Welcome back to Week 3 of The Sing-Off, America’s favorite singing competition if America was me!

In weeks one and two, we saw two different groups of eight teams, and in the end four groups of a capella singers were sent home to the sounds of their somewhat out-of-tune swan songs. My reactions to this expanded field of singers have varied from ecstatic giddiness to rueful ambivalence. Many of the groups did not “show their best stuff” in their debut performance, but, then again, who does? In the history of the show, I would say only two eventual heavyweight contenders gave their best performances the moment they stepped out on the stage, and those two ended up being the eventual champions Nota and Committed. Still, if seasons past are any indication, it is the middle weeks where we will see astounding and creative performances from middle-of-the-pack layabouts looking to impress the panel of judges and get their name in the discussion for who might be the eventual Sing-Off champion.

Right now, I would say that the club-bangers in Pentatonix and the pretty ladies in Delilah are in the lead, but I have my eye on groups like Sonos, The Deltones, The Yellowjackets, and Afro-Blue to make good on their potential and steal the buzz in this competition, making it more than a two horse race. This is break-out week on “The Sing-Off,” and so, in spite of my tentative skepticism, I couldn’t be more excited to see the six remaining teams in Bracket A (Kinfolk 9, Afro Blue, The Yellowjackets, Vocal Point, Delilah and Urban Mthod) put on their two all-vocal numbers – one, a semi-current Top-40 hit, the other a ‘60s standard.

Who’s ready for some puns about singing?!? Me, me, me!

Part 1 – The Pop Top 40

Tonight’s show starts with the always pleasant opening number. Tonight it is a pleasing if not spectacular rendition of Keane’s “Somewhere Only We Know.” There are some truly awkward solo moments here, and mandatory cell phone waving on “The Sing-Off” always makes me feel a little icky, but there were two spectacular moments here from two of the most memorable faces from last week: the moments from the angel-voiced tenor from The Yellowjackets and, in what amounts to a huge pimp-spot, the half of the solo that was given to the charismatic lead-singer of “Kinfolk 9,” Moi, who showed off a much better vocal here than he did last week on a “OneRepublic” tune.

Our first group performance of the night comes courtesy of Vocal Point from BYU. The guys are down a member this week as they were two weeks ago – Aussie baritone Ben is back in Australia after losing his father, and their pre-performance package featured a genuinely moving moment where the guys all prayed for their friend. Unfortunately, it’s made clear be down a memeber takes a toll on their sound, and on stage, they sound like a group that is down a member. As they take on Justin Beiber’s “Never Say Never” (yes they got plenty of ribbing for it and do a fair job of making fun of themselves) they sound thin and a little out-of-breath. The solo is fine and the backgrounds chug along suitably most of the time, but the main harmonies don’t really ever click and the guys sound stiff and a little nervous – nowhere near as charismatic as they were when they tore up “Jump, Jive and Wail,” nowhere near as comfortable as a group like last season’s “On the Rocks” would have been in the same position. I find Sara’s hilarious branding of the group as like “wholesome Thundercats” oddly appropriate: they are cute and kind of powerful, but the animation’s pretty weak-sauce and it all feels a little dated.

Next up, we have Delilah, last week’s big stars. Their package video features the girl’s sniping at each other in a bitchy manor, being perfectionists, and worrying they won’t be able to take the pressure of being front-runners. That drama carried over to the performance of Adam Lambert’s “Whaddaya Want From Me,” which actually was suitably risky enough to make all the sniping seem merited. You see, they brought in one girl at a time, adding and layering the harmonies slowly over about a minute of building pressure and cascading emotion, which like trying a triple lutz. Was it perfect? No. Voices are so exposed in that context that you are bound to hear something that doesn’t sit exactly right, but the girl’s in Delilah made it work. The performance didn’t even lose that much power when it made the obligatory switch during the second verse to your typical beat-box jam. This performance was not nearly as incendiary as their debut on “Grenade” was, but it will keep this immensely talented girl-group – Sara calls them ”my girls” with completely unchecked affection — bucking the trend of early eliminations and making people appreciate the value of an ensemble comprised
only of female voices.

