Recap: The Sing Off: Season 2, Episode 3

In the latest episode of The Sing Off, we learn that no amount of producer manipulation can cover for a group doing a truly horrible performance, unless that group is one of the favorites of the show. The opening number is a rather inspired arrangement of "21 Guns" by Green Day. Too bad the beauty of the setting is once again ruined by riffs, runs, and sour notes by each competitor's lead vocalist. I still liked it for that opening with the plucked/echoed guitar effect from The Backbeats. The choreography is the best of any performance on the show as it's simple to do but effective in unison.

Each ensemble gets to perform two songs tonight. The first round is Rock (which apparently means every group has to sing like a rock band rather than just perform a rock song how they're comfortable singing it). The second round is Guilty Pleasures (again, another ambiguous category as there are some songs that should not inspire guilt allowed for certain favored ensembles). The acts in order for the first round are: The Backbeats (post-collegiate a cappella, aka The Ringers), Street Corner Symphony (the Southern Rockers who would rather drink than rehearse), Jerry Lawson & Talk of the Town (the best group in the competition traditional rock/R&B a cappella with no beatbox), On the Rocks ("dancing" fraternity group/alleged YouTube sensations), Groove for Thought (jazz singing teachers + daughter), and Committed (gospel sextet).

First up is The Backbeats performing Bon Jovi's "You Give Love a Bad Name." I have to wonder why this group refuses to let a male take a singing lead. They gave one guy with a strong voice two lines of their last performance, and they'll give another male a jokey, spoken-word lead in the next round, but once again their lead vocalist on a male vocalist song is a woman. It's not necessarily a bad thing if the choice of singer works for the performance; this did not. The misfire on the lead is a shame because the arrangement is probably the most creative of the night. The Backbeats are trained enough to manipulate their voices to all the guitar effects without seeming like a gimmick (especially their beatboxer, who was recruited for the group a week before it taped from another group that didn't make the show, who recruited her after she was praised week after week on the first season with a college group). Just listen to the "chick-a-chow--wah wah wah (wah wah wah)." It's beautiful.

Street Corner Symphony are up next with "Creep" by Radiohead. I'm tempted to be obnoxious and say even Wagner did a better version on X-Factor, but I had a further epiphany about this ensemble: they can't do dynamics. Part of what makes them feel so flat is that there is no artistic change in volume. They'll sing soft, then sing loud. There is no build, no growth, and no excitement.

Easy corrections to make this the best performance of the night: 1)The backing ensemble was too soft the whole way through; bump them up from piano to mezzo piano and the balance would be right. 2)The whole ensemble should have done a crescendo into the chorus. It's not what Radiohead does, but Radiohead isn't in a singing competition. Show a little artistry and prove to the audience you can sing well. 3) They should have done another crescendo going into "She's running out the door." Again, build to a bit of excitement and play with the arrangement. 4) I'd have to actually hear it to see if it worked, but it would have been nice to decresendo on the last "Run," as if the singers were falling further away from the girl of the song. With the crescendos, however, the sudden drop in volume they chose might have been more powerful.

The best group in the competition Jerry Lawson & Talk of the Town take the stage to perform "Satisfaction" by The Rolling Stones. I believe this performance speaks for itself.

I'm brought to the origins of rock, like "Rocket 88" by Kings of Rhythm or "Mess Around" by Ray Charles. It's a welcome experience.

Unfortunate to be following Jerry Lawson & Talk of the Town is On the Rocks performing an awful, painful, irritating arrangement of "Pour Some Sugar on Me" by Def Leopard. From the choreography to the singing to the beat-box, this performance is appalling. So of course the judges eat it up because they're so "funny." I've yet to see them dance well on this show like they bragged they did. At least other bragging groups (like Groove for Thought) delivered what they promised. On the Rocks can't even do that.

Groove for Thought pulls the assignment of rock into their wheelhouse with a jazzy arrangement of "Changes" by David Bowie. It's a cool little arrangement that sounds nothing like rock music anymore. In other words, they are ripped apart for doing what they've done every week and been blindly praised for so far. Is that a bus I hear? I couldn't hear over the flubbed lyrics (but properly placed jazz cadence, Ben Folds) that ended this performance. The sad thing is, if the lead didn't pull her face and roll her eyes, she could have pretended the flub was intentional as she covered it with a legitimate jazz technique.

