The Sing-Off episode 2 brings us the other eight groups. Are the producers saving the best for last, or are they hiding the weaker performers behind the good-enough-for-the-premiere groups?

Part 1

A really rough opening performance on My Chemical Romance’s “Sing” has me a little nervous for tonight. This was just not a good a cappella song. I mean thematically it fits but… While the chorus is… nice, the verses do not do a great job of showing off this style of singing, and that last chorus where everyone jumped in was pretty brutal – there wasn’t enough top on it, and it sounded like too many people singing not enough melody. Hopefully things pick up from here.

First up we have the Dartmouth Aires. Can they avoid the pretentiousness exit the Yale Whiffenpoofs suffered last year. We know they have talent, but can America get behind them? Their video sure makes them seem like normal guys. Unfortunately it makes them seem like normal guys with not very good voices. What I got from the performance of Stevie Wonder’s fantastic “Higher Ground” was a different story altogether. These guys have great voices and their performance was flawless… and I didn’t like it at all. This is a big personal taste thing on my part. The guy at the front was growling pretty persuasively, but it throws me when, behind him, I see some kooky looking kid in fluorescent green socks and a ten foot wide grin doing a parkour routine. This is a song with emotional highs and lows – I know I heard some mention of death in there – but this was just a constant assault of smiles and jumping. Is it better when the Dartmouth Aires do it because their cool college kids and The Cat’s Pajamas were lounge singers? I didn’t feel much of a difference between those performances, even though Higher Ground and Some Kind of Wonderful are very different song. So where was my emotional connection? The judges didn’t seem to mind that it vanished into thin Aires (I’m trying my hand at bad puns like Nick… Yeah, I’ll leave them to him from now on…).

Next up, we have the Pentatonix. They have the beat boxing cellist from Youtube! That’s so cool. Their claim to a unique sound is a tie to the club and dance scene. To be honest, they are… totally right! They sound completely unique. Their sound is so completely tight. The soft middle section of Katy Perry’s E.T. was actually intensely creepy, and the bass and drum effects were transcendent. They have everything that Urban Method claims makes them unique as a “rap” group. The Pentatonix sound like a track, but a way cooler track then anything that could come out of a sound panel, because there are humans emoting and working together behind it. Whereas Urban Method sounded like a pale imitation of studio effects, Pentatonix sounded like aliens hearing the studio effects we earthlings have and spitting them back for us as they’ve interpreted them. What’s the moral of the story here? If you see a beat boxing cellist on Youtube, ask him to join your acapella group!

Third in the lineup, we have the group from Liberia, Messiah’s Men, which is pretty darn cool. They’re a religious group. Will they go for a pop song? It worked well for Committed. Unfortunately, the song they sang seemed to mean a lot them, but isn’t connecting at all off the stage. It is slow, there is too much unison, it sounds empty in spite of this being a rather large group, and the drumming just sounds silly, like they threw it in at the last minute. There are no “moments” and too many singers seem to be reaching at random for pitches. Ben Folds is pretty much on the money in that this performance was moving but it lacked a key center. I think another problem was that, aside from hastily added in drums, this is not an acapella group. This is a choir, and that’s not what this show is for. When the song broke into a more African feeling, the song took off, and it sounded like something this show would be flaunting. I’m in an African Choir on campus and it’s just about my favorite thing in the world. Those harmonies really speak to me, but it took them too long to reach that destination, and, unless the next group is truly very bad, the Messiah’s Men don’t stand a snowballs chance in the Sahara of making it to the next round.

And since the next group is Sonos, who are pretty much the consummate professionals in this field, that’s not going to happen. I expect, as I sit here waiting for Sonos to step on the stage, to be blown away. But I am not. Their cover of “Wicked Game” was a bit to ruminative for me. I felt like I was watching an art piece I will never quite get. It was a cool cover, but not riveting television. What I thought: this is wonderfully sparse, the beat boxing is incredible, but I’m missing something. Ben is probably right that I’m missing a baritone voice, and Shawn is also probably right that I’m missing something more “familiar.” I don’t want Sonos to compromise their vision, but they’ll need to put something on the stage that audiences can relate to. This isn’t  just me and my headphones. They need to work with the crowd, and “Wicked Game” was to personal and wierd and thought-provoking. Really, they have the opposite problem from the now-departed Cat’s Pajamas. Both groups are veteran enterprise’s but while the Pajamas’ experience came off as “sparkle,” Sonos’s comes off as “art,” and while I didn’t “get” this performance, I’ll take the art any day. They should absolutely stick around. There is no way that Messiah’s Men have more potential then the mighty Sonos.

And as it turns out, the judges agree with me. Sonos’ sexy sound sticks around another week. I am intrigued to see whether Sonos can turn it around and become the favorites in this competition I expect them to be.

The Deltones

Part 2

Committed came back to show us what they’ve been doing since they won, and I liked it. I always felt a little disappointed that Committed won in spite of never reaching the bar they set for themselves in the first two weeks of the competition. But what little I heard of Stevie Wonder’s “As” here sounded as ambitious, awesome and “butter” (Shawn’s phrase, not mine) as the Committed I liked best – the Committed that blew me away with their innovative arrangements of “This Love” and “Apologize.”

Kicking off the back half is The Collective. This was a group put together by last year’s breakout star Jeremy Lister, but oddly enough he’s not in the grouo, which breaks my heart a little. There were parts of their performance of Rolling in the Deep that I loved (the beginning) and there were parts that really turned me off (the chorus, which as Ben pointed out, really destroyed it for me). This arrangement felt too “Season 1” for me. I want to hear more of the innovation that made the opening bars awesome, and less of the innovation that turned the second verse into a totally different song.

I’m nervous about act number six, Soul’d Out. This is the sacrificial lamb slot, and while the Fannins already filled that role last week, the phrase “high school group” already has me prepared to be sympathetic but disappointed – it’s a reflex. They always bring a glee club, you know like the one on that TV show you may have heard of, but it doesn’t ever end well for the glee kids on this show, which actually seems about in line with that TV show you may have heard of. “We are basically a real life version of Glee,” one of the girls says, and I cringe. Yet Soul’d Out just may have bought themselves another week. For once, the problem was in the beat boxing, which meant the singing was pretty strong, especially on Age of Aquarius. There wasn’t enough countermelody and there was way too much repetition of the phrase “Arius” over and over again, but it was never once a mess. Let the Sunshine in was a bit of a mess, but, unlike younger groups in the past, they kept it together, and I’d say they’re about even with The Collective, which is a big feat for a group that, as Ben pointed out, probably doesn’t have a parent among them that was alive when “Hair” premiered on Broadway. (Which, thankfully, the kids didn’t stick too closely to. No naked hippies on this stage! They’re just kids, people!)

Third in the order, we have this season’s iteration of barbershop quartet Maxx Factor and legendary acapella singer Jerry Lawson. These groups reliably make it to the middle of the pack but never really threaten the front runners. Their job is to be adorable and provide historical context. This time around, it’s an old-school doo-wop group from Boston called North Shore. They are, as one would expect after so many years in the biz, perfect at what they do, and what they do will keep them around until it’s time for someone to actually get a recording contract and make money. Then they will be a memory again, unfortunately.

Tonights last group hails from Delaware. The Deltones are your normal, average college acapella group. Friends first, music second. Rejected from the other acapella groups on campus. Co-Ed. Music as a bonding experience. I’m pulling for them because… I get them. I think I have an attachment to them, even though I, of course, don’t personally know them. For some reason, I feel like I do. I’ll leave it at that. On top of that, they sang one of my favorite songs of all time, Randy Newman’s “Feels Like Home.” Contented sigh. The beginning was rough for me. I’m not sure whether I agree with Ben or Sara. Was it intentional vulnerability or nerves? I think they’re both right. I thnk that what was supposed to be “vulnerable” was made shakier by nerves, and so, for a long time, I could not find the tempo, and it did not seem like an artistic decision that the beat was no where to be found. But the Deltones pulled it together and turned in a deeply moving and polished performance. It doesn’t put them at the top, but it will get them through this fairly disappointing night.

I know I said I thought the glee club kids might make it through, but if I know these judges I suspect they will have mercy on the club and send them back to high school, where I’m sure they’ll comfort each other and avoid the mean cheerleading coach in the track suit. The kids did go home, but in what I think is the big story, The Collective finished ahead of The Deltones, which utterly surprises me. I can’t say I agree with that placement from the judges, but hey, they’re the professionals.

In the end, this second night of competition was a let-down. Only one group put up an unequivocally great performance. The rest were merely average. The cynic in me tells me that maybe this season is watered down, talent-wise, but the optimist says “Hey, any of these groups can turn in a classic performance next time they hit the stage. Trust in the process.” Only time will tell.

My final rankings for this week’s remaining groups:

1) Pentatonix – This season’s best performance so far. I love being blown away by this show, and The Pentatonix gave me something I have literally never heard before. They are in the driver’s seat now.

2) The Deltones – Raw and emotional. Underdogs. Relatively experienced. They have what it takes to make it work as this season’s Backbeats, but can they make it so a college group finally takes it all? I don’t think so.

3) Sonos – They’re better then what they gave this week. They’re going to challenge you no matter what, but I want them to at least give one genre-defining performance before they leave, if they don’t in fact catch on to how this competition works and take it all.

4) The Dartmouth Aires – Just because these guys dress in crazy colors and not coattails doesn’t make them any different from the Whiffenpoofs, and they seem as unattuned to the emotion of the music as that other Ivy League group. I shouldn’t be ranking these guys this low, but I just don’t like them. Sorry.

5) North Shore – They’re great. They’ll never win this competition, but it’s nice to have them on the television screen sharing their love for doo-wop.

6) The Collective – These singers have great potential. But they’re not a group yet. And they don’t have a lead like Jeremy Lister. It’s not enough that he’s just their musical Godfather. They have a week to figure it out.