The Sing-Off Season 4: Episode 1 & 2 Review

By: Brian Mangan

When we started this blog, I made one of the cardinal rules (at least at first) that there would not be episode reviews.  So much for that!

I am an enormous a cappella aficionado, so of course, I love the Sing Off.  I’ll be writing episode reviews here (as often as possible) in an attempt to not only enjoy the act of reviewing, but perhaps, in some small way, spread the love of my favorite musical art form.  I have plenty more to say about a cappella which I’ll probably mention during this series, but for now, let’s get into it.

[I’d love to hear what everyone thinks in the comments!  A cappella is very much a subjective exercise full of personal preferences, and in discussing the show I’ve heard a myriad of different opinions from people whose musical tastes I adore.  It’s going to be a very interesting season, and I can’t wait to see how it goes. ]

Episode 1

This season there are ten groups competing to win $100,000 and a Sony recording contract.  The last winner, Pentatonix, has been an incredible mainstream success: they actually have *tw0* of the Top 10 albums in iTunes right now, their mainstream album and their holiday album.

The first Sing Off performance is each group’s “signature song.”  This is typically the song already in their repertoire which best showcases their style and has been the biggest crowd pleaser.  When I watch a first performance, I am looking for two things: 1) what the group does, and 2) what the group teases that it might be able to do.

For instance, Vocal Rush was phenomenal in the first round, but I have strong reservations about the kids being able to keep up with the adults in the long run.  On the other hand, I really disliked VoicePlay’s first arrangement but I heard enough from them to think they deserved a second shot.

Rather than review the individual performances, here are my general groupings from the first round:

Strongest Contenders (3): AcoUstiKats, Filharmonic, Home Free
Too Early to Tell (4): Vocal Rush, Streetcorner Renaissance, Element, VoicePlay
Disappointing (3): Ten, Calle Sol, Footnotes

The judges agreed and cut the Princeton Footnotes in Episode 1.  I would have loved to see more from them, give them a second chance, but it’s a rapid-fire show and you can’t always afford everyone that time.  I think that the Puerto Rican group, Calle Sol, is the clear next cut, although it will get significantly more difficult after that.

The group Ten had a relatively bland first performance, but they definitely have enough talent to be worth keeping around and I could see them tightening things up and challenging for real in the later stages of the show.  VoicePlay gets a pass from me for now but needs to have a good second performance.  I thought Home Free was great but they should almost be in group #2 because I worry that their sound will get old fast. But with their lead and their bass both being absolute monsters, they may be able to carry for a while.

Episode 2

I believe it takes at least two songs before we know what a group is all about, so I am very excited for this episode.  We finally get to separate the wheat from the chaff!  (We’re totally chaff, right?)

Vocal Rush – Sweat – B-

After an incredible, incredible performance on Episode 1, Vocal Rush really sounded like kids on this one.  This will be their major obstacle going forward. This song sounded as “young” as the first performance was great. The lead did an admirable job but the body of the arrangement was weak and lifeless.  They’re gifted, but I doubt they have the horses.  I love Vocal Rush, so I hope their next performance is better.  (Also, major shout out to their little female vocal percussionist: she’s more than holding her own).

Home Free – Life is Highway – B+

I’m not sure what to make of these guys. One the one hand, there are only five of them, they occupy a country niche, and they are not as good as Pentatonix. On the other hand, however, they are pretty good — their lead is super talented and handsome enough to front a group, and their bass is fantastic. With those two pieces, you can build around.

VoicePlay – Play That Funky Music – A-

THIS is what I thought VoicePlay could do. Honey came back with a fantastic lead (and could rap), the group was innovative and interesting. They are professionals, and this song showed that polish. They may be trouble the rest of the way.

Street Corner Renaissance – Do You Love Me – B

This performance was good, but I think these guys are going to run into the same problems some of the other groups. Jewel noted the “space” in their arrangement, and she’s right — it’s not just the song choice, but the fact that there are only five of these guys, and they’re not doing as good of a job filling out the sound as the other small groups, like Home Free.

Element – Raise Your Glass – B+

Element was not bad in Episode 1, so I was excited to see what they could do in Episode 2.  However, Ben Folds’ comments are 100% correct, as usual, and I agree with Shawn as well in that the choice to sing in unison at the outset was a terrible choice.  The girls saved it a bit with the cluster chord, and key change at the end, but before that it was almost a difficult listen.

Who is Element’s star?  Do they have someone who can carry the lead for them through the competition?  I think the Emily’s think it’s them, but I’m not sure.  I don’t think we’ve seen her yet. (side note, upon second watching I think that Manjula has some serious star potential.)

Acoustikats – Hey Ya – A-

Ron, the kid who sang lead on both of their songs so far IS A STAR. The other lead might have a better voice, but I don’t care. Yeah so, there is little to say about this group. They are great, and fun, and great, and did I mention fun? I’m worried that they may have a hard time showing range (Can they blend on a slow song? Can they pull it off without their lead killing it over them at the end?) and the whole song was too fast, but that’s forgivable for now.

Calle Sol – Livin La Vida Loca – B-

Their kind of performance is not for me, but I can’t deny that this night’s performance was a significant step up from the first night. Their model isn’t sustainable though – the straining to sing and dance was almost unfair. Shawn is right, words were lost when their female lead was singing and dancing. I think Calle Sol has a future doing music somewhere, but it’s not the kind of group I see going far in this show.

Ten – Hot In Herre – B+
This performance was pretty good? I don’t know what to think of them. The arrangement was average, at best, and with that many people you need to do something great. This performance was good but I’m dying for them to be great.

I am going to do something that I never do, and disagree with Ben Folds: I don’t think their leads are great.  I think the woman with the huge blond hair is great, and a star, but the girl with the short blond hair is not (tempo and pitch issues despite her style), nor was the main male lead vocal (talented karaoke or cruise singer), nor was the man who started the song (who was noticeably flat right away).  The judges are right that all of the leads were at least good and somewhat compelling — for that reason alone you have to like them more than a group like Element.  I kind of see them as like Vocal Rush in fifteen years.

Filharmonic – This Is How We Do It – A+
YES. Great creative arrangement, great leads, great chord, and great choreo. These guys absolutely killed it, and I love them. I LOVE THEM.  I have nothing else to add, except that I don’t understand anyone who doesn’t love them.  Ben had no pointers for them and loved it and, as usual, I agree with him 100%.

Elimination Round

I would have chosen Calle Sol and Street Corner Renaissance or Element for the elimination. Judges went with Calle Sol and Acoustikats (WHAT THE SHIT??).  Acoustikats were better (although I think that was probably Calle Sol’s best performance), but the fact that Acoustikats was even in the elimination round is absurd.  I guess you have to make some concessions for television.

New Top 3: Filharmonics, Home Free, Acoustikats
Strong Contenders: VoicePlay, Ten
Hanging On: Element, Vocal Rush, Street Corner Renaissance

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Brian Mangan is an attorney in New York City and a cappella aficionado, and wants everyone to know that “cappella” has two p’s.       

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