The Sing Off Season 4: Episode 4 Review

By: Brian Mangan

Prior Reviews:  Episode 1&2, Episode 3

Episode 4

(Before getting into the episode itself, I’ve had a few people ask me about my bona fides to judge an a cappella singing competition.  See my by-line at the bottom for a quick CV)

Last time these groups performed, we noted the following:

Home Free is a Top 3 contender with a lead and bass combo that might be unparalleled in the competition. Austin Brown might be the breakout star of the competition, even if Home Free fails.  Vocal Rush had a great first performance but an underwhelming second performance, and I’m worried that the young kids lack the horses to compete.  VoicePlay presented the opposite – their first arrangement was very strange, but they kicked butt in the second performance. I do not love the female lead, but the group itself has strong percussion and the tenor is a stud.  Element has been alright so far, but you expect more from a bigger group, even a female one. They also haven’t shown us a great lead yet, so this is the make or break performance for them.

Here are tonight’s performances:

Home Free – Ring of Fire – A- (last time, B+)

I’m as impressed with the bass guy as anyone else, but in the context of the competition? It’s only a novelty. Doesn’t do anything for me unless he’s holding it down on the bass line (which he also does).

The group in general is great. I’m wondering why people are not more impressed with that lead. He’s truly outstanding – there is no break at all in his voice, and he delivers those high notes with power.

Home Free remains a strong contender and they have all the pieces necessary to win. Nonetheless, I’m not sure if they’ll be able to take that leap necessary — the Pentatonix leap — in terms of arrangements and innovation to beat a group that’s a little bigger and also excellent. Committed was already at that level by week two of the competition — making judges throw their hands in the air exasperatedly at how wonderful or innovative something was. Great lead vocals aside, the Ring of Fire arrangement was a little boring; merely good.

VoicePlay – Don’t Speak – B+ (last time, Play That Funky Music A-)

Man, I know that’s Honey’s style, but I just don’t like her voice. She toned it down (or picked a better song) in Round 2, but her whine during Don’t Speak’s intro was almost unbearable. I think they’d be much better off with the main guy as their lead – he’s great.

As for the song itself, the arrangement was good, and the tenor and beatboxer held it down as usual. I’m not getting as much bass and body from the group as I’d like, especially from a group with five men not singing lead, but it’s still good. Don’t believe me? Compare this performance side-by-side to Home Free. Home Free has better lead vocals, but VoicePlay is a magnitude more interesting (minus Honey, who I just can’t deal with right now). Ben is, of course, spot on that this arrangement “jumped around” less, echoing my critique from Episode 1.

They’re good, but this is their third performance and it is no longer about potential – in my opinion, despite the great background parts and beatbox, they’re not winning the competition unless they address their lead (though Ben liked it, which makes me doubt myself). Otherwise, this performance is some kind of “A” grade.

Element – Keep Me Hanging On – B (Raise Your Glass – B+)

Element is one of the most interesting groups from a competition standpoint, because their breakdown in the second half of the Pink song was an A+ in my book, but everything else has been subpar, including this performance. Not only was the arrangement kind of blase, and the leads kind of blase, but I heard tuning and tempo issues with them for the first time.

This group isn’t going to make it, they will probably get eliminated tonight. I will always wonder if somewhere in that group there was a better lead than the Emilys. To be clear, all of the singers in this competition are great, and way better than me, and courageous for competing. There is a ton of talent in Element, (including a wildly talented Sing Off alumni), but I worry that Element did not put their best foot forward in this show.

Vocal Rush – Holding Out For a Hero – A (last time, Sweat B-)

The female leads in Vocal Rush are GREAT — and not just great for kids — great overall.  Good arrangement! Exciting performance, I love the choreo, I love the energy, I loved the little rap verse. In my opinion, they redeemed last week’s performance entirely.

I agree with Shawn’s assessment that the kids appear to have no fear; it’s not just a judgment based on their youth, but it’s clear that they just go for it.  My concerns that they might not have the power to make it into the later rounds is officially assuaged.

Elimination – Element v. Vocal Rush

The judges got it right here. Observations from the competition.

Who is this new soloist for Vocal Rush? Another one?! She’s fantastic, and she’s the third legitimate lead voice in that group.

