Monday, December 23, 2013

Final Three Finale of the Sing-Off Season 4 to air tonight

Home Free from Minneapolis, one of three finalists to perform tonight. 

I am so sad.

The final episode of this season's Sing-Off will air tonight, Monday December 23, 2013 from 8 p.m. to 10 p.m. on NBC. 

The show is unlike any other in that it is an all vocal, unaided, untuned, raw a cappella competition show featuring groups from across the continent dressed in colorful costumes performing vocal renditions of hit songs. The only requirement is the groups must have at least five members, and all sounds must be made with what God has given you: your voice, and the occasional rare clapping, snapping, and foot stomping. Drums and bass, horns, and any other instruments are emulated with voices.

Judging the show are Ben Folds, Shawn Stockman, and Jewel and hosting is Nick Lachey of 98 degrees, all of whom will be performing in the pre-taped two hour finale airing tonight. The three remaining groups, Vocal Rush from the Oakland School for the Arts, Ten from Dallas, and Home Free from Minneapolis, are all competing for a chance at a $100,000 Sony recording contract. 

The Filharmonic from Los Angeles was eliminated during last Thursday's show, episode 6. 

The 2011 Season 3 winner Pentatonix, who will also be performing tonight, has not disappointed, having charted at #10 on Billboard's 200 with their latest release, PTX Vol. 2. 

In addition, the one and only Pat Benetar, a classically opera-trained vocalist turned rock star, will be performing on tonight's show with her husband Neil Giraldo. 

This will be the seventh episode of the fourth season of a hit show which has aired over the course of a mere 2.3 weeks. It is not long enough. But, I must admit, I'm glad we finally did get a season 4 after a year of campaigning to #SaveTheSingOff on twitter, Facebook, and in an online petition which garnered 39,139 signatures.


I must say, this has been the best season ever since the show's inception five years ago in 2009. The a cappella groups are much better, so good that any one of the ten competitors would have been a finalist in Season 1.

The judging is finely honed, given more time for explanations and definitions, and reached an even higher note with the brainy addition of Jewel. Surprised? I know I was. I love her. I hope she's back to stay next season. 

I enjoyed the mentoring moments where the judges helped the groups during their rehearsals. 

I also found the sing-off rounds, where two groups go head to head, to be fun and adventuresome, as would-be-competitors became best friends (in some cases) and put on incredibly entertaining and fun shows. I don't think the judges made too many decisions based on these performances, since I'm pretty sure each had already decided who they thought should stay and who should go, but I do find it informative for those of us at home to truly see the contrast of why one group is a better fit to win the recording contract than another. 

Judge Shawn Stockman, when commenting on a particular Sing-Off round between the acoUstiKats and VoicePlay, said, "You know, It was a mixture of Looney Tunes and Monty Python. It was fun… This is something that's very unique to this show. You'll never see anything like this anywhere else on television on any channel, and that's what's cool about the whole thing."

I don't love all the changes. 

I would prefer that the show air once a week and that viewers at home get an opportunity to vote for their favorites, typical of other talent competition shows. 

I also noted that the lengths of songs were inconsistent, with some groups given more time to perform their a cappella renditions of hit songs than others. Two minutes seems to be a good number.

In addition, I'd like to see some original songs introduced into the mix, if not part of the competition, then as video links on the website for added interest, with options to buy the songs on itunes.

The ratings

A friend of mine who's a huge fan and follower of The Sing-Off show asked me to list the ratings for each night that the show has aired, in hopes of a Season 5 (fingers crossed). I'm not a fan of Nielsen, due to the minimal way in which viewership is tabulated, but it is what advertisers look at. Advertisers buy commercials, which then fund wonderful shows like the Sing-Off.

Ratings include the five non-cable major networks: NBC, ABC, CBS, FOX, and CW. Mondays' ratings were higher both weeks. The first show followed The Voice finales, which boosted ratings. In my own neighborhood we were all watching our Orlando hometown girl, Sierra Deaton, compete in the finals on the X-factor on FOX with her boyfriend Alex Kinsey on Wednesdays and Thursdays, and win, I might add (Congratulations Alex & Sierra). Thursday at 8 also happens to be the time the Big Bang Theory airs, the number one show on primetime. Time slots make all the difference in the world. Mondays between 9 and 11 after The Voice seem to work well. 

M 12.09.13
W 12.11.13
Th 12.12.13
M 12.16.13
W 12.18.13
Th 12.19.13
M 12.23.13

* Update note: The ratings for this finale episode, S4E7, were added later after this blog was published.

Post Show Addendum
Added on April 26, 2014. 

Home Free was announced as the winner during this show.

This season, the winner was chosen solely by the panel of three judges. The viewing audience was not allowed to vote in the final round as in years past.

Home Free released their first album "Crazy Life" as a digital download on the Columbia Records label on January 14, 2014 and followed it up with a CD on February 18. The album reached an impressive #8 position on the country charts in the United States, and #40 overall. 

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Sing Off Sings into the Semi-Finals for Episode 6

Ten from Dallas, TX performed an amazing rendition of "Sky Fall" in episode 5.

Tonight, December 19, 2013 the Sing-Off a cappella competition show will air Episode 6, featuring their four remaining acts, Vocal Rush from the Oakland School for the Arts, Ten from Dallas, Home Free from Minneapolis, and The Filharmonic from Los Angeles. They are each competing for a $100,000 recording contract with Sony Records.

The show is in its fourth season and is judged by Ben Folds, Shawn Stockman of Boyz II Men, and Jewel and is hosted by Nick Lachey of 98 Degrees. It will air on NBC at 8 p.m. tonight and replay again on Saturday night. Following tonight will be a two-hour Saturday Night Live holiday special.

Six remaining groups performed for the judges on Wednesday's show last night, and two groups were eliminated: The acoUstikats from the University of Kentucky, and VoicePlay from Orlando. 

The two-hour finale featuring the finalists is scheduled to air on Monday night from 8 p.m. to 10 p.m. and will feature a special treat: performances by the judges. 

