Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Jewel proves her prowess as a professor of a cappella

Jewel adds her knowledge base to this Season's Sing-Off panel of judges

This new Season 4 of The Sing-Off a cappella singing competition show has rushed by so quickly, I haven't had an opportunity to give the judges props, especially new judge, Jewel, who replaced hit singer-songwriter Sara Bareilles who stepped down from the role of judge in order to promote her new album. 

The seven episode show, which debuted on December 9, 2013, and has aired three times each week, has only three more episodes left to air: tonight, tomorrow, and a finale on Monday. Now over halfway through, it's gone by far too quickly, in my opinion, and I'm sad that by this time next week, we'll be back to singing Christmas carols and listening to the same old tired musak that's filling up most of network televisions' airwaves this time of year. 

This past Episode 4, which aired on Monday, December 16 at 10 p.m., was an hour long show which featured four of the seven remaining competitors: Home Free, VoicePlay, Element, and Vocal Rush. 

The show has been judged by Ben Folds and Shawn Stockman, and hosted by Nick Lachey over its course of four seasons and has seen its ups and downs in ratings. The third judgeship role has been filled by Nicole Scherzinger in Seasons 1 and 2, Sara Bareilles in Season 3, and now Jewel in Season 4. 

I think many of us wondered how on earth the beautifully voiced Jewel would fare. A four-time Grammy Award nominee and platinum album seller, she has made her mark singing soulful emotional ballads, the equivalent of the chick flick for music. 

I must confess, I have been a fan of Jewel's since before most people ever heard of her. I've always admired the interesting texture of her soprano voice, found her songwriting intelligent and heartfelt, and even bought some of her CDs. But, what does she know about a cappella singing? 

Plenty, apparently. 

During the first episode, I was so shocked by her usage of vocal terminology, I almost wondered if Jewel would dethrone the great Professor Ben Folds as academia's premiere expert on singing. Her knowledge of technical terms and acute observations have put her at least on an equal footing. What I was not prepared for is her vast knowledge of music in general, factoids and little gems of trivia about the original recordings of the songs which are featured on this season of the Sing-Off. To put it simply, Jewel is a jewel. 

Though she talks about ten miles a minute, you can learn something from listening to Jewel. This particular episode, while taking notes and transposing her comments, I have defined some of the musical jargon she has tossed out within parentheses to make it easier for those of us at home without dictionaries handy to understand. 

Folds, while no longer throwing out the big words this season 4 (though Lachey did accuse him of being a sesquipedalian) has decided this season to instead come up with odd little non-word sounds to emulate various inanimate objects, such as: a walking bass guitar, a tree, and a refrigerator, to date. As a writer, this has been a challenge attempting to transpose and quote these vocalizations. 

In the meantime, Stockman talks mostly with his hands and vocal expressions. I have also enlisted parentheses to help illustrate these moments when I feel it's important to use a gesture as a quote.

Season 4 Episode 4 Recap – "My Generation"

Home Free
Minneapolis, Minn
5 men
covering "Ring of Fire" by Johnny Cash

As a professional touring a cappella group, Home Free's Rob Lunquist explained that the group lives out of an RV and does about 250 shows a year. That kind of experience shows in their live performances, which are always tight, always harmoniously perfect, and truly entertaining. Their particular rendition of "Ring of Fire" by Johnny Cash was absolutely momentous. 

Tim Foust, started off the night by capturing the audiences' attention by spotlighting his deep rich bass vocals, singing slowly and deliberately:
"Love is a burning thing. 
And it makes a fiery ring."
The key changed as regular lead vocalist Austin Brown took over the next two lines: 
"And bound by wild desire, 
I fell into a ring of fire." 

The first verse took the band a full 32 seconds to deliver, twice the amount of time they would deliver the second verse, and captivated the audience with every single note and syllable. The group is only given about two and a half minutes to perform a song before the judges, and these four lines represented one fifth of their allotted time. 

"You guys opened and you encapsulated something about the song which is sad, and it was perfectly executed," said Folds.

"You know, June actually wrote this song when she met Johnny, and she was still married, which gives it a lot of heart and a lot of feel, of like, you're sinning. So that poignancy was really brought out by that beginning," noted Jewel, speaking of June Carter Cash.

The group then upped the tempo and launched into a full group chorus, of "I fell into a burning ring of fire," complete with voice emulated drums and bass. Each verse which followed was up tempo and bouncy, what Stockman termed as a "reggae dance hall beat." 

"I would have never thought of anything like that, but it worked. Like, it absolutely worked," said Stockman.

The song featured bassist Tim Foust on lead vocals. With each incredible note he delivered, it was apparent that we were watching a star perform. His control of his own four-octave range is incredible, reaching up into falsetto F#3 during one emotional verse, then back down to end the song in a fog horn like depth of a low F#0, that Judge Jewel noted to be over three octaves apart. 

Lachey marveled at the feat, "Shoot the floor! Have you ever heard anybody sing that low before? I don't know if I've ever heard anyone hit a note that low."

Folds thought the arrangement was awesome, "Tim, you went from being an instrument this time to being human. And it was so great… it was because before you've been … like the singing refrigerator guy, 'wom om bu om bu,' but this time, like the tree, like the wise tree. Maybe a wise tree is a better, you know? …And then, the end, with that massive heavy low note. it's just a great way to leave everyone going, holy carp,* what was that?" 

"That was sick," said Stockman.

Their performance nearly insures them in one of the four coveted spots in the finals, assuming they can continue at this level.