Element was quite good (as seems to be the pattern for the eliminator) but again their weak lead vocals doomed them, as did a relatively boring choreo/interpreation of the song compared to Vocal Rush.  I’ve always had the impression that Element may have had some internal problems, and that they were more concerned with looking pretty rather than grooving that music directly into our brains.

Vocal Rush, on the other hand, was phenomenal. This was their best performance since Episode 1, and on top of their performance earlier this Episode, I think puts them back ahead of the other groups that performed tonight. I know, it’s kind of crazy to say that, but the energy they were putting off, combined with the killer lead vocals — I mean, I never want them to stop singing.

NEW RANKINGS:  We’ve now seen each group perform three times.  Note: I did not give letter grades the first round, as I merely grouped the acts into categories.  Note: the overall grade does not correspond exactly with the two letter grades below as it takes into account Episode 1 as well as my subjective opinion on the potential of the group (if potential were not a factor, for instance, Vocal Rush would be ahead of both VoicePlay and Home Free)

Strongest Contenders: Filharmonic (A+, A), Acoustikats (A-, A+) 

Wild Cards: VoicePlay (A-, B+), Home Free (B+, A-) 

In Danger: Vocal Rush (B-, A), Ten (B+, B+) 

Out This Week: Streetcorner Renaissance (B, B), Element (B+, B)

There are people who still do not believe in the Filharmonic.  Why?  They have solid leads, innovative arrangements, they dance, they’re personable, they’re fun to listen to.  What’s not to like?  On a similar note, I realize that this is an aggressive ranking for the Acoustikats, and I expect that they will be eliminated sooner rather than later.  However, Amazed and Blurred Lines were two of the best performances in the show to date, and they were of completely different styles.  With great leads, energy, and really creative arrangements, they should do well.

I know that Home Free and Ten have a lot of fans out there, so these rankings are likely to rankle.  And yes, I believe that Ten will outlast Vocal Rush in the competition, and that Home Free will probably outlast the Acoustikats.  However, that’s just because it’s a TV show; I think that the rankings I have above best reflect the proficiency, excitement, and enjoyment of these groups thus far.

After Streetcorner Renaissance was eliminated, Ben Folds wrote this on his facebook page:

They have a healthy competitive streak which keeps you on your game, but hunger renders you nearly unreasonable and incentivizes you to take ill advised risks. The kinds of risks that land you in the bottom one second and holding up the cup the next. You might swing and miss, but you gotta swing to win. 

When we evaluate these groups, there’s a lot to keep in mind – just one of these is weighing their performance thus far versus their potential.  Another is weighing the quality and innovation of the arrangements versus the quality of the voices themselves and the ability of the group as a whole to do things with them.  We are now at the stage where the remaining groups do not have obvious flaws – these were the six best groups out of the gate in Episode 1.

It will be very interesting to see how the rest of the season plays out.  From where I sit, I believe it’s time for Ten to put it all together and have their first great performance — not a good performance which was hidden by a phenomenal solo in their wheelhouse.

*                    *                    *

Brian Mangan is an attorney in New York City.  I’ll use this space to explain my background in a cappella, as well as reveal any potential bias I might have in the show.  I went to Marist College, and while I was there I was a member of the all-male group there called Time Check.  In my junior and senior years I was the business manager and director of the group as well.  I graduated in 2005, but I couldn’t kick the a cappella habit after school ended, and joined a co-ed group in New York City called City Blend.  After law school, I formed another all-male group with friends from college before finally settling into my most recent project, a co-ed group which I founded and manage called The Callbacks.  All in all, I’ve been singing and directing a cappella for about eight of the last twelve years.  In that time I’ve performed with big groups and small groups; co-ed groups and all-male groups; college groups and adult groups; and have performed in big venues and small, have arranged, and have directed.  I’m not saying this to say that I’m any big shot musically, because I’m not (I have only a minor in music and very little theory experience) but I have a diversity of experience which I believe helps make my insight into these groups somewhat useful.  So there you have it as far as where I’m coming from: I prefer high-energy, all-male collegiate sound, but my favorite group is Pentatonix.  I love a good ballad but can hold my own with hip-hop.  Now, let’s talk music.

*                    *                    *

Don’t believe me about Committed already having elevated their game?  This performance is their third and is, in my opinion, one of their worst performances: