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The Sing-Off is back! Time for snap judgements

After a year long hiatus, NBC’s “other singing show” returned to TV on Monday for it’s 4th season. If you don’t know, the Sing-Off is an acapella based singing competition that pits 10 selected groups against each other every week eliminating one per week until a winner remains.

If you enjoy acapella music (which I do) this is a great show it’s also great because it introduces 10 acapella groups to America, and really shows a lot of different sides to the genre. The 3rd season seemed to have the show reach it’s peak with Pentatonix who seem to be on an almost unreachable level within their genre with their vocal abilities and modern/futuristic style.

Even so, this season introduced 10 more groups who represent the best of the genre. So now, it’s time to make snap judgements about all of them ;). I’ll discuss each group in the order the performed in the opener:

1. Vocal Rush

This championship group of high school students from California is the seasons high school group. Traditionally, the high school students are among the first off of  the show. However, this group should easily break that tradition with their strong performance. Actually, if I hadn’t been told they were high school students, I would’ve assumed this was some kind of college acapella group. Well, at least until they started stepping (that just screamed high school to me). The groups opening performance showcased a strong lead singer and a bit of a surprising female vocal percussionist. They also look to be seasoned performers as they were well choreographed and seemed very comfortable overall. All things considered, it shouldn’t be that surprising seeing as how the group has won a national championship and is based out of a performing arts school.

Vocal Rush – Bottom of the River (by Delta Rae)

2. Home Free

This group is selling themselves as the country acapella group. While it’s true that a lot of acapella groups have pop in their repertoire, I’m not sure how distinctive a “country” group is going to be in this genre since the vocal elements of the different genres start to become more similar when they are turned into acapella arangements. That said, this group is clearly solid. With only 5 members they manage to provide a very complete sound including a strong base and consistent (although light) percussion. The lead vocalist looks very distinctive but the song they chose didn’t seem like it did a whole lot to really show what he could do. My initial thought was actually that they reminded me of Street Corner Symphony, a runner up from season 2. Let’s see if they have as much success.

Home Free – Cruise (by Florida-Georgia Line)

3. The Princeton Footnotes

So, this group very closely related themselves to “On The Rocks” the acapella group from the University of Oregon. Not only by being a college group, but by taking the “guys singing girls” approach that OTR did with Lady Gaga by singing Taylor Swift’s “Trouble”. They’re initial performance was not bad by any means. However, it seemed limited. They “big” moments in the performance weren’t really that awe inspiring and the sound they produced wasn’t really that much bigger than some of the smaller groups. Their sense of performance also seemed to be a little limited, which isn’t surprising since they some from the more traditional acapella world. In the end, they were the first group sent to the  “ultimate sing-off”.

Princeton Footnotes – I knew you were trouble (by Taylor Swift)

4. Calle Sol

I won’t go so far as to say this group is bad or anything close to that, but I have to say that this was my least favorite performance of the opener. Calle Sol seemed to scream “gimmick” to me with the entire performance. The performance told me that they have 4 attractive latino women, that they’re bilingual, that they can dance, and that they can sing…in that order. Upon a repeat listens I did start to hear a little more value in their singing ability as the female quartet actually hit’s some Destiny’s-Child-esque chords and stylizing through their performance. Unfortunately, that kind of singing works best when there’s a produced track underneath it. As it is, the girls are only backed up by a single vocal drum and bass, which don’t really fill up the same space, leaving a lot of the performance feeling bare. Now, this may be a result of the song/arrangement choice, but it just didn’t feel like this group had the ability to generate a full sound.

Calle Sol – Pon De Replay (By Rihanna)

5. Street Corner Renaissance

I love these kinds of groups. It’s unfortunate that I don’t think they’ll ever really stand a chance to win this competition. Street Corner Renaissance is a classic “Doo-wop” style quintet (or at least that’s the style they performed) composed of 5 older African American men. If you’ve watched the show you’re probably immediately reminded of Jerry Lawson & the Talk of the Town from the previous season. That group represented a more classic street corner / barbershop sound that’s what gave birth to the modern boy band as well as some of the early Motown sound (among other things). It’s great to hear even if it is noticeably (and purposely) dated style wise. Ultimately, that classic style will be what keeps this group around for a while but, will also keep them from winning as other groups will venture into more adventurous waters. However, for the time being let’s just enjoy them (especially that bass).

