Thursday, December 16, 2010

Dispatch from the best a cappella blogger on the web: Ranking all 18 Groups of the Sing-Off

Hey folks, I am super-excited for this piece I wrote a year and a half ago and just posted where I hang out with the extras on set of "How Do You Know":
I just got invited by the DC Film Office to attend the premiere of the James L. Brooks movie but missed it because I was snowed out, but still cool to have a good relationship with the local film office. They've brought a lot of film productions to Washington D.C.

As I previously established in my last post on the Sing-Off, I'd like to think of myself as the best a Capella blogger on the internet.
My qualifications for being the greatest a capella blogger are:
1. A year in the choir in high school through a scheduling glitch.
2. Repeated efforts to join my college's a capella groups because I thought it would make me cool
3. Watching a lot of a cappella on youtube
4. Not being entirely sure whether a cappella has two or one "p"s or whether the "C" is capitalized. I view this as adding a dose of suspense for the reader.

Here is a ranking of rank all 18 groups from the first two seasons. I think this year is an improvement over last year which is why the Season 2 groups rank higher.

1. Committed-Church group from Huntsville, Alabama with a hint of gospel in their stylings
The worst you can say about them is that they're not entirely original in their genre because of similarities to Boys II Men sounded the same as they do. At the same time, no one has sounded like Boys II Men in years and Boys II Men is retired. They kill it in so many ways and damn, those bell tones (seriously, what's a bell tone?).

Committed's six members are some of the most endearingly innocent guys in reality TV. They seem noticeably camera shy (kind of like American Idol's David Archuleta). I also love how when they decided to tackle the Backstreet Boys, and got all excited about the concept of "acting sexy" entirely unaware that they probably already inspire screaming girls across the country.

This group prefers to sing church numbers and have stated reluctance to sing secular songs. This is all the more ironic considering their open number was "This Love." Unless the subject of the song is something metaphorical like biblical knowledge, I'm guessing that Adam Levine's desire to get his fingertips along every inch of the subject of this song is the exact opposite of what's appropriate for church.

2 (tie) Streetcorner Symphony-Professionals from Nashville, TN and Nota-Band of friends from Puerto Rico
Each of these two groups has a distinct identity that I've never seen anywhere else and they both do it incredibly well. Streetcorner Symphony has the easygoing Southern take while Nota infuses their music with Latin beats. Each does their thing incredibly well. Streetcorner is more versatile and has more guys stepping into the lead, while Nota has more guys who can take over vocal percussion to suit their percussion-heavy style.

This is Streetcorner Symphony doing "Hey Soul Sister":

Nota doing "I'm Yours"

4. Voices of Lee-College choir from a Bible School in Cleveland, Tennessee-This 10-person co-ed group  nailed everything they were given. They sang with a very noticeable passion and had a great overall sound. Highlights included a Beatles Medley, Alicia Keys and Natasha Bedingfield.

5. Groove for Thought-Group of music teachers from Seattle
I viewed Groove for Thought, Streetcorner Symphony and Committed as three groups with a distinct style and identity that they mastered. As Shaun said, Groove for Thought could sing anything really well. They might not have been able to rock it out, but they could take a rock song and make it  interesting.

Also worth noting: I'm moderately in love with the female soloist. Usually soloing means sing all you got and she seems to know how much effort to put into each note. She also mimicks trumpet and saxophone sounds with her voice. Here she is on David Bowie's Changes. Discussion Question: Does she smile too much when she sings? (seriously: I have no idea what the proper etiquette for smiling while singing is)

6. Back Beats-A 10-member group recruited by a recent graduate (2010) of the USC's Socal Vocals that consists of other SoCal Vocals, members of USC's Trojan Men, UCLA's Awaken, BYU's Noteworthy and a Los Angeles-based recording artist named Jordan Pharoh. (Annoyingly, these guys can't be categorized very easily into one short sentence)

This group has much in common with the SoCals from last year in that the basic pool of members comes from the SoCal Vocals and the old and new guys all sang together in the same group at one point in time. Check out this juicy scandal here where you see Backbeats and SoCals singing together unbeknownst to the audience who thought Kenton Chen legitimately discovered the Sing-Off while watching TV one day:

This group has improved tremendously over the course of the season. They set the bar at a high level with the arrangements and nailed them. It's also interesting that everyone in that group has been kind of a star within their own a capella groups, but Kenton and others are willing to sacrifice having solos because they've their game plan is to have a metaphorical Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen in Joanna and Cat while everyone else play supporting roles.

This is all the more selfless when one considers that Kenton Chen has just released a CD and one good solo in front of a national television audience could boost his record sales significantly. Kenton soloed in the Love Shack, but it was mostly fun because of the visual performance.

As another show of the Backbeat's deep bench, check out this video of two of the Backbeat singers performing "Water and a Flame:"

7. On the Rocks-University of Oregon all-male a cappella group

Really likable group of guys that improved a lot over the course of the performance. I really sensed that these guys had a fighting spirit to improve and eke out every ounce of talent they had from themselves to keep up with the pros around them. They showcased many sides of themselves throughout: Kyrie was a good arrangement, the Elton John medley had creativity written all over it and Lady Gaga's Bad Romance had mesmerizing choreography. On the minus side, the Rhianna/TI came off as a group of college kids out of their element

Here's On the Rocks performing Bad Romance. This is taken from a performance that became one of the most viral hit on YouTube this past year.

8. Pitch-Slapped-Coed group from the prestigious Berklee College of Music

The group had this theatrical groove and might have over emoted, but they were clearly proficient and fun. You gotta go to YouTube to check them out a little more, but even so, that one number they did was one of my favorites of the night. They could have challened for a spot in the finals if they didn't rub the judges the wrong way in the first episode for whatever reason. Commenters in this youtube video say the lead girl is incredibly hot (I'm personally in the not hot camp). Whether she is or not, I think the taking off the glasses trick is really pulling the wool over their eyes: Don't ignore the fact that she's a good singer.

9. The SoCals-Group of 7 very recent alumns and one current member of the SoCal Vocals-
Odds are this group is entirely non-existent at this point since they didn't win and they are all doing other things.

This group was an all-star group of singers hampered by the fact that they were small and didn't have a deep bench. The male solos were dominated by just one guy and and none of the female soloists stood out. The female soloists were all capable singers but the perception that they weren't stars might have centered around them all rotating too much to the point where I never got to know the personality of any one singer.

They had an identity though (Broadwayesque) and as background singers, the sound/blend was top-notch. They also smiled a lot when they sang like singers do at amusement parks. I have no idea why they just ended up being "The Broadway Group" considering the larger SoCal Vocals aren't known for being Broadway singers but one can see a theatricality to the SoCal Vocals videos.

As I said before, this group is sort of the stepfather of the slightly more successful Backbeats, so go on with the video #6 above to see what these guys are all about.

10. Jerry Lawson and the Talk of the Town-Multi-Grammy-winning recording artist Jerry Lawson backed by a quartet of elderly gentlemen in the doowop style
It did not make much sense to have a famous singer as a comptetitor on the show.
While he is admittedly handicapped by age and can't dance around much, Jerry Lawson already has produced over twenty hit records as the arranger and front man of the Persuasions. This would be like having some top 40 star compete on American Idol. What's the point?

I am not knowledgable about how age affects the vocal chords except for my experiences with my 101-year old grandmother. My grandmother was the bomb when she sang in her high school choir in the 1920's (too bad there was no American Idol or Sing-Off back then). She's labelled within my family as a "singer." We like to hear her sing not because she's bringing down the house with her vocals but rather, because it provides a nostalgic reminder that she was once good. I think that's what Jerry is bringing to the table. He doesn't strike me as great in the moment which makes it unfortunate that he's bumping out other great groups. The "Talk of the Town" part of the equation (the back-up singers) do have a sound that even I can recognize as very tight and fine-tuned.

11. Whiffenpoofs-Collegiate a capella group of senior guys at Yale U.

As I stated previously, the Whiffenpoofs massively alienated me by confirming every stereotype of what Yale students are like in the introductory video, but eventually I came across to their way of thinking.

They aren't really groomed for this and on "Haven't Met You Yet" one of the soloists was really operatic and missing the point of the song, but like On the Rocks, they were willing to give it 100% and do what they could with what they had. I also read an article that said they never had any choreography to their performance before and they were pretty impressive in that sense as well.