The third group, Urban Method, gets more unnecessary pimping from host Nick Lechay for something that makes absolutely no sense to me. The show cannot make enough of how we are seeing a capella’s first rapper, but this blatantly seems to ignore every other rap that has ever happened on this show. This is simply the first group to feature a member who considers himself a rapper first and a singer second, which, I mean, is kind of a mixed blessing, right? Of course, as if to answer my frustrations, Urban Method’s second performance, on “Just Can’t Get Enough” by the Black Eyed Peas, featured almost no rapping and the group was, if we can believe the video, severely handicapped by having a front-man who it didn’t make sense to have go out there and croon. So Mike the rapper took a back-up role and, as if through magic, this group sounded a heck of a lot better. The reasons: an infinitely stronger female solo and a beat that was a bit slower and simmered a little more. And then it all went to hell in the last twenty seconds with Mike jumping out front to look intense and shout and the group backing him up unconfidently with a skittering jump-start beat that just confuses me but that I think I was supposed to feel was really legit. But I didn’t. I can’t be impressed when Pentatonix does what this group aspires to so much better than them and with fewer people and less bally-hoo.

Hitting clean-up, we have Afro Blue, who spent their video worrying about doing a pop song since they come from a background that doesn’t really embrace that sort of stuff, which always means you’re about to see a completely transcendent, music-redefining performance on this show. My… Gawwwwwd… Snap! I smiled from the opening note here, through the scatting and the lazy groove, and the big band bombast and the incredible breakdown. To the last note, this was refreshing and completely revelatory and yet the arrangement – which did something that almost never works; it changed the melody — felt like it hadn’t done anything to insult pop music in the process. It just brought all that is good and reassuring about a song like “American Boy” and made it perfect for this group at this moment in front of this audience. Afro Blue is my horse in this race, and I feel confident in riding it to the end of the competition.

The Yellowjackets have the unfortunate task of following up Afro Blue’s master class. I listened to their version of “Waving Flag” a lot over the last two weeks, and it’s become a personal favorite of mine. I love that they have made it their goal to be the first “college group” to win this competition. This performance wasn’t all there though. It had distinct poles for me. The African breakdowns reminded me of the best of Nota, and they were earnest, but the parts of the song that more clearly aped (or parodied) the beat of the song itself (Taio Cruz’s “Dynamite”) fell pretty flat. The tempo just wasn’t steady. The bass was missing. And the opening solo was meant to sound Taio Cruzy, but coming from a guy we know had a more operatic voice, it sounded more like one of those bad imitations of Stephen Hawking, which left a bad taste in my mouth. This group should be fitting right into that goofy frat guys groove that suited the Bubs and On the Rocks, but, to be perfectly honest, this group works when it is being completely earnest and using the influences they picked up on their pilgrammage to Africa to spice up pop songs rather than being ironic about them. (Of course, no one does this earnestness better than Afro Blue, which is why I suspect that they will really be the first college group to win “The Sing-Off.”)

The last group to perform before the transition into the 1960s are the scrappy underdogs who “need” this, Kinfolk 9, performing “Price Tag,” a fun song which hopefully will give this group a chance to shine and not remind so much of how serious and desperate they are for this. Hear that Kinfolk 9? No angsty faces! They heard, coming right out by asking if the crowd was ready for some fun, as if to apologize for being so mawkish last week. And while this performance started off timid, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a group grow into a song like this. Every note and groove was better than the one that came before, giving the impression that this group is literally growing stronger on this stage like a neglected flower that’s finally getting some sunlight and water. (In this metaphor, Nick Lechay is clearly the gardener…) This group seemed destined to be the easy elimination tonight when only one group is destined to hit the road, but might Kinfolk 9 have bought themselves a ticket to next week by simply… being more fun?

Part 2

I kind of loved the video that opened this half of the show: the groups were honest about how much they did or didn’t know about the ‘60s. The group that came off as the most ignorant and worried were the girls in Delilah, and they were up first singing “Heat Wave,” by Martha and the Vandellas. Delilah was definitely missing something here, and the rich irony of one of the Delilah girl’s asking in the video for reassurance that she wouldn’t have to wear a beehive because that wasn’t this decade where girls wore those hideous things only to then come out in a beehive didn’t make up for it. The arrangement wasn’t raw or powerful like past Delilah songs had been, and how could it have been? They chose “Heat Wave,” which Ben rightly points out is a song you can’t really “outsmart.” This performance was cute, but it was hardly as moving as this group has been in the past, and the judges weren’t exactly asking for a light but sort of empty performance from this group right now, so this song choice didn’t really make sense from a group that was building a trademark out of its innovation, seriousness, and emotional honesty. Does anyone else think they should have done “Piece of My Heart” by Big Brother and the Holding Company?

