Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Sing Off Season 4 raises a cappella to a new high

Vocal Rush, a high school a cappella group from the Oakland School for the Arts, opened the show. 

Debuting it's Season 4 opener last night, the Sing-Off singing competition show brought a cappella to a new high. The show aired Monday December 9, 2013 from 9 p.m. to 11 p.m. on NBC following the Voice semi-finals.

The groups seem to have gotten better — much better, in fact. 

The Sing-Off show took a one year break in 2012 when it was not renewed for Season 4 due to low ratings in a slot-challenged full season 3 in 2011. However, the show was never officially cancelled, and fans rallied for a return of the show, if not on NBC, then on another network. While producers Mark Burnett and Sony were working out the details for a come back, a cappella took off.

Versions of the Sing-Off franchise were launched in China, the Netherlands, and France. The winner of Season 3, Pentatonix, began making giant leaps and strides furthering the music genre front and center into the mainstream by charting their debut CD, PTX Vol II in the top ten on the Billboard 200. The hit musical drama television show Glee continued to be a hit show. And the movie Pitch Perfect, a musical comedy about an all-girl collegiate cappella group, peeked at number 3 at the box office. 

It was a very good year for a cappella.

NBC, smartly re-upped for Season 4 and the Sing-Off was back, one year later in 2013, but much much stronger.

Now, the competing a cappella acts are not just good, and are no longer just a novelty. During the one year hiatus of the show, a cappella performance groups have become forces to be reckoned with. Gone are the amateurs who assembled just to fill a slot on a bracket. We are now seeing primarily professional touring groups dominate the list of entrants, such as Home Free from Minneapolis and Street Corner Renaissance from L.A. Though college a cappella is still a large part of the foundation for learning the craft, only two of the ten competitors hail from college campuses: The Princeton Footnotes and the University of Kentucky acoUstiKats. 

Continuing to host the show was the forever charming Nick Lachey, and returning to judge the acts were the debonair Shawn Stockman and the brilliant Professor Ben Folds. Newcomer Jewel proved herself to be a cappella-worthy as she filled the judge vacancy left by Sara Bareilles with uniquely insightful observations. 

I really enjoyed the Season 4 debut show. Here is a recap:

Vocal Rush
Oakland School for the Arts high school in Oakland, CA
12 young men and women
covering "Bottom of the River" by Delta Rae

As I listened to Vocal Rush launch into a cover of "Bottom of the River" by Delta Rae, the beautiful mix of harmonies covered me like maple syrup, deliciously rich and authentic. Their music moved to a driving bass beat. And their leads were incredibly powerful, soaring high above the vocal wall of sound they had created. 

"I can tell that you probably listen to some great singers," noted Jewel, who said that the feel of the lead vocals reminded her of Nina Simone's Sinnerman. "It had that sort of righteous anger. And righteous anger for youth is important. I think our youth has to embody that. That's how change comes about." 

It was my favorite performance of the night. Their arrangement and choreography was sophisticated and professional. Their execution was technically perfect. 

And no wonder. Vocal Rush recently won first place in the Varsity Vocals International Championship of High School A Cappella held in New York City this past April. One of their lead singers, Sarah Vela, won the Best HS Soloist CARA award. I watched several of their videos on youtube, and despite the fact that the student roll rotates from year to year, Vocal Rush continues to be consistently exceptional in the high quality of their performances. Their success can be credited to their mentor and director Lisa Forkish and to the creative fostering of their school, the Oakland School for the Arts.

Host Nick Lachey said it best: "I've got to remind everyone watching at home, there is no band up here. Everything you're hearing is from these voices right here on stage. High school voices, I might add."

Stockman said, "You guys are the youngest group in the competition, yet you guys have a certain maturity."

Home Free
Minneapolis, Minn
5 men
cover of "Cruise" by Florida-Georgia Line

I'm not used to hearing country music performed as a cappella. When Home Free launched into rapping during "Cruise" by Florida-Georgia Line, I laughed my caboose off. It was funny and silly and entertaining all at once, yet still retained that pure country feel. 