If they're truly a group of guys who don't take themselves that seriously and have a sense of perspective, I didn't get that impression from watching. One of the guys really rubbed me the wrong way when he said "he felt so inordinately powerful in a tuxedo."

12. 11th Hour-A Teenage Septet that's Directly Connected to the High School Music's Department-
Really impressed for a group that's just in high school. Their arrangements were great, they had well-defined roles and they had a bubbly enthusiasm.

Like the Backbeats, the group impressed me most with their selflessness. Consider this: Among the three guys, one sings lead, one does bass, one does percussion and the judges knew them all by name and publicly complimented on their performances. The three girls in the group other than Kendall Young, however, are never going to have a solo and no one is going to remember their names. I'm assuming that the musical director would have never given any of those three girls who aren't Kendall a solo if they had gotten farther because as a HS group on the verge of being kicked out they always had the pressure to use their best singer.

If you look at the looks on the faces of the girl back-up singers, however they are just giving it their all and having the time of their lives up there. Ben Folds said in his blog that the synergy and teamwork in this show would be a major human interest angle that would warm people up to this show and that's completely true.

13. Noteworthy-All female group from BYU
The most memorable thing about this group is that the lead singer had a pretty scary-looking mohawk that seemed to defy geometry. Hopefully, you want the audience paying attention to more than the mohawk.

They were capable of delivering different things and they show mastery of the little things like outfits and choreography. With the exception of the Aretha Franklin cover, they had good song selecitons.

Here's the group singing Viva la Vida. The soloist here later joined the Backbeats.

14. Men of Note-Alumni from an award-winning high school group in Cherry Hill, New Jersey.
This group picked a very unoriginal song, but they had pretty solid harmonies. So good, in fact, they are so good that I'm gonna put them ahead of the Beezlebubs.

15. Tufts Beezlebubs-All-male group from Tufts University.
I am probably the biggest source of criticism for the Beezlebubs on the internet considering a) I'm sure they don't get written about a lot and b) everyone else on the planet likes them. Because they are just college kids, I kind of feel awful writing bad things about them.

Honestly, though, I just never had any idea what the big deal about these guys is. Their goofy self-conscious charm is nowhere near as infectious as On the Rocks or Whiffenpoofs. I also hated all their song selections for starters: Magical Mystery Tour is the same phrase repeated over and over again, and I never liked the Who, Sail Away, Flo Rida. Their arranging is a lot of block chords, and I don't think they sounded very innovative. They seem to be the same quality as a million other a capella groups out there. I must be wrong on this because nearly everyone else thinks they're great. Best I can say is that I like their outfits and the lead singer for Sweet Caroline. I did just listen to all of their performances on YouTube to see if they changed with time but they haven't.

16. Maxx Factor-A barbershop quartet of 4 soccer moms
When you talk about Groove for Thought being a one-trick pony, you clearly haven't seen this group that was barbership through and through. It's so much easier to transition from Barbershop to pop than it is to transition from jazz (Groove for Thought) to pop. I never could see Maxx Factor rocking or being edgy in any way.

17. Face-Six guys from Boulder
Really, not a great name. Although I don't think this was in their personalities, they come across as trying too hard to be manly for some reason. I will admit that it's hard to judge groups that well when they only do one song.

18. Solo-Random hodgepodge of people from Omaha.

Wow, Omaha, Nebraska isn't a bunch of corn fields but a very dangerous ghetto if the introductory video to this group is to be believed.

This group is a major rags-to-riches story as they came from a dangerous neighborhood with lots of violence and poverty to form this group. At least two members were homeless for a while before the group came together.

That being said, the group was soloing over each other as if it was like a dueling banjo of the voice. They also didn't seem to understand the concept of vocal percussion either. The mere fact that they made it on national TV hopefully assures that no one on the show will be sleeping on a park bench anytime soon, so good for them!

1 comment:

itskenton said...

Thanks for all the nice things you said about me, the VoCals, and The Backbeats!

Yes, I guess there is "scandal" in the back end of our group - a lot of our friends are auditioning this season, and with 16 groups, you can DEFINITELY expect more scandal lol!!