Be sure to tune in!

In case you missed it, here's a recap of Wednesday night's show, which aired on December 18, 2013:

Season 4 Episode 5 Recap – "Movie Night"
Each of the groups was mentored by Jewel who inspired the groups to sing with emotion and heart.

Home Free
Minneapolis, Minn
5 men
covering "Pretty Woman" by Roy Orbison, from the movie "Pretty Woman."

Home Free performed quite a creative version of "Pretty Woman," a 1964 hit by Roy Orbison, first launching into an upbeat almost punk-country rhythm, then adding in an exclamatory group "Hey!" here and there. It was a bit like Johnny Cash meets Roy Orbison meets the Ramones.

The judges found their rendition to be interesting. "Home Fries, y'all my boys… that was tight. That was really great," said Folds. "One little silly thing that I liked to see you guys went 'Hey' … that was very cool."

The group then brought down the tempo into a beautiful, quiet and romantic section reminiscent of the original recording, per suggestions their mentor, Jewel had made during rehearsals. "Just make sure it doesn't pass by as just a toe tapper," warned Jewel," When you get done singing, we want to have it to haunt us, and we want it to have moved us."

"it's a really iconic song. It's a song everybody knows, so we want to be able to bring the really familiar aspects of the song to life. But we also want to do something with it to make people enjoy it in a way they weren't expecting," explained band member Austin Brown.

"Sounded awesome," said Folds.

Vocal Rush
Oakland School for the Arts high school in Oakland, CA
12 young men and women
covering "Against All Odds " by Phil Collins from the movie, "Against All Odds."

Noted for high energy songs with lots of choreography, the Oakland School for the Arts high school a cappella group, Vocal Rush, toned it down a bit and delivered a beautiful moving rendition of "Against All Odds" by Phil Collins. The performance was so momentous and heart stirring that it made me cry.

Kyana Fanene, who is usually singing the percussion, instead boldly took a risk and sang lead vocals on the intro and outro of the song in a delicately sweet voice, "The judges said we have a lot of youthful energy that tends to make us too excited and speed up. This will show how mature we can be," she said before her performance.

Jewel complimented the young singer, "Kyana, you're only 16 years old and you came out there and you allowed yourself to be really vulnerable and I heard your nerves. I heard it kind of taking your breath and cutting off your phrases and I liked it.  It's endearing because it's really honest and I like hearing that. I want to hear your vulnerability. I don't want to hear something perfect without emotion. I want to hear emotion even if it's slightly flawed, 'cause those flaws make us relate to you as human."

The group used 18-year old Jordan Holly's soulful vocals to deliver a powerful punch for the meat of the song. Stockman noted the singers' technique, "Jordan, I loved you since the first show. And the fact that you have such control with your voice and you're 18?" noted Stockman, "Sometimes it takes people years to develop that type of vocal control and to develop that type of such a richness about your voice and that is a great, great trait to have if you're gonna sing."

Folds, who has two teenagers of his own at home, was equally impressed with the moving rendition, "I just like you guys and you all sort of stand for something in a good way."

"As a unit, I believe that you guys have the ability to do anything you guys want because you understand each other. You really are a group. Great job," said Stockman.

University of Kentucky College of Fine Arts in Lexington, KY
12 men
covering "Old Time Rock and Roll" by Bob Seeger, from the movie "Risky Business."

One thing a large all-male collegiate a cappella group can do well is put on an entertaining show, and that they did while acting out the song, "Old Time Rock and Roll" by Bob Seeger, which featured Tom Cruise dancing in his underwear in the movie, "Risky Business."

"Because these are movie songs, create a picture for us, you know, give us a character. It's a fun song. It's about nostalgia," suggested Jewel during rehearsals.

The 'Kats (as they are affectionately known back at the University of Kentucky) started out their rendition in barbershop before quickly flipping into a very true-to-the-original version of the song led by singer, Ross Hill.

"Jewel gave us some really good feedback, like having a story line, having excitement, and a nostalgic feel," said Ross.

For the second verse, the group changed up the song and delivered a honky tonk country swing version with Jeremy Michael Lewis on lead vocals. They then transitioned into a bluesy version with the help of lead vocalist Ron Wilbur, a shift that Jewel noted as a "musical tour."

Despite all that was happening on stage, the vocals were reasonably tight, "Seriously guys, it was a great performance. Lots of energy," said Stockman, "Harmony wise, sometimes when you do the choreography, those harmonies can waiver. And I heard that just a little bit. But other than that, it was still a wonderful performance. Obviously, you guys found a niche."

"I thought the transitions were good. They were well executed," noted Folds. "I'm not dead sure if I was sold on the idea of that many styles of music being represented in a song that was about rock and roll," and suggested the "lead vocals could have used more, uh, growling."

In the final chorus, all three leads came together and stripped into their tidy whiteys, dancing across the stage in an homage to Tom Cruise's iconic scene.

"It was rocking' and rollin'. I could have done without the exposure," joked Stockman.

Sadly, the group went home after this show, not a reflection of their performance, but more as another sad casualty of the necessary elimination process, which has become quite difficult this year due to the impressive caliber of groups this season.

The Filharmonic
Los Angeles, CA
6 men
covering "I Don't Want to Miss a Thing," by Aerosmith, from the movie "Armageddon."

There is no doubt that The Filharmonic group are six very attractive young men, with lead singer VJ Rosales notably a "pretty boy," in the best sense of the term. Since the group is known for its good looks, beautifully smooth voices, and slick dance moves, mentor Jewel suggested to them that they add emotion to their performance, something she felt was lacking, "I just encouraged VJ to not just be a cute face, smiling, but to give me some feeling, give me some heart. Make me believe what you're saying."

"It's important for us to show and convey emotion this time around," agreed VJ.

And show it, they did. Their rendition of "I Don't Want to Miss a Thing" by Aerosmith was sweet and emotional, opening with the smooth croonings of VJ Rosales, before switching to the more powerful lead vocals of Joe Calgoy, who was moved to tears himself by the ending.

