these arrangements, and that is really exciting," said Sara. Ben praised their "really smart arranging" and "really interesting chords" and "bag of tricks," calling the performance "brilliant." Yay! Penatonix for the win!
Pentatonix got sexy again for Marvin Gaye's "Let's Get It On," and once again shockingly pulled it off. From verbally mimicking the song's wocka-wocka '70s-porno-soundtrack guitar licks to hitting some fab falsettos to delivering a killer lead vocal, they did it all. Is there anything Pentatonix can't do? (That was a rhetorical question, people. The answer is hell to the no.) This performance had Shawn jumping out of his seat midway through, and everyone giving them a standing ovation at the end. "I can't express enough how incredible that was. The way that you guys did that--you make it your own. I really can't talk!" gasped a near-speechless Shawn. Predicted Ben, "There's going to be a suspicious bump in the birthrate in nine months. That song sums up what R&B is about." And Sara summed it all up with: "That was unbelievable. It is a joy to see you perform every week. You are so badass. And when I am at a loss for words, I usually break out a swear word or two...that was just f**king awesome!"
In the end, it came down to Afro-Blue and Vocal Point in the bottom two, and since it would have been richly ironically for Afro-Blue to go home during R&B night, it was Vocal Point who took the fall. I didn't really disagree with the judges' decision--it was VP's time to go, and I actually wouldn't have minded them leaving a week or two ago--but at least the boys went out with a bang, since their Bobby Brown cover from earlier in the evening had been so much fun.
But really, as long as Pentatonix continue to be safe, I don't care who goes home.
- Sara Bareilles