Recap: The Sing-Off: Season 3, Ep. 2

This week on The Sing-Off, eight brand new a cappella music groups competed for a chance to advance in a contest for a Sony Music recording contract. Nick Lachey had all the charisma of a barnacle stuck to a sunken ship and Sara Bareilles became one of the cutest little nerds on TV. As always, I'll be here to guide you through the performances from a professional perspective. I work as a music director and arranger and know what it takes to do good a cappella music. I'll make it quite clear if I actually don't like a performance. I'm critical because I'm listening for things that I wouldn't let first graders get away with, let alone musicians competing for a record deal. I wouldn't be covering the show if I didn't enjoy the performers.

The eight groups performing this week are Dartmouth Aires (Dartmouth College's all male a cappella ensemble), Pentatonix (friends and musicians who perform club music), Messiah's Men (Liberian refuges who sing afro-centric soul and gospel music), Sonos (indie rock band that normally performs with effect pedals), The Collective (professional solo Nashville singers put together by Sketchy Details' public enemy number one Street Corner Symphony), Soul'd Out (high school a cappella ensemble), North Shore (five man doo-wop group), and Deltone (University of Delaware's co-curricular a capella club).

The show opens with a group performance of My Chemical Romance's song "Sing." I wish it showed the groups could sing, but it doesn't. It's a mess. The groups are competing with each other rather than trying to blend or stay in tempo (or even the same key) for a better performance. Horrid would be my adjective of choice.

Up first in the first heat are Dartmouth Aires. They are performing "Higher Ground" by Stevie Wonder. Right from the beginning, I can tell this group knows what they're doing. Their effect work--simulating synthesizers and heavily processed guitars--is strong. Their bass is especially strong. The problem is the arrangement itself. It's a bit too static and repetitive. The lead is talented, but he's forced to start screaming at the end because the arrangement is too full for him to balance. This causes significant problems with his breath support and pitch. The crescendos and decrescendos at the bridge are a great touch, but the execution is sloppy. I liked the performance well enough.

Shawn says the group was compelling and entertaining. He liked their rendition and really enjoyed the build to the end. Sara loved the performance and commended the group on their level of physicality and breath control. Ben said the energy stayed up the whole performance but he wanted more dynamic variation in the verses. I agree with Ben.

Second is Pentatonix. They are performing "E.T." by Katy Perry. Their opening section is dated. That wouldn't pass for competition ready a cappella ten years ago. When they start to pick up the tempo, they have no balance. All you hear are the three lead singers. The bass is almost non-existent and the beatboxer sounds hollow. They have major tempo issues. Their second male soloist is magnificent and should take the lead on every song they do. Their female soloist has a very immature sounding voice and major diction problems. The whole thing is just sloppy.

Sara says the performance was "sick." She loved how ambitious the performance was and liked the shared focus on the leads. Ben say the groove was dead on, the arrangement was good, but the song should have been slower. Shawn likes the lead, appreciates the presence of a real bass, and thought it was a good performance. I don't really line up with any judge here. I guess I'm closest to Shawn because he doesn't pretend to be particularly impressed.

Third are Messiah's Men. They're singing "People Get Ready" by Curtis Mayfield. I can tell you right now that I am retroactively offended that [University of Rochester's] Yellowjackets performed "Wavin' Flag" with the stereotypical West African dialect. This group actually has that dialect naturally and it sounds nothing like what the Yellowjackets did.

I like Messiah's Men's groove. I know who they are immediately and I like them. The balance between the parts is great. It would be nice if the arrangement built a little more leading into the bridge, but I wasn't bored. Their bass is the strongest on the show this season and they're bilingual interpretation of the song felt right. I see potential for great things here.

Ben complimented their big sound and refreshing groove, but didn't like the staging and said there were key issues. Shawn said the group is instantly identifiable, inspirational, and entertaining despite not being technically perfect. Sara say they were transcendent, spiritual, and a real pleasure to listen to. I agree with Sara here. And spoiler alert: the show started with a huge disclaimer about sending home better groups to save groups with more potential that was obviously filmed after Messiah's Men's elimination.