"It was really nice to see that vulnerable side of you," commended Jewel, "I love how you started that a cappella. It was really touching. You guys did a tender emotional performance of that," said Jewel, "you weren't relying on a lot of energy and dance moves, and so it made you guys really vulnerable."

Host Nick Lachey also gave his approval of Joe's emotional outpouring, "It's a blessing to see you up here giving it your all and coming from a place of real sincerity and honesty. That's a beautiful thing, man. Don't be ashamed of that at all. That's awesome. "

Folds had nothing but praise for the lead vocals, "Joe, especially in your lower range, the texture in your voice, and the tone to me that was the tambour of your voice, it was the most compelling thing about your performance," he said, "VJ, too. Great singing. The lead singing was really fantastic on both your parts."

"I think you guys interpreted it, lovely," added Stockman.

Folds took the opportunity to make a "global statement" about beat boxing on cymbals, finding no point to them in most a cappella renditions, "You might not need them. A cymbal in real life sustains beyond everything else… It is like, 'Psssssss' and it keeps going. But when you're beat boxing, you have to drop that in the middle. And what it does to the listener, is you hear someone spitting. And this is no reason for it."

Stockman reminded the group, "You have to make sure those harmonies stay locked from beginning to end," noting that their arrangements tend to come apart at the bridge. "You guys can be better. Just keep that in mind."

Orlando, FL
6 men and women
covering "Don't You Forget About Me" by Simple Minds, from the movie, "The Breakfast Club."

Ben Folds joked that when the song "Don't You Forget About Me" by Simple Minds came out in 1985, someone who looked like Nick Lachey was beating him up in the school yard over lunch money.

I think the song hits home for a lot of us who have seen the movie, "The Breakfast Club," a movie which explores the high school angst of how students divide themselves into cliques where one person in one clique doesn't generally associate with someone in another clique, but then are suddenly thrown together, and find they actually really like each other. Folds noted, "I'm not someone who normally comments about choreography, but I liked that in the last chorus, you all kind of took off pieces of your high school identity to move on. I thought the symbolism of that was really powerful. That was really good."

During rehearsals, Jewel mentored the group.

Honey LaRochelle spoke of her fear of letting go of her emotions, "Being transparent and being vulnerable is a scary thing, but maybe that's really the way to go," said Honey. "Jewel said that maybe I wasn't being as honest as I thought I was being. I thought I was really putting it all out there, but the fact that she wants to see even more is even more scary."

Jewel gave her pointers, "I think you have a really deep well in you, and it's really vulnerable. Give me your heart, and I promise people will give it back to you."

Stockman shared some wise words based on his own experiences in the music business, "I think part of what makes us unique as artists and as singers is that we can bare our souls in front of millions of people… That's the magic and power of being an artist. You can be honest. Always remember that. And do not be afraid."

The group's vulnerability made their vocals that much more special as both Honey and Eli Jacobson sang emotional opposing lead parts, reflecting the mood of the song.

"I'm proud of you Honey, and it's an ongoing journey and I really do encourage everybody, every singer to really let your honesty come through. You know your realness is your thumbprint. It's what makes you uniquely you," said Jewel.

"Elliott, you surprised us all," said Stockman. "That's awesome that you came in the front and did your thing," noting, "It was nice to see you comin' out the box, sir."

The groups arrangement of the song was also complex and intricate.

"I liked how you guys deconstructed the song, it was a moment of polyphony, not to steal one of Ben's big words, but, I kinda had to do it," laughed Jewel, explaining that polyphony refers to intertwining, separate and distinct complementary melodies that are being played simultaneously, "instead of it being a harmony built on the triad."

"…as opposed to monophony," explained Folds, referring to music with just one melody or 'voice.'

"In other words, it was dope," joked Stockman, "I loved the arrangement. I love how you started. I loved how you brought in Honey, you have a unique voice in a way, because you can do almost anything. I always love your delivery, and I love your performance."

Both Stockman and Folds noted a loss of momentum in the arrangement somewhere near the bridge.

Stockman suggested that the group incorporate the song's musical hook, "the most memorable part of that song, "la la la la, clap, la la la la, clap…" as a way to end the song in a grand finale. "I didn't get that at the end, and I wish I did. Other than that, it was a good performance," said Stockman.

Sadly, the group was sent home, despite their amazing rendition. Once again, not due to anything they did or didn't do, but more attributed to the fact that someone must be eliminated.

Dallas, TX
10 men and women
covering "Skyfall" by Adele from the James Bond movie, "Skyfall."

I always want to turn up my volume louder when I hear Ten perform, since the wall of sound they create with mere vocals tickles my eardrums. It's important to have good speakers while watching the Sing-Off, really good speakers with a full spectrum of sound, in order to truly appreciate and enjoy the amazing harmonies truly good a cappella groups can create.

"You guys are doing really intricate ten-part harmonies. It was very impressive, very sophisticated and very appreciated," said Jewel.

Ten chose to perform a 007 James Bond movie song, "Skyfall," by Adele, as their movie hit with both Deedee Yancey-Mackey and Emoni Wikins on lead vocals.

"That was really good guys, that was really powerful," said Folds, "You hold back the groove like nobody else. Your choir is world class… amazing."

Jewel complimented the arrangement, "I loved that. It was like watching a movie. You had a lot of suspense and drama. A lot of great brushstrokes in the beginning. You set a scene."

Ten seems to have discovered the secret of how to arrange their parts. The song began with Deedee on lead vocals, hitting every note absolutely perfectly, then transitioned to the higher-ranged Imani, who was able to punch the high notes with power at the end.

"Deedee, that was a great reserved vocal at the top. That's so hard to do, especially on a competition show," noted Jewel.

"You've understood vocally what you guys can do as far as dynamics," said Stockman, "Deedee, your voice is so mesmerizing… You take over the song, you bring it to where everybody is in full attention at what you're doing. And that's the power and the drama that we as artists can create. You drew the picture, and Imani, you just brought it way home."