Urban Method on the other hand had something big to prove. This group is sold as a rapper and his studio backing, but could they show their “singer side,” as Ben put it. Urban Method finally found some traction in this competition singing Sly and the Family Stone’s “Dance to the Music.” Their performance was fun and earnest in its attempt to “be” the instrument, which is really what I feel like this group is about – not rap. I feel like this group is about digging into the urban sound, the instruments that make up the soul of the inner city, and this song got funk down to its heart. Still, I can’t help but think that other a capella groups could have pulled this off just as well. Truly, what is special about this group? And don’t say rap. The irony is not lost on me that the rapping group has now rapped less than many other groups in this competition have in the past.

I’m sort of sorry I called “Vocal Point” dated earlier, because, as it turns out, this group can use their connection to a feeling of another time (something I called datedness) and make something that most people would consider inherently dated – that Sinatra swoon that just about no one associates with the 60s today, which is patently absurd – and making it seem like, in two minutes on stage, the sixties were back and they were swingin’ like they had not swung since 1967. The solo vocal was to die for. This performance should be paired with “Pan Am” and washed down with a scotch. In essence, this performance didn’t have to be conventionally cool, because it was perfect (literally I can point out no flaws). But it was also just about the coolest thing I’ve ever seen, so there’s that.

Afro Blue now has the unenviable task of following up a perfect performance. They of course follow it with what I consider to be another perfect performance. The judges were a bit more critical than I. Ben told the musical geniuses they overthought it a little with the jazz stuff and Sara wished they’d brought it back to the 60s after they took it elsewhere. I am of a different opinion. I don’t think the criteria of the competition asks that the groups evoke the 1960s 100% of the time; they merely have to take songs from the ‘60s and reinvent them for their a capella sound. Afro Blue was effortlessly cool on Marvin Gaye’s “Heard It Through the Grapevine” as they
made a classic work for their complicated jazz harmonies and modulations, which I never once felt got too complicated for a relative novice like myself. I got it. I loved it.

I also loved The Yellowjackets completely unironic take on “Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You” by Franki Valli. This song can sound so hokey in karaoke… All you need to make it work – a girl to sing it to (a la Heath Ledger in “10 Things I Hate About You”). Aaron, the helium-voiced tenor was adorable in his advances toward Sara, which ended with a gentleman’s kiss on the hand.

And to end the night, Kinfolk 9 sent everything all to hell in a hand basket. Their take on “Let It Be” should have returned them to the mawkish, Moi-led stagnancy of week 1, and then, in an instance of what I love about this show coming to the fore, Moi took the lead on an astoundingly beautiful version of a Beatles’ classic that just exploded every expectation you would have had about the elimination that was right around the corner. I’m a sucker for two things – jazz chords and beautiful background humming (hence my two favorite performances ever being Committed’s “This Love” and The Backbeat’s “Landslide”) This performance fits firmly in the latter category. It was so clearly manipulated to dance on every heartstring I have that it was virtually transparent, but I only realized this after it was over. While Moi was singing (or screaming… what a scream!) they played me like a fiddle.

So who’s going home? Hell if I know. Could it really be Kinfolk 9 after that performance?!? My guess is… probably,  but that’s not what I want. Though I have no idea who I would send home in their place. Maybe the Yellowjackets?

In the end it came down to Delilah (What?!?) and Kinfolk 9 (Awww…). For a second I legitimately believed the favorites would go home considering their ‘60s performance had been the weakest, but (and I don’t want to say of course here because this show is truly never predicatble) of course, Kinfolk 9 went home. But they got in the cheekiest swan song ever – Beck’s “Loser” – and gosh darn, I love them even more for it. They may be leaving the competition, but they won me over completely this week – their first performance simply set them back too far to allow for the come from behind victory.

This week pretty much rocked my world as a whole. Not a weak link in the bunch, this night was solid all around. Hopefully next week can keep the momentum going. So do you have any favorites? What gets you out of your seat – jazzy reinventions, mournful ballads, cheesy-but-sincere love songs, tongue-in-cheek irony? Are you even watching? (Ahem , you should be…) See you next week. In the meantime, you can keep up with my reports from the battlefront – I am doing war with the horror genre for the first time in my relatively short life, in honor of this month being October. As a matter of fact, I think it’s time to start up “Let the Right One In” right now. Yikes!

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