Friday, November 25, 2011

Cover-versies: The Sing Off...Get One Coffin Ready?

There's nothing official yet, but word is that The Sing Off, the NBC a capella singing competition that's wrapping up its third year this Monday, may be cancelled.

The reason given is the disappointing ratings for this season. Of course, if you put your modest little show directly up against the gaudier, shoutier and more heavily publicized by the media Dancing With The Stars, and also against the gaudier, shoutier start up competition The X Factor, which had former American Idol judges as well as one of your former judges...well, don't be surprised if your ratings dip quite a bit. That being said, I am going to miss it, for it will mark the end of seeing the a capella tradition in America being represented in a nationally available way.

I fell in love with the collegiate a capella tradition purely by accident. I was searching for cover versions of, I think , Sheryl Crow songs on the file sharing service I was using back when file sharing services were still questionable-but-perfectly-legal and stumbled across UPenn Off The Beat's stunning version of 'Anything But Down'. Now I had a vague idea of a capella pop music before--I had a brief doo-wop phase fed by WCBS when I was a teenager--but this discovery opened my ears to the whole American collegiate a capella tradition, where schools all over the country had a capella group devoted to creating all vocal arrangements of pop songs. I downloaded a slew of Off The Beat songs in the day following, and then started seeking out and downloading songs from other a capella groups. It remains one of my favorite cover genres because so many of these groups manage to do the uncanny trick of making the songs both familiar but alien, recognizable but somehow strange and new.

So you can imagine my excitement when The Sing Off was announced, an excitement that was amplified when I learned that Ben Folds was going to be one of the judges. Besides being one of my favorite musicians, Folds is a long standing aficionado of collegiate a capella--the man even got his label to finance an album where acapella groups covered his songs.

And the show itself did not disappoint. The Sing Off is my favorite singing competition--not just because I love the genre, but because Folds and his fellow judge Shawn Stockman (formerly of Boys II Men) were actively smart. Unlike many other judges who tend to play down to an audience that they think are stupid, Folds and Stockman are unafraid to explain to you why something works or doesn't work for them, and while their talk of blends and harmonics and beat boxing might confuse many people, anyone who listens can pick up the theories of a capella pretty quickly and understand what they're trying to get at. I wasn't so thrilled with female judge Nicole Scherzinger in the first two seasons, who seemed to be up there primarily because they wanted a hot chick, but for this third season swapped her out for Sara Barellis, who had enough of a background in a capella that you understood why she was there. Folds and Stockman are so knowledgable about music that I would pay good money to see an American version of Later With Jools Holland, with the duo interviewing and jamming with musicians; it'd be fascinating viewing.

There are a couple of things that seem to have dictated Season Three's drop-off. For one, there's the aforementioned crossfire it suffered from being scheduled to compete with both Dancing with The Stars and The X Factor. The previous two seasons were broadcast in December, when most shows are on their holiday hiatus and it wasn't fighting for attention with any big ticket competition shows. The second is that since last year, NBC got a surprise hit in The Voice, a more conventional singing competition with greater star power in Christina Aguilera, Cee-Lo Green and others. That show is where the bulk of NBC's attention is at now, to the point where I wonder if the only purpose the network had for broadcasting this season is so they can show adverts for The Voice down our throats.

Which is a pity, because there has been some great acts this season. The Sing Off has always been conscious about including all aspects of the American a capella tradition, and this season included a spiritual group (Messiah's Men from Milwaukee via Nigeria), a family act, several collegiate groups, a jazz scat group, a professional group that performed daily in Bramford, and a senior doo wop group  called North Shore that, in the biggest surprise of all, produced what ranks one of the the highlights of this season, a stunningly good rendition of Bruno Mars' "Lazy Song."

Did you watch that? To me, those five guys managed to tap into what made the song great while making it thoroughly unique to themselves. And that, to me, is at the core of what makes a capella great.

Okay, there were a couple of acts that really didn't feel like they belonged beyond the first round including two 'super groups,' Kinfolk 9 and Delilah, who were composed of losers from previous seasons. Kinfolk 9 bugged me tremendously because it was obvious they were all about their lead vocalist, and Delilah....Delilah was an all girl group that started out with this massively powerful version of Bruno Mars' 'Grenade'...

....and then seemed to be gambling on their uniqueness as an a capella group composed of hot girls to carry them through to the finals. And the scary thing is that, through rounds of lackluster performance, it looked like they'd succeed; I was beginning to have nightmares of Delilah facing off against Urban Method in the finals.


These guys...

And I'll be honest with you...Urban Method is good, with some really great lead vocalists...but I can't get past the fact that they're more about their 'rapcapella' gimmick than anything else. It doesn't surprise me that this Denver, Colorado unit is in the finals, but I don't see why they think they need this, as their gimmick could net them a recording contract right now. Don't be surprised if you see them with a contract even if they don't win.

The most frustrating thing is that even though the show celebrates the collegiate a capella traditions, collegiate a capella groups tend to drop off very quickly. I was very heartened this season to see three of these groups go to the semis, including Afro Blue from Howard University, who utilized jazz vocal traditions to great effect, like in this medley of Janet Jackson songs...

I understand why they didn't make the finals, as some of their performances were maddeningly uneven. But I was sorry to see them and Brigham Young's energetic and fun Vocal Point go...both groups brought something unique and compelling to the competition. If this is the last season, I do want to see a collegiate a capella group, who for long stretches carried the vocal tradition on their backs, take it. Luckily, the collegiate group represented in the finals are these guys...

The Dartmouth Aires. My God, listen to Michael's voice! These guys have so much energy, so much power, so much creativity that I actually believe they could take it....unfortunately, they're up against....

Pentatonix, who is looking to be the team to run away with it. And it's quite deserved. At first I really didn't appreciate their whole 'vocal-only-dance-music' schtick...and then they started putting in these amazing performances for the phases in the competition outside their comfort zone, and I became sold. They really do these things vocally to simulate scratching and other production effects that floored me sometimes, and their energy is infectious. And when you think they've done everything, they do something like mash up Cee-Lo and Kelly Clarkson into what amounts to a little mini-musical...

I really want the Aires to win, but I would be lying if I said I wasn't rooting just a little bit for these kids as well.

(and yes...for those of you who followed my Facebook comments on the show--the little latin girl is the infamous Kirstie Maldondo, whose crooked sideways smile I have been crushing on all season.  But it's not because of her that I sing this group's praises).

I sincerely hope that NBC continues to air the series--maybe if it moved the show back to its December berth, it will cope a bit better--but if this is its last season, I will mourn it. It's the only singing competition I watch from beginning to end, and it would be a shame for a proud American tradition to go unrepresented in the wide world of television.  You can still watch episodes on Hulu, and can still vote until Sunday for the final three...

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