The Sing Off Season 4, Episode 6: Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Home Free

By: Brian Mangan

Prior reviews:  Episodes 1 & 2Episode 3Episode 4, and Episode 5

Episode 6: Movie Night

Only four groups remain!

We noted last episode that, rather than distinguish a group or two as the cream of the crop, the groups all put up good performances that served only to bunch them closer together.   The Filharmonic dropped back to the pack, Home Free continued in their own style, Ten finally launched a hit which made them serious contenders, and Vocal Rush came back from a lackluster week to show that their Episode 1 powerhouse was not a fluke.  All the groups here in the final four have definitely earned it.

Before getting into the reviews, one observation.  I, like many people, have been waiting all season for a group to make the leap that Pentatonix took in Season 3 (and Committed took in Season 2) to emerge as a group clearly destined for stardom.  However, after five episodes of competition (before tonight) it appears that none of the remaining groups are poised to do that.

That’s not a bad thing, by any means, since all of these groups are fantastic.  But it does change the way that you evaluate the groups compared to one another.  For instance, at the outset, as I watched the groups I evaluated them on two major things: a) the quality and entertainment of their performances that night and b) my best guess at their ultimate potential, should they be able to “put it all together.”

Now that we are at this stage, I think we have seen, at one point or another, these groups’ best performances.  Now, when I am looking toward the finale and guessing at the eventual winner, my evaluation necessarily turns away from ideas like “potential” and more toward practical concerns like marketability — the group that NBC and Sony will want to win it all for business and other reasons.  Time to stop looking at what they can’t do, and instead, look at what they can do.

I had the chance between last night and today to listen to all of the groups performances from last night again, with headphones.  Often, on a first listen, or on television speakers, there are things that you miss.  Indeed, on a second listen, I noticed that Home Free was a little tighter than I realized, and that Vocal Rush made more mistakes than I realized.  This doesn’t mean I’m switching them in my rankings — Vocal Rush has still been superior in my opinion — but it does make the rankings tighter.  Between that, and the fact that Home Free occupies a large and untapped demographic for a cappella, and you’ve got yourself a formula which might lead one to believe that Home Free may win the whole thing thanks to factors aside from music.

With that said, I finally come to the title of this blog post, “How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Home Free.”  Before Home Free’s third performance, I said this about the group:

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 . . . 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.

Nonetheless, all along, I have insisted that despite the fact that their instruments are wonderful, and they are likeable, that they hadn’t shown me enough to win this competition because I’ve found their arrangements to be boring.  Well – it’s time to stop looking at what they can’t do (and also, really neat to see their beatboxer get some attention in the last episode during the battle with Filharmonic, he had been hiding all competition) and look at what they do offer: a bone-crushing bass, the funny bearded guy, and one of the best lead tenor voices we’ve heard on the Sing Off, ever.

With all that said, I’m looking forward to the performances tonight.   My suspicion is that Ten and Home Free will definitely be in the finale, putting my two favorite remaining groups, the Filharmonics and Vocal Rush, in jeopardy.

Filharmonics – Baby I Need Your Lovin’ – A  (so far, in chronological order: A+, A, A-)

(I am very excited to hear this performance because I think its an incredible song choice for them.  It going to let them put those concerns about “locking” chords to bed once and for all.  Hopefully they reverse their downward trend.)

I loved this performance!  I thought the arrangement was extremely, extremely innovative and I think the choreography was clever and extremely fitting for the song.  They’ve already shown us their ability to bring the party, so it’s nice to see them do a classic and not ruin it by doing the Carlton.  I loved the unexpected changes in the arrangement, and thought it all fit nicely.  I’d listen to this.

The judges are being very critical, and I am really surprised.  These are the kind of judge comments you get right before you get kicked off the show.  I hate to disagree with Ben (first time for everything) but I didn’t hear the rhythm problems.  I also disagree with the panel in that not every single song needs to end with a gigantic climax.  Filharmonic has shown us that already; I like that they demonstrated their range, yet again with this.

If this was Filharmonic’s first performance, I would have thought they were merely very good, not great.  I did hear one stray note from time to time (I think from the same voice, actually).  But they’ve already shown us the party, and the last two weeks have shown us other things.  I am sticking to my guns, I thought it was good.

Ten – Proud Mary – B+ (so far: B+, B+, A)

(This song choice is in their wheelhouse, so I expect big things.  I wish we could hear Ten be challenged on something not their style, but I’m sure they’ll knock this one out of the park)

And we’re back to unimpressive with Ten.  I know people are going to love this performance, but listening to this group and the reviews of them makes me feel like I’m TAKING CRAZY PILLS.  Louder isn’t necessarily better, and a fantastic soloist does not a group make.