Last up in the first round is Committed singing "Every Breath You Take" by The Police. Something is just off with the arrangement. Until they reach the bridge, the sound is thin and weak. They normally sing like a much larger ensemble but couldn't reconcile this style of rock with their gospel background. It's a shame. They're much better than this.

So why is the show forcing groups to suddenly change their genre? It's not like the winning ensemble has to become a rock act or they're dropped by Sony, right? So why torture them and yield so many uninspired, poorly thought out and executed performances? It's a misfire of "let's have the chefs cook for a sex party" season 1 of Top Chef proportions.

Round 2 sees an unexplained performance order change for Guilty Pleasures. In order: The Backbeats, Street Corner Symphony, Jerry Lawson & Talk of the Town, Groove for Thought, On the Rocks, and Committed. There is a very specific reason Groove for Thought and On the Rocks were switched, and it has to do with the elimination.

The Backbeats kick things off with what is probably the best performance in either season of The Sing Off. They sing "Love Shack" by the B-52s, complete with dual lead female vocals and spoken word male vocal. They're dressed in a hodgepodge of '60s Mod and '80s Club attire, mixing dance moves from the '50s through '90s, and going through more gimmicky formation changes than your average dancers on America's Best Dance Crew. The performance is pure camp. That does not mean the arrangement or singing technique is marginalized--they sound better than ever. This group shouldn't be afraid to do fun songs because they're smart enough to pull them off in interesting ways.

Street Corner Symphony perform a disastrously staged "Come on Eileen" by Dexy's Midnight Runners. I will give them credit for one thing--the first thirty-seven seconds of the performance is the best they've sounded on this show. Unfortunately, they jump right back into their comfortable blandness and crap all over a kickline while doing so. They don't even all do the bow on the last note, which makes it look like they just don't care. It's a hard arrangement, but they can't handle it in an interesting way. Nicole suggests they should "unrehearse"--their code word for drinking--more often; I suggest that drunk choreography is a dangerous thing to be avoided at all costs.

Jerry Lawson & Talk of the Town kill it on "Easy" by The Commodores. They're explanation for why the song is a guilty pleasure is hilarious, but it doesn't make that true. I don't care at this point. Everything they do is so precise but comes across as fun and effortless. It's remarkable how comfortable they are when they are so far removed from what every other group does on this show.

With no explanation, Groove for Thought are tossed on stage next to perform "You're Making My Dreams Come True" by Hall & Oates. It's a strong arrangement--probably the strongest they've had on the show--but it's again too far removed from the song. The best moment is a beautiful jazz breakdown before the bridge and it has nothing to do with the song they're covering. If they pulled the melody off of anything in the actual recording, it would have been brilliant; they didn't, and it's their second misfire of the night.

On the Rocks decide that Guilty Pleasure round is when they'll show that they can actually sing. About time. They perform a clean, well-arranged rendition of "Kyrie" by Mr. Mister that is inexplicably criticized by the judges for making them like a bad song (it's a bad song?). Come on, judges, they actually did choreography they can handle for once and let their strongest singer (the "Rihanna" from their episode 2 performance) take the lead. However, they are praised for doing what the other remaining groups have done with much greater consistency--a good, safe vocal performance. I'd rather reward a group for taking a risk and singing well than passing through a group that only lets you know they can sing on their fourth performance. Then again, I would have booted this group every round until now, so what do I know?

Last up (again--why is this group always last?) are Committed also doing their best performance yet with "I Want It That Way" by The Backstreet Boys. The alternating lead lines with every member of the group works particularly well because they are all strong enough singers to constantly switch their part in the backing harmonies. This arrangement also made it clear that their beatboxer is also their bass; that's impressive. The key change is glorious, as it should be from a gospel group. It's the parting of The Red Sea or the rainbow after the flood. It's a good thing.

The groups are all brought on stage to find out if they are safe. The call-out order is: Jerry Lawson & Talk of the Town, Street Corner Symphony, Committed, and The Backbeats. Groove for Thought probably would have stayed if they performed after On the Rocks because they outclassed them in every way with both of their performances, yet On the Rocks look better and are fresher in the judges' memories for going after the more subdued Groove for Thought performance.

I have to remind myself I'm only in it for the music, but that's hard when once again one of the stronger vocal groups in the competition is booted instead of a gimmicky college ensemble.

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