Home Free's vocals are solid, complete, and well-rounded, with "tight great harmonies" that lock in well, noted Jewel. Both Folds and Stockman took special note of the true bass vocalist, a rare range, since most bass singers in a cappella groups are baritones attempting to sing lower. "You have a natural freakish sound with that bass," noted Stockman. 

The Princeton Footnotes
Princeton University in Princeton, NJ
13 men
cover of "Trouble" by Taylor Swift

A really dapper group of gentlemen with cleverly donned plaid bow ties, The Princeton Footnotes produced a solid harmonic rendition of Taylor Swift's hit song, "Trouble."  Judge Stockman noted their talent: "I'm going to shout out to the unsung heroes in your crew: the tenors and the baritones. You guys are the ones that can either make or break those harmonies. If you guys are off, then the whole thing is off. And you guys managed to stay on through this whole performance." 

Unfortunately, the Princeton Footnotes were sent home at the end of the show. Though the lead did deliver, he was virtually drowned out at times, something which is inevitable in large groups with solid full harmony backups. 

Calle Sol
Aguadilla, Puerto Rico
6 men and women
covering "Pon de Replay" by Rihanna

With the Sing-Off now branching out into other countries such as China, France, and the Netherlands, it is only natural that it would find its way into Latin America. Calle Sol hailing all the way from Puerto Rico has achieved something new by combining salsa with a cappella. Though the first winners of the Sing-Off were Nota, also from Puerto Rico, Calle Sol has infused the full flavor of their culture into their craft. 

Comprised of four women and two men, the group danced and sang their version of "Pon de Replay," by Rihanna, a song asking the DeeJay to put their favorite song on the replay, or "pon," which is a colloquial term short for "put on." The women salsa'd throughout, all whilst singing beautiful song-bird-like harmonies as the two men vocalized a solid bass and drum line throughout most of the song. 

A memorable part of the performance was a vocalized breakdown of Latin percussion. Jewel noted that she could hear a cowbell and woodblock.

Judge Folds noted that the song was "really fun and really unique," but was missing the middle ranges. "You're going to have to come up with some ways to stay full in your sound so that the unshakable party on the top that you have mastered has something beneath it." 

Street Corner Renaissance
Los Angeles, CA
5 men
covering "What Makes You Beautiful," by One Direction

Street Corner Renaissance added some tender loving care to One Direction's "What Makes You Beautiful," to make it feel more like home. They added a drop of bluesy southern comfort, wrapped it in a warm woolen blanket of old school familiarity, and gently tap danced a Cole Porter jazz bass line behind it. 

There's something rich and wonderful about old voices. Over time, vocal cords develop flaws and scars, and these translate into fuller and thicker singing voices, almost like the pops and whistles of a needle on an old vinyl album. It's called character. 

"There's a texture about doo-wop groups of old – the harmonies, the three-part, that'll never grow old, that will always sound good. I don't care what generation you're from," noted Stockman.

Their rendition was surprisingly hip. I felt as if I'd stepped into a time machine and been transported back to Motown in the 1960s. 

Stockman summed it up, "Children take notes. Ya'll talk about swag. This is swag."

Dallas, TX
10 men and women
covering "Tell Me Something Good" by Chaka Khan

You would never know from their stellar performance that the group Ten had only been rehearsing as a group for a few days before competing on the Sing-Off. Comprised of a group of gospel singers who work as backup singers for big names such as Justin Timberlake, Nicki Minaj, and Florence and the Machine, they already have the skills and knowledge to understand their own unique role in how they can contribute to the team. A cappella isn't about one person, it's about teamwork. It's about "Ten."

The group provided that rich, full, thick wall of sound that is so desirable through utilizing their diverse vocal ranges. That's the sound you hear when all of the mechanoreceptors in your ear hair cells are being stimulated at once, from the very lows to the very highs. Your ear muscles will automatically twitch back when you hear a high note, which opens them up so that you can hear better, making the lower frequencies sound even louder. It's an odd phenomenon, and probably something that evolved as a way to better hear the high frequencies of crying babies. When it all comes together, this technique doesn't just open the ears, it opens the heart and soul, stirring compassion.

Jewel said, the first chord "was like a pipe organ at church."