Ending the first heat is Sonos. They are performing "Wicked Game" by Chris Isaac. The song is unrecognizable in the best way possible. They tore this thing apart and put it back together in a way that works for their style. Because it's an unaltered a cappella competition, they are not allowed to use their effects pedals. I didn't miss them.

The clicking and harmonies that opened the song are stunning. The groove they came up with is really memorable. It's fresh and novel for a cappella to sound like this. The singers aren't the best in the world, but they are so connected from years of touring and have such strong arranging skills that you barely notice. They are also the first group tonight to handle a tempo shift in a way that, you know, actually sounds like music and not like a mistake. This group could easily take the whole contest.

Shawn says the arrangement was ambitious, compliments the beatboxer, and then acts like a pervert complaining that the girls were covered up and not dancing like hos. Sara loved the sexy arrangement, complimented their sparse arrangement, and didn't miss the lack of depth in the arrangement. Ben compliments the beatboxer and arrangement and loved the sparseness for the performance aspect. I'm between Ben and Sara, but Sara was more "zomgZ! Amaz1ng!," so I guess I'm with her here.

Messiah's Men are sent home, singing a beautiful and innovative arrangement of "Swing Low Sweet Chariot" to prove the judges made the wrong choice. Pentatonix will crash and burn within their next two performances.

Opening the second heat is The Collective. They are performing "Rolling in the Deep" by Adele. Hate it. Absolutely hate it. It's worse than anything Street Corner Symphony tortured me with last year. Yes, even worse than their performance of "Creep." The lead has a wavering nasally alto and it does not match this song at all. They try for something jazzy and wind up with a disaster. There is no groove or blend, only the gimmick of Nashville pros competing.

Ben thought they were solid, liked the lead's performance (not necessarily her voice), and thought they didn't gel at all. He essentially warns them that he will spearhead the effort to boot them on their next song if they don't step away from this awful jazz thing they tried. Shawn is concerned about the blend, but thought they gave a good performance. Sara said the blend was good for not really performing as a group, complimented the lead's performance, but hated the arrangement. Team Sara.

Second is Soul'd Out. They're high school kids performing "Let the Sunshine In/Aquarius" from Hair. How do you think that went for them? The opening is blurry but clears up when the girls start singing. There is no flavor or interpretation or at all. The diction is way too uptight and the perfectly placed bel canto vocals are wrong for this. They have no stage presence and suffer major pitch problems on the chorus. The beatboxer is too inexperienced to actually balance the group and the boys are totally overpowered. They all need a lot more training and experience before going after music as a profession.

Shawn said they were ok, but couldn't actually compliment them. Sara said that she loves their story (oh no) and thought the whole thing was muddy. Ben thought the first half survived better than the second half. Team mercy eliminate the overwhelmed high school students.

Third is North Shore singing "Runaround Sue." Allow me to transcribe my notes directly. "Old fashioned but done right. Makes me smile. More low end in the harmonies would I'm grinning like an idiot. Amazing." I then put down my pen and danced like a fool. Best performance of the night. I'd say they're going to make the finals if they can keep surprising with arrangements of more contemporary songs.

Sara is also grinning like an idiot and complimenting the amazing blend. Ben compliments the energy (saying that's how you do energy) and bass line. Shawn compliments them on being true performers and singers. I think I'm with Sara because I was enraptured as much (if not more) than she was.

Closing out the night is Deltone singing "Feels Like Home" by Randy Newman. They should thank the producers for casting a horribly under-prepared high school group on the show because any other combination of performers would have sent them home. The backing is way too soft at first, so the lead can't even find her melody. When they start to crescendo, their are major pitch and blend issues. The beatboxer is inconsistent. They do not do nearly enough with their arrangement. A choir can perform a cappella, but they're not really performing a cappella in the way a contest like this needs. Simple chord progressions and nothing more won't work in this contest.

Sara enjoyed their story and arrangement, but points out the issues caused by nerves. Ben thought it was moving. Shawn sees potential. I want to party with the judges because they are suffering a clear break from reality right now and could be a lot of fun.

Soul'd Out are mercy eliminated and actually do worse on their elimination performance of "Mama I'm Coming Home."

Thoughts? Love to hear them.

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