Orlando, FL
6 men and women
covering "Don't Speak" by No Doubt

If anyone asked me, "who is the Pentatonix of Season 4," I'd have to say VoicePlay. Their three part harmony, bass, and drums, with a lead female vocal has made them the act that no one saw coming, especially after a rocky start this season. However, even Pentatonix was in the bottom at one point, but faced with the threat of elimination, pulled themselves up and kept going, and that's what VoicePlay has also done. And done well, I must say, as they performed an interesting version of "Don't Speak" by No Doubt.

After getting the assignment, band member Earl Elkins voiced concern, "We don't normally do emotional songs. We're not really a ballad style group, which it's gonna be difficult." The five-man backing group usually performs upbeat pop songs to tourists around the Orlando area, and added in their friend Honey LaRochelle for standout leads during the Sing-Off competition.

Judge Folds, who mentored the four groups this episode, suggested that they "put the song first in this one. I think you guys are at your best when you're really focused to the song, and then you can just tell the story," said Folds. "You're unique anyway… The things that you already are, are going to do their own work… Kick its ass."

The group started the song out with a delicate intertwining of high harmonies backed up by a light rhythm section, then came together perfectly as a group, each solidly hitting their marks. The highlight of the performance was an interesting Middle Eastern sounding solo, by Eli Jacobson, not an easy feat.

"That was amazing, just from the beginning," said Stockman. "It's really right now about arranging, and you guys showed a different side to yourselves that we haven't seen before. The way that Honey and Layne (Stein), how you guys just started the whole thing off. Everybody was like (mouth open in gawked amazement), It was like, you had us!"

Folds complimented them for their wise arrangement for this particular song, "All the things you started with that were sort of your liability,… the way that you would jump from one thing to another so quickly, kept us from knowing who you were. That time, you used all those dynamics to say something and it was really awesome."

Jewel broke down the song piece by piece, illustrating how the groups' changes made the song work, "You guys did that great and you used a lot of dynamic (variation and gradation in the volume) to help serve that point, starting in pianissimo (very softly), and then building, and you know you're crescendoing (gradually and steadily increasing) into forte (a loud forceful tone) and then into fortissimo (a very loud tone), really getting big, and then dropping back down, using the real sensitive vocal breakdown that you did out of the bridge was really beautiful. You guys did a great job considering a lot of different dynamics."    

"That was emotional," summed up Stockman.

New York, NY
10 women
covering "You Keep Me Hangin' On" by the Supremes

One of the difficulties with a large group, and especially an all-female group, is arranging a song in such a way that the lead vocal can be easily distinguished. Element was able to achieve this task by trading off lead vocals amongst their very talented pool of vocalists after listening to some sage advice by mentor Judge Folds, "Who ever's singing needs a clear space to sing. If you have other singers in your range backing you up, they're not backing you up anymore, they're getting in your way," he explained. "It could be one person singing and everyone else could be Shh Shh whispering."

Their cover of the Supremes, "You Keep Me Hangin' On," was a personal one, "That song's really about female empowerment, and I can see why you guys chose it. I know that's really a mission for you guys and I think we definitely felt that. There's a lot of sincerity in the lead vocal," noted Jewel. 

However, the groups' rendition seemed a bit too nice. Folds suggested that they dig deeper, "You have such kind faces," said Folds, "Julie (Manjula Raman), you almost got pissed, like, you almost summoned a little bit of anger. Go ahead and drive it home and get pissed about it. It's okay."

Despite their efforts, they were unable to impress the judges enough to survive this round and were sent home. "I liked what you guys did. I just felt like there were moments where some of the harmonies were kinda muddy. They were a little unglued, which made it for me, not as dramatic as it could have been," explained Stockman, "It just felt like one movement and it just wasn't enough change for me in the midst of that record."

Vocal Rush
Oakland School for the Arts high school in Oakland, CA
12 young men and women
covering "Holding Out for a Hero" by Bonnie Tyler

Once again, the talented kids of Oakland School for the Arts Vocal Rush impressed us, this time with their amazing rendition of "Holding out for a Hero," by Bonnie Tyler. Noting their handicap, mentor Judge Folds suggested during rehearsals, "It's down to technique right now, because what you don't have going for you is …15 years on the stage or touring constantly together, so make sure that your T's are dotted and your eyes are crossed."

What I enjoyed most about watching Vocal Rush perform is the wide range of vocal talent: For this song, the group featured its deep rhythm section and strong lead vocals, something that you wouldn't expect from high schoolers. Add to that their multi-ranged harmonies and impressive dance moves, and you have a recipe for success.

"The fact that you're young and you have no fear, ya'll just go for it. Ya'll give your one hundred percent… every time you perform, and that's what's so great about you guys, and not only that, to be the youngest crew in this whole thing, you guys are so musically intelligent," praised Stockman.

"The bass and drums. You guys really really held it down this time in a way that you hadn't before," said Folds, "The double chorus at the end, was like you just about hit your limit, but when you ended it and you landed the plane, it was awesome. and I can't tell you how much I like watching you sing. And, It's just an inspiration. When I was your age, I was an idiot," joked Folds.

"I think you guys make this sound cool. I loved the rap. I thought that was really great. It took me by surprise. I didn't expect that," said Jewel, "And again, there's so many single voices, but you guys sound so warm and so rich, your tones are just beautiful, and they're blending beautifully. 

The group was given homework on ways to improve, "If there was one tiny chink that is in your armor, it's that your youthful exuberance can also just be a slight achilles heel, because you do get a little bit excited, and sometimes it just gets a little bit fast. You just get ahead of that tempo a tiny bit, and that's probably the only chink that I can find," noted Jewel.

"It fell apart just a little bit, but you picked yourselves back up. It's nothing else I can say except, awesome," said Stockman. 

* the word carp is implied. the actual expletive was bleeped out. 

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