Street Corner Renaissance – What Makes You Beautiful (by One Direction)

6. Ten

While I normally actually prefer that the show starts right in the competition rounds instead of showing us the auditions, this was a case where I would’ve liked to hear it. Just because I’m curious to hear what this groups audition must’ve sounded like, considering that they were doing their interview saying that they had been singing together for such a short time. The groups singers claim that they are all gospel based and it shows. They’ve got a sound that’s reminiscent of a larger gospel choir. The one area where they will probably be the weakest is in the performance department. Even in this performance they didn’t do much more than walk around the stage and rock/sway in different directions. I love the choir sound but it’ll be interesting to see if they can break that style of all the songs being big chords with a soloist belting and running over the top of it. If not it might be a race between them and Street Corner Renaissance as to which group becomes tired first.

Ten – Tell Me Something Good (by Rufus and Chaka Kahn)

7. Element

Filling in the shoes left by last season’s hodgepodge of female specialists, Delilah, Element is taking up the torch as this seasons all female group. I’ll probably always be fascinated by female groups because of the vocal percussion and bass elements. Even though they’re not doing the same as the male bassists the females have a very distinctive sound quality and types of tones that they implement. However, this arrangement seemed very typical for an all-female group. It was a solid performance but not anything to write home about. The judges all mentioned the lack of impact being more of a result of the groups approach. Let’s hope that’s the case and they come back with a more impactful song in the next episode.

Element – Burn (by Ellie Goulding)

8. VoicePlay

I hesitate to say this, but the style of this group probably reminded you of Pentatonix, at least it reminded me of it. It’s really probably more of a combination of Pentatonix and Urban Method. Like the other two this group incorporated some studio-style effects into their vocals and arrangements. Unfortunately, with that comparison in mind, I couldn’t help but think that VoicePlay isn’t nearly on the same level as Pentatonix or Urban Method. I don’t want to say that I hope they abandon this particular style, I just hope that there more mistakes than I realized in this performance and that their next performance will actually be much stronger. In this performance they incorporated a lot of little effects: passing the leads around, a flanger effect, a slowdown fade, as well as some club style backgrounds. It just didn’t quite seem to hit with a lot of impact. By the end I found myself surprised that it was over already because it felt like very little had happened. That’s probably part of the reason that they ended up in the bottom 2.

VoicePlay – Feel This Moment (by Pitbull and Christina Aguilera)

9. The Filharmonic

The Filipino boy band made an immediate impact by choosing a great song (Treasure by Bruno Mars) and the further impressing me by pulling off a genuinely entertaining performance. The whole time I was listening/watching I kept thinking “they’re going to lose this at some point” just because they seemed to be on the edge of the song and using so much energy that I didn’t think they could maintain it. However, not only did they maintain it, they looked comfortable doing it. I did notice that the group doesn’t seem to have a “power voice” but they’re overall sound is great. It reminds a little of Committed just with a much more decided pop-y feel or maybe of Vocal Point with a bit more flow. If no other group breaks out as an unbridled power house like Pentatonix did in the last season, this group could be a legitimate contender.

The Filharmonic – Treasure (by Bruno Mars)

10. acoUstiKats

Immediate thought, “It’s the Dartmouth Aires 2.0”. Being from the University of Kentucky the acoUstiKats seem to be exempt from the uptightness that can follow ivy league vocal ensembles and are clearly a fun loving group. There’s just so much movement on stage and in the arrangements that it’s borderline impossible to follow all of it. I think I’ve watched their performance 10 times and I’m still seeing/hearing things that I hadn’t before. I’m impressed that they were that ridiculous and still entertaining, I was impressed that they pulled off their song choice, I was also impressed that they seem to have a very diverse leading man even with having such a large group. I don’t think this group is good enough to break the curse that plagues college groups in this competition but they should be fun while they’re still around. I do have to add, that the puns need to stop when they’re on stage…just stop it.

acoUstiKats – Blurred Lines (by Robin Thicke)

11. The Ultimate Sing Off

The Princeton Footnotes ended up facing off against VoicePlay in the ultimate sing-off, performing the song “Bye, Bye, Bye”. Frankly, the logistics of how this part of the show are coordinated and how the arranging is done seems really confusing to me. But, I don’t really care since it produced one of the best performances of the episode. I agree with Ben Folds when he said that if either groups had performed as well earlier in the show as they did in the sing-off they would’ve not been in the bottom two. The Footnotes showed a lot of power and a lot more performance ability while VoicePlay chose to focus more on their versatility by constantly switching musical genres through their performance. In the end VoicePlay ended up staying, so I guess their gamble paid off. I’m just glad it was a good performance for both groups.

The Footnotes vs. VoicePlay

My Rankings

Here’s my rankings for the performances:

  1. The Filharmonic
  2. acoUstiKats
  3. Street Corner Renaissance
  4. Ten
  5. Element
  6. Vocal Rush
  7. Home Free
  8. VoicePlay
  9. The Footnotes
  10. Calle Sol

Although, I’m sure that will change week to week.