Stockman also complimented Deonis Cook on his percussion, "I was gonna see if you did the syncopated, do do do do do do do do do do do do do do, and I was like, YES! Everything was on point. You guys sound amazing. I'm so happy that you found your niche. Congratulations."

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Jewel proves her prowess as a professor of a cappella

Jewel adds her knowledge base to this Season's Sing-Off panel of judges

This new Season 4 of The Sing-Off a cappella singing competition show has rushed by so quickly, I haven't had an opportunity to give the judges props, especially new judge, Jewel, who replaced hit singer-songwriter Sara Bareilles who stepped down from the role of judge in order to promote her new album. 

The seven episode show, which debuted on December 9, 2013, and has aired three times each week, has only three more episodes left to air: tonight, tomorrow, and a finale on Monday. Now over halfway through, it's gone by far too quickly, in my opinion, and I'm sad that by this time next week, we'll be back to singing Christmas carols and listening to the same old tired musak that's filling up most of network televisions' airwaves this time of year. 

This past Episode 4, which aired on Monday, December 16 at 10 p.m., was an hour long show which featured four of the seven remaining competitors: Home Free, VoicePlay, Element, and Vocal Rush. 

The show has been judged by Ben Folds and Shawn Stockman, and hosted by Nick Lachey over its course of four seasons and has seen its ups and downs in ratings. The third judgeship role has been filled by Nicole Scherzinger in Seasons 1 and 2, Sara Bareilles in Season 3, and now Jewel in Season 4. 

I think many of us wondered how on earth the beautifully voiced Jewel would fare. A four-time Grammy Award nominee and platinum album seller, she has made her mark singing soulful emotional ballads, the equivalent of the chick flick for music. 

I must confess, I have been a fan of Jewel's since before most people ever heard of her. I've always admired the interesting texture of her soprano voice, found her songwriting intelligent and heartfelt, and even bought some of her CDs. But, what does she know about a cappella singing? 

Plenty, apparently. 

During the first episode, I was so shocked by her usage of vocal terminology, I almost wondered if Jewel would dethrone the great Professor Ben Folds as academia's premiere expert on singing. Her knowledge of technical terms and acute observations have put her at least on an equal footing. What I was not prepared for is her vast knowledge of music in general, factoids and little gems of trivia about the original recordings of the songs which are featured on this season of the Sing-Off. To put it simply, Jewel is a jewel. 

Though she talks about ten miles a minute, you can learn something from listening to Jewel. This particular episode, while taking notes and transposing her comments, I have defined some of the musical jargon she has tossed out within parentheses to make it easier for those of us at home without dictionaries handy to understand. 

Folds, while no longer throwing out the big words this season 4 (though Lachey did accuse him of being a sesquipedalian) has decided this season to instead come up with odd little non-word sounds to emulate various inanimate objects, such as: a walking bass guitar, a tree, and a refrigerator, to date. As a writer, this has been a challenge attempting to transpose and quote these vocalizations. 

In the meantime, Stockman talks mostly with his hands and vocal expressions. I have also enlisted parentheses to help illustrate these moments when I feel it's important to use a gesture as a quote.

Season 4 Episode 4 Recap – "My Generation"

Home Free
Minneapolis, Minn
5 men
covering "Ring of Fire" by Johnny Cash

As a professional touring a cappella group, Home Free's Rob Lunquist explained that the group lives out of an RV and does about 250 shows a year. That kind of experience shows in their live performances, which are always tight, always harmoniously perfect, and truly entertaining. Their particular rendition of "Ring of Fire" by Johnny Cash was absolutely momentous. 

Tim Foust, started off the night by capturing the audiences' attention by spotlighting his deep rich bass vocals, singing slowly and deliberately:
"Love is a burning thing. 
And it makes a fiery ring."
The key changed as regular lead vocalist Austin Brown took over the next two lines: 
"And bound by wild desire, 
I fell into a ring of fire." 

The first verse took the band a full 32 seconds to deliver, twice the amount of time they would deliver the second verse, and captivated the audience with every single note and syllable. The group is only given about two and a half minutes to perform a song before the judges, and these four lines represented one fifth of their allotted time. 

"You guys opened and you encapsulated something about the song which is sad, and it was perfectly executed," said Folds.

"You know, June actually wrote this song when she met Johnny, and she was still married, which gives it a lot of heart and a lot of feel, of like, you're sinning. So that poignancy was really brought out by that beginning," noted Jewel, speaking of June Carter Cash.

The group then upped the tempo and launched into a full group chorus, of "I fell into a burning ring of fire," complete with voice emulated drums and bass. Each verse which followed was up tempo and bouncy, what Stockman termed as a "reggae dance hall beat." 

"I would have never thought of anything like that, but it worked. Like, it absolutely worked," said Stockman.

The song featured bassist Tim Foust on lead vocals. With each incredible note he delivered, it was apparent that we were watching a star perform. His control of his own four-octave range is incredible, reaching up into falsetto F#3 during one emotional verse, then back down to end the song in a fog horn like depth of a low F#0, that Judge Jewel noted to be over three octaves apart. 

Lachey marveled at the feat, "Shoot the floor! Have you ever heard anybody sing that low before? I don't know if I've ever heard anyone hit a note that low."

Folds thought the arrangement was awesome, "Tim, you went from being an instrument this time to being human. And it was so great… it was because before you've been … like the singing refrigerator guy, 'wom om bu om bu,' but this time, like the tree, like the wise tree. Maybe a wise tree is a better, you know? …And then, the end, with that massive heavy low note. it's just a great way to leave everyone going, holy carp,* what was that?" 

"That was sick," said Stockman.

Their performance nearly insures them in one of the four coveted spots in the finals, assuming they can continue at this level.