Folds noted that the group made "the speakers in here… suddenly take on a sound we haven't heard out of them, yet."

New York, NY
10 women
covering "Burn" by Ellie Goulding

By far my favorite all-female a cappella group I've ever heard perform in all the years I've been watching the Sing-Off, Element fills in the low end nicely to help round out the sound with thick bass and tight percussion. I was quite impressed with Element's performance of the hip and trendy girl-power song, "Burn," by Ellie Goulding. Folds felt that they employed creative methods to get through the song.

Stockman noted that the only flaw he found was that the song built too quickly: "You started off at a level where once you reached your peak, it wasn't too far from where you started," and told them that they need to "not only know your ceiling, but your floor," in determining where to shift dynamics within the song.

My only small criticism is that the two lead singers used a wee bit too much vibrato in their voices so that when they sang in unison, it magnified the vibrato in an unpleasant way. Their voices were also almost "too pretty," and not raw enough to impart the true meaning and feel of the song. 

Orlando, FL
6 men and women
covering "Feel this Moment" by Pit Bull with Christina Aguilera

The male members of VoicePlay have been performing a cappella for years, both together and also in other groups, working the theme park circuit here in Orlando. I've actually seen some of them perform at Universal. Their years of training and experience were easily apparent in their daring and risky arrangement, which transitioned frequently throughout their rendition of "Feel this Moment" by Pit Bull featuring Christina Aguilera. 

Jewel felt the group employed clever techniques to change up the song, which might have sounded monotonous otherwise. "You chose a dance track and there's not a lot of music there… i thought it gave our ears something interesting every single time it changed every eight bars or so."

Newcomer, lead vocalist Honey adds an entirely new twist to the group.  
Jewel commended the male group for adding her, saying, "When you hear a record, you want to hear that singer be real identifiable and a lot of singers are really generic. They're great singers, but they kinda sound like other singers and you had a lot of style and character."

As my local group, I am a wee bit jaded in favor of seeing VoicePlay go all the way to the finals. My only slight criticism is that Honey's lack of a cappella experience was evident in that she did not stay in the pocket and on beat with the others, so that the overall sound was a wee bit messy. This kind of thing takes years to learn, but I feel they have what it takes with hard work and self-discipline to become a major performing vocal act. 

The Filharmonic
Los Angeles, CA
6 men
covering "Treasure" by Bruno Mars

The Filharmonic can serenade me any time and any place. I love this guy group made up of six men from Los Angeles, many of whom are first generation Filipino Americans. They melted my heart and spirited me away on a magical dream ride over the clouds with their beautifully romantic vocal rendition of "Treasure," by Bruno Mars.

The judges were in agreement. Folds felt the group was, "absolutely fun and entertaining," and held the attention of the audience.

 "You have so much personality," said Jewel. 

Host Nick Lachey pointed out that the Filharmonic reminded him of Stockman's own hit vocal group, Boyz II Men.

Stockman agreed, taking special note of how the Filharmonic didn't lose the groove due to a solid, locked in bass line, "You have the same style we have… We weren't very loud singers. Our harmonies are very smooth ... You captured that."

University of Kentucky College of Fine Arts in Lexington, KY
12 men
covering "Blurred Lines" by Robin Thicke

Where many large a cappella groups fail, the 12 members of acoUstiKats excel. They have somehow learned how to work together as a team, supporting each other, the backup singers taking a backseat to the leads, learning their own individual vocal range parts, and creating one purely entertaining and "fun" vocal experience with clever choreography. 

The judges agreed. Jewel said, "I giggled. I don't think I've giggled that much in years."

Folds said, "That was fun. That was so good… The fun was anchored by some stuff that was going on that was really really right… It wasn't just like sort of irresponsible fun. It was very responsible fun."

Their name acoUstiKats emphasizes the U and the K for the University of Kentucky where they all attend school. Their name alone drew the best quotes of the night from the judges.

Stockmen gave the group a standing ovation and said that Robin Thicke's "Blurred Lines" was one of his favorite records of the year and, "I was afraid it was gonna be a acoUstiKatastrophe…. I had so much fun watching you. It was great. Good job" 

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