Trust me, I know that the leads in Ten are fantastic, just fantastic.  Super compelling, super talented, super passionate about their songs.  But I’m getting very, very little from the band underneath.  The bass just going doot-doot-doot for the whole song?  No choreography at all?  In the interest of fairness, I am not ok with Jewel’s criticism of them as a gospel group given the fact that they chose this song for them — but at the same time, Ben is spot on that, despite the whole wall of sound, that they weren’t taking chances.

Ten is a very successful rock choir.  This is not a criticism.  But this isn’t the type of group, I don’t think, that should win a singing competition like this.  We discussed the “nature” of the Sing Off a couple of days ago when Streetcorner Renaissance got eliminated.  I guess we don’t know, technically, what the Sing Off is looking for aside from an unaccompanied singing group.  But Ten doesn’t fit my criteria.

Home Free – Colder Weather – A (so far: B+, A-, B+)

I think that this song was Home Free’s best performance of the entire competition.  There isn’t much to say about it — it is what it is — but in the light of what we discussed at the introduction of this article, I need to stop worrying about what Home Free hasn’t done and just listen to them.

Their sound is so clean, so smooth, and so pleasant, and then they get into those tight harmonies it sounds unbelievable.  I would have loved to have seen (and would still love to see) Home Free do something a little more interesting, take on a challenging arrangement, do a little more interesting choreography, but they have, at this point, done enough for me to make me believe that they can win this thing.

Vocal Rush – My Songs Know –  A (so far: A, B-, A-)

(The judges picked an extremely difficult song for these kids to do.   I love the song, and have been looking forward to Vocal Rush doing a song written after 1985, but at the same time this is a pretty terrible choice for a cappella – screeching solo line, empty body of the song.  Let’s see what they can do with it).

Oh DAMN these kids knocked it out of the park.  Had I not known what the original song sounded like, I might have been a little less impressed, but the incredible innovation these kids (these amazing young adults) put into the arrangement is off the charts.  They took a difficult song and they made it interesting and compelling.  Their choreography as always was top notch.  The soloist did her best with a bad solo, and the group – well, let’s talk about Vocal Rush’s strength:

There is no group left in this competition, not even Ten, that can compare with the massive wall of sound created by Vocal Rush.  And this should be a lesson to everyone out there who wants to sing, or is currently singing, a cappella: in this art form, you are capable of almost anything.  What Vocal Rush has done with a group that’s not huge, with voices that are so young, and in a group that is almost completely female, is remarkable.

Have you ever heard the judges criticize them for a lack of body?  Did the judges ever bring up the fact that the ladies are shrill in their higher register?  Do they lack that solid mid-range or VP?  The answer to all of those is a resounding NO.  When you check your ego like Vocal Rush does, and make every fiber of your being about the music, you can make sound like this.  And it’s truly a joy to watch.  No co-ed group, no female group, and no small group should ever shy away from a challenge, or be hesitant.  Like I said last time:

Vocal Rush is all about the music, and it is beautiful.  There is no ego in this group, no image, no nothing — they are there to sing. to. you. and. make. you. feel. it.   They don’t care what they look like, they don’t care about anything, and, as has been mentioned before, they are fearless.

As Nick Lachey pointed out in the video package before the performance, nerves can be your friend.   Aside from one-subpar performance, I’ve given Vocal Rush all A-‘s and better.  It’s going to be super-interesting to see what happens next.

Elimination

Ten and Filharmonic should be the bottom two…. and they are.  Let me guess what’s going to happen here:  Filharmonic is going to put forth a better performance than Ten, but get eliminated anyway.

Like I said last time – I hate being right.

I think that both groups were very good in the ultimate sing off, but that the Filharmonic was a little better.  Unfortunately, the bombastic Ten were able to outlast them.  One interesting observation from this eliminator is that this appears to be the first one where the size of the group was a factor in the outcome.

Some speculated at the outset of the show that the elimination format would always favor the larger group – and to a certain extent, those concerns appear to have been founded.  Large groups have done well in the elimination round thus far.   However prior to this particular face-off, I have not seen, to a noticeable degree, an advantage simply in numbers.

In this case, the sound of Ten’s ten loud voices completely overpowered Filharmonic’s six when compared side-by-side.

The next episode is the finale, and I will be sad to bid all of the readers here adieu.  It’s been a fun run – I wish it could have lasted longer.   I hope that those of you who have read this have appreciated my insight and enjoyed reading.

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Brian Mangan is an attorney in New York City.  He sang in and directed the all-male group Time Check at Marist College, and founded and manages the New York City co-ed group The Callbacks.

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