Orlando, FL
6 men and women
covering "Don't Speak" by No Doubt

If anyone asked me, "who is the Pentatonix of Season 4," I'd have to say VoicePlay. Their three part harmony, bass, and drums, with a lead female vocal has made them the act that no one saw coming, especially after a rocky start this season. However, even Pentatonix was in the bottom at one point, but faced with the threat of elimination, pulled themselves up and kept going, and that's what VoicePlay has also done. And done well, I must say, as they performed an interesting version of "Don't Speak" by No Doubt.

After getting the assignment, band member Earl Elkins voiced concern, "We don't normally do emotional songs. We're not really a ballad style group, which it's gonna be difficult." The five-man backing group usually performs upbeat pop songs to tourists around the Orlando area, and added in their friend Honey LaRochelle for standout leads during the Sing-Off competition.

Judge Folds, who mentored the four groups this episode, suggested that they "put the song first in this one. I think you guys are at your best when you're really focused to the song, and then you can just tell the story," said Folds. "You're unique anyway… The things that you already are, are going to do their own work… Kick its ass."

The group started the song out with a delicate intertwining of high harmonies backed up by a light rhythm section, then came together perfectly as a group, each solidly hitting their marks. The highlight of the performance was an interesting Middle Eastern sounding solo, by Eli Jacobson, not an easy feat.

"That was amazing, just from the beginning," said Stockman. "It's really right now about arranging, and you guys showed a different side to yourselves that we haven't seen before. The way that Honey and Layne (Stein), how you guys just started the whole thing off. Everybody was like (mouth open in gawked amazement), It was like, you had us!"

Folds complimented them for their wise arrangement for this particular song, "All the things you started with that were sort of your liability,… the way that you would jump from one thing to another so quickly, kept us from knowing who you were. That time, you used all those dynamics to say something and it was really awesome."

Jewel broke down the song piece by piece, illustrating how the groups' changes made the song work, "You guys did that great and you used a lot of dynamic (variation and gradation in the volume) to help serve that point, starting in pianissimo (very softly), and then building, and you know you're crescendoing (gradually and steadily increasing) into forte (a loud forceful tone) and then into fortissimo (a very loud tone), really getting big, and then dropping back down, using the real sensitive vocal breakdown that you did out of the bridge was really beautiful. You guys did a great job considering a lot of different dynamics."    

"That was emotional," summed up Stockman.

New York, NY
10 women
covering "You Keep Me Hangin' On" by the Supremes

One of the difficulties with a large group, and especially an all-female group, is arranging a song in such a way that the lead vocal can be easily distinguished. Element was able to achieve this task by trading off lead vocals amongst their very talented pool of vocalists after listening to some sage advice by mentor Judge Folds, "Who ever's singing needs a clear space to sing. If you have other singers in your range backing you up, they're not backing you up anymore, they're getting in your way," he explained. "It could be one person singing and everyone else could be Shh Shh whispering."

Their cover of the Supremes, "You Keep Me Hangin' On," was a personal one, "That song's really about female empowerment, and I can see why you guys chose it. I know that's really a mission for you guys and I think we definitely felt that. There's a lot of sincerity in the lead vocal," noted Jewel. 

However, the groups' rendition seemed a bit too nice. Folds suggested that they dig deeper, "You have such kind faces," said Folds, "Julie (Manjula Raman), you almost got pissed, like, you almost summoned a little bit of anger. Go ahead and drive it home and get pissed about it. It's okay."

Despite their efforts, they were unable to impress the judges enough to survive this round and were sent home. "I liked what you guys did. I just felt like there were moments where some of the harmonies were kinda muddy. They were a little unglued, which made it for me, not as dramatic as it could have been," explained Stockman, "It just felt like one movement and it just wasn't enough change for me in the midst of that record."

Vocal Rush
Oakland School for the Arts high school in Oakland, CA
12 young men and women
covering "Holding Out for a Hero" by Bonnie Tyler

Once again, the talented kids of Oakland School for the Arts Vocal Rush impressed us, this time with their amazing rendition of "Holding out for a Hero," by Bonnie Tyler. Noting their handicap, mentor Judge Folds suggested during rehearsals, "It's down to technique right now, because what you don't have going for you is …15 years on the stage or touring constantly together, so make sure that your T's are dotted and your eyes are crossed."

What I enjoyed most about watching Vocal Rush perform is the wide range of vocal talent: For this song, the group featured its deep rhythm section and strong lead vocals, something that you wouldn't expect from high schoolers. Add to that their multi-ranged harmonies and impressive dance moves, and you have a recipe for success.

"The fact that you're young and you have no fear, ya'll just go for it. Ya'll give your one hundred percent… every time you perform, and that's what's so great about you guys, and not only that, to be the youngest crew in this whole thing, you guys are so musically intelligent," praised Stockman.

"The bass and drums. You guys really really held it down this time in a way that you hadn't before," said Folds, "The double chorus at the end, was like you just about hit your limit, but when you ended it and you landed the plane, it was awesome. and I can't tell you how much I like watching you sing. And, It's just an inspiration. When I was your age, I was an idiot," joked Folds.

"I think you guys make this sound cool. I loved the rap. I thought that was really great. It took me by surprise. I didn't expect that," said Jewel, "And again, there's so many single voices, but you guys sound so warm and so rich, your tones are just beautiful, and they're blending beautifully. 

The group was given homework on ways to improve, "If there was one tiny chink that is in your armor, it's that your youthful exuberance can also just be a slight achilles heel, because you do get a little bit excited, and sometimes it just gets a little bit fast. You just get ahead of that tempo a tiny bit, and that's probably the only chink that I can find," noted Jewel.

"It fell apart just a little bit, but you picked yourselves back up. It's nothing else I can say except, awesome," said Stockman. 

* the word carp is implied. the actual expletive was bleeped out. 

Monday, December 16, 2013

AcoUstiKats singer's girlfriend says, "Yes" during Sing-Off

Mike Owens proposes to Maggie Blair during Thursday's Sing-Off taping.

Day three of the Sing-Off a cappella competition show was an hour long show featuring only four of the eight remaining groups: TEN, Street Corner Renaissance, the acoUstiKats, and The Filharmonic each competing amongst each other for one of three spots that would survive to the next round. 

The Sing-Off Season 4 Episode 3 aired on NBC on Thursday night, December 12, 2013 from 8 p.m. to 9 p.m. The show is judged by Ben Folds, Shawn Stockman, and Jewel and is hosted by Nick Lachey of 98 Degrees. Competing are ten groups hoping to win a $100,000 recording contract from Sony.

Mentoring the four competitors during rehearsals this episode was Judge Shawn Stockman who drew from his extensive vocal knowledge and experience performing with the successful band, Boyz II Men, to give pointers to each of the four groups.

The surprise of the night came when AcoUstiKats member Mike Owens asked his girlfriend Maggie Blair to come up on stage to join them after their romantic performance of the song, "Amazed" by Lonestar. Referencing the title of the song, Owens told her, "I am amazed by you, Maggie," then got down on one knee and asked her to marry him. 

She said, "Yes." 

Host Lachey joked, "And guys, for the record, we all expect to be invited to the wedding."  

Season 4 Episode 3 Recap – "Number One Hits"

Dallas, TX
10 men and women
covering "Chain of Fools" by Aretha Franklin

There's more than one lead singer in the group, Ten, but you wouldn't know it from the way in which the group works as a cohesive unit to emulate the instrumentation and backup vocals of a full supporting rhythm and blues a cappella band. With Deedee Yancey-Mackey singing lead on Aretha Franklin's "Chain of Fools," the rest of the all-star cast of gospel church and professional performing backup singers divided themselves into three groups of three: a group of three male singers vocalized the sounds of drums and bass; another group of three backed up the singer with a mixture of melody and doo-wops; while the third group acted as the the three-girl backup band characteristic of the famous Motown sound. 

Their arrangement was filled with interesting changes and dynamics as they transitioned from part to part, building to a fast tempo gospel-choir-like finale where all the members joined in for one final flourish. The performance was filled with strength and power and garnered the group a standing ovation from all three judges. "It was amazing," said Folds, "You're dangerous."

Jewel complemented the group on how they divvied up their roles behind Deedee, the lead singer,  "Girls, backing her up, Imani, Peaches, and Sidney. That sounded great. Ya'll just supported her, you gave her a place to grow and be there. You guys back there in the band, acting like a band, I loved it. I love the staging. It was great." 

"There you go, There you go. Nice. Yeah!" cheered Stockman, "Here's the thing that sucked about that whole performance. It wasn't long enough."

During rehearsals, Stockman had suggested the group drag out the choral hook of the song, "Chain Chain Chain," and make it sound gritty and grimy. "Make people feel you. Take them to church," said Stockman. The group took his suggestions to heart and delivered with power and grit. 

"That performance right there is your signature as far as who you are. When people say Ten, I guarantee, they will bring up this performance right here. That's what it's all about. Great job. Great job," praised Stockman.

University of Kentucky College of Fine Arts in Lexington, KY
12 men
covering "Amazed" by Lonestar

Delivering a beautiful, traditional, choral arrangement of "Amazed" by Lonestar, the acoUstiKats melted the hearts of everyone in the viewing audience. 

Stockman had advised the members of the group beforehand to make the song more emotional and personally meaningful by using a trick he had learned during his many years of performing, "Pick a girl in the crowd, and sing to her. You'll be amazed at how you'll start to sing better. Because, you'll then see her reaction…"

React, they did. "That was moving," said Folds.  

"I was a little worried when I found out you guys picked this record, because its such a sincere vocal, and what I've seen out of you guys so far is sort of this goofy frat persona, and I think I just found you guys' heart," said Jewel.

Folds noted the groups tight arrangement, "The choral approach was good, the bond you had together to push the song out, and Ross that was a beautiful vocal. It's like Josh Groban," said Folds, referring to Ross Hill's beautiful, manly, and rich lead vocals.

"I think you guys are a legit choral group. And I loved hearing this approach. This was harmonically very challenging and you guys didn't shy away from it," praised Jewel.

"Overall, a great performance," echoed Stockman.

Street Corner Renaissance
Los Angeles, CA
5 men
covering, "Forget You" by CeeLo Green

I always enjoy how Street Corner Renaissance takes a current song, changes it up, then Motowns it down. The group played with CeeLo's hit song, "Forget You," by customizing, then acting out the lyrics in typical SCR fashion, and the result was hilariously funny as expected. 

"That was the grooviest crying I've ever heard... You were crying right in time," laughed Folds.

"That was really enjoyable," said Jewel. "You guys have been this time machine. You've been going from One Direction to the Contours, and back here to the present, and you're making it all work for you. You guys are adapting this to your style."

The one thing I have noted about this act is their consistency. They always sound great and they always entertain. They never disappoint. Sadly, Street Corner Renaissance was sent home at the end of the night, a casualty of elimination.

"That was a lot of fun," said Folds.

"You could probably do a rock song in doo-wop and it'll sound good," said Stockman. 

The Filharmonic
Los Angeles, CA
6 men
covering "One More Night" by Maroon 5

Imagine a boy band with a lead singer with a voice as smooth and full of character as Adam Levine's, combined with equally impressive harmonizing backup singers such as those found in Maroon 5, and imagine that this six-man band is performing Maroon 5's "One More Night," and sounds remarkably similar, yet does not have an actual band behind them: as in no real drums, bass, guitars, keyboards, and other instruments, and yet sounds as if they do, since these a cappella band members are only using their voices to emulate instruments. Imagine that feat, and you have The Filharmonic. Each time I hear one of their performances, I am equally impressed. 

Despite their stellar performance, there were cracks in the armor. When a band is as tight as The Filharmonic, you hear every tiny flaw, every small mistake. 

Though lead singer VJ Rosales is jokingly referred to by his band mates as "The Filipino Adam Levine," for sounding nearly exactly like Levine, Jewel noted that his vocals were not angry enough, "VJ on that vocal, you're so charming, and you're so lovely, and you're so smiley, and adorable, but this song has a little bit of …dark anger. It has some heartbreak that I wasn't getting from your vocal. So it made it a little bit light for me."

Folds also noticed that something seemed to be missing. "For some reason, [ I ] was not as excited about that performance, myself," he said. "We're not all perfect the whole way and the whole journey, and I know you guys have got it in you. You've got such personality. You see it in each and everyone of you," 

"There's some interesting things going on that you guys did. You guys re-harmonized the bridge,... and that was pretty cool," said Jewel.

"The thing I'm most proud about you guys is that you've actually improved. This is the tightest you've ever been," said Stockman.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Sing-Off a Cappella show continues to make its mark on primetime with high ratings

The Filharmonic a cappella group featuring six Filipino-Americans residing in Los Angeles. 

The Sing-Off a cappella show is now entering its fourth season in 2013 after a one year hiatus when it was not renewed by NBC. The show is a competition reality show with ten singing groups competing for a grand prize of a $100,000 Sony recording contract. It is judged by Ben Folds, Shawn Stockman, and Jewel. Hosting it is Nick Lachey. It debuted on Monday night in first place for its time slot of 9 p.m.

It's hard not to say, "I told you so," to the invisible powers that be at NBC. 

But what the heck? 

We told you so. The Sing-Off is a great show. It can be a force to be reckoned with when not challenged in an impossible time slot.

With a first place ranking of 9.34 million viewers during its debut hour at 9 p.m. following the Voice semi-finals on Monday, December 9, 2013, the Sing-Off proved that it not only is prime time material, but also showed that it can swim with the sharks, beating out FOX's Sleepy Hollow (great show, I might add), CBS's Mike and Molly (also a decent show), and a Christmas movie on ABC. While the Sing-Off's own a cappella group Street Corner Renaissance was doo-wopping One Direction's "What Makes You Beautiful," the real McCoy, the actual band One Direction was barely pulling in views on their own iHeart Radio special on the CW with only 600,000 viewers. 

The second hour drew in nearly as many ratings with a first place ranking of 7.38 million viewers. 

Adjusted viewership numbers showed an average of 8.39 million viewers for the two hour show that night. 

It was a very good night for the Sing-Off.

Keep in mind these numbers are not perfect and are only based on a few discreetly placed Nielsen ratings big-brother boxes, usually located in single-family homes, not in the college dormitories where a cappella has its base. I'm sure the viewership is most likely even higher in reality. [ see article on how Nielsen ratings are tabulated published May 21, 2012 ] 

Season 4, Episode 2 which aired on Wednesday, December 11, 2013 was pitted against two other reality shows: Survivor on CBS, which took the lion's share of ratings at 9.92 million, and the X-factor semi-finals on FOX which had less viewers at 4.97 million. The Sing-Off, with a ranking of third for the night at 6.03 million viewers behind ABC's the Middle is making a large primetime impact. 

Season 4 Episode 2 Recap – "Party Anthems"

Vocal Rush
Oakland School for the Arts high school in Oakland, CA
12 young men and women
covering "Gonna Make You Sweat" by C&C Music Factory

This is one fun song to dance to. Vocal Rush successfully pulled off "Gonna Make You Sweat," one of the most difficult and complex dance tunes of our century so well, that I forgot that these were children, that there were no instruments, and that the group had only been given one week to learn and practice the song before presenting their version to the judges. Vocal Rush exhibited remarkable control and depth for young vocal chords, swelling in intensity when the song called for it, and working in unison to create those beautifully thick walls of multi-frequency vocal sound that A Cappellaeans such as myself love so much. Everyone was exactly on their mark. They sold the song and I believed it.

"You guys have such a poise, to be so young," said Stockman, "…holding down the beat... and doing 90s dance moves is quite impressive… You guys were not even born when this song was out… But you captured the energy of it."

Jewel felt the song started slow, but "the breakdown was awesome. It was wicked and really rocked after that."

"We just keep forgetting you're really young," said Folds, "So, as of now, you're just adults and you have to swim with everyone else… You just have to tighten some things up."

Home Free
Minneapolis, Minn
5 men
cover of "Life is a Highway" by Rascal Flats

Home Free stepped "out of the box a little bit" noted Stockman, to take a risk attempting some rather safe dance moves on stage for their rendition of "Life is a Highway" by Rascal Flats. "And then, you jumped back in the box… but you know what? That's good. You stay with what you know and that's what makes you guys so great, and so far, so consistent," said Stockman. The song was exemplary of good arranging, with a well-defined beginning, middle, and end, noted Stockman. 

"Like a three course meal," added Jewel.

The first first few notes were soloed, then the song launched cleverly into a spare, yet exact mix of tasteful drums and bass backing the lead singer, then melodically swelled into the bridge as the other two members joined in, finally becoming a more formal three-part-harmony choral arrangement during the chorus. It was all well planned and well executed, the mark of a true professional and experienced touring group.

Although the song was well done, I will never get used to Tim Foust singing solo lines in that insanely deep voice of his. It always cracks me up when it's his turn to sing. 

Folds noted it as well: "When the bass guitar starts speaking, that's crazy. That's like my bass just jumped off the shelf and 'wah wah wah wah wah'"

Orlando, FL
6 men and women
covering "Play That Funky Music" by Wild Cherry

A unique and original arrangement, VoicePlay brought it and represented in their version of "Play that Funky Music" by Wild Cherry. They utilized their assets and did what they do best: the five backing men provided a solid melody and rhythm while lead singer Honey Larochelle sang, then rapped, then vamped out the lyrics. 

The judges were also impressed. Stockman gave them a standing ovation and commended them for reinventing themselves after a rocky start in their first competition. "The whole dance hall break down, the arrangement, everything was smooth, it was seamless, it was great." 

Street Corner Renaissance
Los Angeles, CA
5 men
covering "Do You Love Me" by The Contours

Street Corner Renaissance mash-potatoed and twisted their way through "Do You Love Me," a 1962 Motown standard by The Contours. Their doo-wop rendition was so natural and so relaxed, it was evident that this was not the first time they were performing it. Once again, I felt the loving arms of music wrap around me and comfort me like a warm blanket. 

There's really nothing to criticize with this group. They are who they are, and they do it well. 

"You guys are proof that less can be more," said Jewel, noting that the arrangement was spare and full of lots of quiet moments, termed "space" in the music world.

"There's more than one way to party," said Jewel, "and you guys bring a vibe and you set the tone and everybody… joins in and sings along."

New York, NY
10 women
covering "Raise Your Glass" by Pink

Performing "Raise Your Glass," by Pink, Element utilized an interesting technique where they joined their voices together to "chong," creating an almost bell-like melodic rhythmic percussion behind the lead singers.  I felt the technique of incorporating a key change and singing in unison into the final chorus gave the song strength and power and drove it home.

Though the group could use a little work, I felt this was a great rendition. I especially enjoyed the moments where the lead singers soloed, also noted by both Folds and Stockman: 

"The bridge is where the party started for me," said Folds, "I think some of it may have been you were singing in unison at the top. Almost nothing was sung as a solo, so we didn't get a chance to latch on to anyone. And then suddenly, in the bridge, you started splitting off and singing, and I got a chance to hear you actually sing and I prefer that," said Folds.

"It would have been nice to hear you guys individually," echoed Stockman. "It would be nice to hear a spotlight on one of you guys and then the next one and let them do their thing while you guys back the girl up."

University of Kentucky College of Fine Arts in Lexington, KY
12 men
covering "Hey Ya" by Outkast

The acoUstiKats covered "Hey Ya" by outcast. This is one particular performance that sounds even more phenomenal when you only "listen" and don't try to watch the usual accompanying choreography, which is always a highly entertaining spectacle of typical-collegiate antic-filled danced-out skits. 

Jewel gave the group props, complementing them on an impressive key change into a high note, "…and we think that's as high as it's gonna get, and then you… take it up to 11, spinal-tap style, even higher."

Though well executed, the arrangement was extremely busy so that it sadly lost tempo in two very noticeable locations. "Just savor the groove," suggested Folds. "You had us from an entertainment point of view for the whole thing. it's just a matter of … really locking in the musical part of it." 

Calle Sol
Aguadilla, Puerto Rico
6 men and women
covering "Livin' la Vida Loca" by Ricky Martin

When the ladies of Calle Sol sing in unison and back up the male lead over a backdrop of percussion, the sound is like pure acoustic honey. To incorporate dance into their rendition of "Living la Vida Loca" by Ricky Martin brings their performance into the rhythmic gymnastics expertise level of a cappella singing. 

Sadly, the musical portion suffered as a result of attempting to both dance and sing and "for me, there were some holes in the performance," noted Jewel. 

Stockman stated it well, "The crazy thing about this whole show is that arrangement is everything… Sometimes the dancing can be somewhat of a hindrance," he said, noting that at times the singers were laboring to simply catch their breath, much less sing. 

"You have to look at what you've got. You know that one of your strengths is dancing," noted Folds, but "the party has to be supported by music."

Though the overall result was not good enough to keep the group in the competition, Stockman said, "You are very courageous first and foremost in creating this type of a cappella group. Because, you not only have to dance, you also have to lock in on some of those harmonies."

Dallas, TX
10 men and women
"Hot in Herre" by Nelly

The Dallas group, TEN performed a highly entertaining, incredibly amazing rendition of Nelly's "Hot in Herre." The arrangement was complicated and the performance tight, so that the overall result was simply beautiful. The group is so professional, I have no doubt that they will make it to the finals, provided of course they don't get hired away before the competition ends.

I think there's an intrinsic value to having a gospel choir and backup singer background, as each of the members of TEN have. 

"All of you are lead singers. Any one of you can be stars," noted Jewel. 

But what makes TEN special in my opinion is that each member knows when to step forward and take the lead, and each member knows how to step back and offer support instead. Singing is like crew rowing. Only one person can steer the boat to where it needs to go. Everyone else must paddle hard in the same direction, or they will simply go nowhere. By working together, they can be the first to cross that elusive finish line upstream. It takes a certain humility to step back and let the leader lead. Church singing does that. Being a backup singer to a professional teaches that as well.

Emoni Wikins, who was also celebrating her birthday on the day of the taping, sang lead for this song. "When you're hitting it like that, it doesn't even need the band," noted Folds.

"i just want to thank you for the gift," complemented Jewel, "'Cause all of those little notes and those trills you were doing were icing on the cake." 

The Filharmonic
Los Angeles, CA
6 men
covering "This is How We Do It" by Montell Jordan

Saving one the best performances for last, the Filharmonic of Los Angeles delivered their version of Montell Jordan's "This is How We Do It" as smoothly sweet as "chocolate covered strawberries," as promised by Joe Caigoy, one of the members before their performance. All singing was done well and in unison. Vocal breakdowns added interest and build-ups were on cue. The overall execution was smooth and professional.

"You showed a lot of new elements," noted Jewel as she complemented them on their vocal arpeggios. 

"You started it from the gate, ...from the first note you sang, it was a party," said Stockman, who said he enjoyed the way that the group incorporated 90s dance styles such as "running man" into their choreography. 

"You guys have a good sound," said Folds, "You've got a really slick midrange. It's just the way you blend together." Folds added that he had no criticisms for the group, only pats on the back, "I'm trying to think of anything at all to tell you other than, "You grabbed it from the beginning, it sounded like a record, and it was fun, and I was wishing it wasn't over." 

I felt it was the best performance of the night, so great that I feel comfortable predicting that the Filharmonic will go to the finals and have a shot at actually winning this Season's Sing-Off. 

What's interesting is that some of the members are still quite young. As these young men age and gain a bit more maturity in their voices, they will only sound richer, stronger, and fuller.