Two years ago, NBC's little show that could, "The Sing-Off," almost didn't. After its third season tanked in the ratings, the a cappella talent competition was canceled, robbing viewers of some truly fantastic singing — and, more tragically, of the wit and wisdom of Ben Folds, the greatest reality TV judge of all time.
But a lot can happen in two years. Ironically, Season 3's winner, Pentatonix, went on to huge success, with their two albums respectively debuting at number 14 and number 10 on the Billboard chart. The sleeper-hit comedy flick Pitch Perfect put a cappella on the pop-culture map. "Sing-Off" fanatics started a grass-roots "Save the 'Sing-Off'" campaign to revive the show. And now, "The Sing-Off" is finally back.
And you know, it's even better than I remember.
Sure, "The Sing-Off" is cheesy enough to be jointly sponsored by Kraft and Velveeta. But beneath that gooey layer of TV cheese, it's probably the most intelligent, highbrow talent show this side of "So You Think You Can Dance." Much of this has to do with the judges, who never talk down to contestants or viewers. Ben Folds phrases his critiques like he's a music theory professor giving a lecture at Berklee. Boyz II Men's Shawn Stockman and new judge Jewel (stepping in for recent Album of the Year Grammy nominee Sara Bareilles) dole out actual advice about actual singing techniques, instead of just tossing off pre-scripted one-liners (like "Idol's" Steven Tyler), telling everyone they're "amazing" and "fabulous" ("The X Factor's" Britney Spears, "Idol's" Mariah Carey, every single "Voice" judge), or being cruel for cruelty's sake (I'm looking at you, Simon Cowell). "The Sing-Off" is genuinely educational! It's edutainment! When people describe this as "family viewing," it's because kids could actually learn a thing or two about music from this show.
So on Monday's big two-hour premiere, 10 very diverse crews competed, and then the bottom two engaged in a suspenseful "Ultimate Sing-Off." (Keep in mind that "Voice" producer Mark Burnett is now at the "Sing-Off" helm, and Burnett loves a good battle.) In the end, the judges, being smart 'n' all, sent the right two crews to battle, and sent the right crew home. Hey, let's have Ben and his cronies judge all singing shows from now on!
Here's a recap of what went down on the premiere of the much-missed "Sing-Off" Season 4:
Vocal Rush – As the youngest and most "Glee"-like team of the season, these Oakland high-schoolers could've been easily outclassed by the older groups, or intimidated by the seasoned judging panel. They weren't. Singing Delta Rae's "Bottom of the River," this sassy, mostly girl-powered crew brought swag to the stage and sounded polished and professional. And that gumboot-stepping/Stomp thing they did towards the end really kicked up the energy in the room. Ben loved their laser-like focus. Shawn was impressed by their maturity and by how lead singer Jordan, a real little star in the making, "sold the song." Jewel told them, "I can tell you listen to some really great singers. That track reminded me of Nina Simone's 'Sinnerman'; it had that sort of righteous anger." What a great start to the season this performance was.
Home Free – Surprisingly, there's never been a country crew on "The Sing-Off," but these good ole boys from Minnesota changed all that. Of all the teams this evening, Home Free was possibly the one with the most commercial appeal. They looked like contemporary "bro country" stars, and their cover of Florida Georgia Line's annoying and inescapable "Cruise" was actually tolerable when they sang it. I didn't even mind the rap this time. "That sounded like a record to me," said Ben. Shawn appreciated their "white man's R&B" and predicted they'd go far in this competition. Jewel, a country singer nowadays and a former "Nashville Star" judge, seemed to be a big fan already, praising their clear tones and tight bluegrass harmonies. I wouldn't be surprised if these guys eventually landed a record deal, even if they don't win this show.
The Princeton Footnotes – Upholding a proud Ivy League tradition dating back to 1959, these khaki-clad preppies represented traditional college-campus a cappella. Sure, they said they were "fun-loving" and claimed they were trying to modernize the genre, but I'd seen groups like this on "The Sing-Off" many times before and didn't think they brought anything new to the competition. They may have sung Taylor Swift's "I Knew You Were Trouble" much better than Taylor ever did (not that that's saying much), but I wasn't excited by this performance. The best part about it was when they serenaded Ben by inserting his name into the song. (And who could blame them? Who doesn't love Ben?) Shawn praised the "unsung heroes" of the crew, the tenors and baritones, but wanted more from the leads. Jewel didn't think the basses locked in tight enough. Ben joked, "I thought there were more opportunities to put my name in it," then more seriously told them, "It came unglued a couple times." The Footnotes seemed destined to become just that in Season 4.
Calle Sol – I think this Puerto Rican Latin-soul group, which featured several sexy dancing ladies, could impress as a regular pop act, or maybe as a cruise ship or Club Med act, with instruments backing them — but as an a cappella group, they fell flat. The vocals were lacking and were compromised by all that choreography. Ben appreciated their uniqueness, but thought they needed to work on making their songs sound fuller. Jewel seemed more impressed by the guys (who were doing much of the vocal heavy lifting) than by the dancing girls. Said Shawn, "The fact that you can do all that dancing and stay on key is a feat, but you guys had a challenge filling up that middle." Personally, Calle Sol's "Pon De Replay" wasn't something I'd replay.
Street Corner Renaissance – This was a quite literally named group: They're all elderly men, doing old-school doo-wop, trying to pursue a deferred dream after a lifetime of working blue-collar jobs and raising their families. I was surprised by how well they transformed One Direction's "What Makes You Beautiful" into a '50s street corner singalong. And they were just adorable. But considering that the last "Sing-Off" winners, the aforementioned Pentatonix, brought something so modern to the a cappella genre, it was hard to imagine a throwback crew like this one winning a record contract and having success in the real world. The judges were all impressed, however — especially Shawn, who proclaimed, "Children, take notes. Y'all talk about swag? This is swag, right here."
Ten – This group consisted entirely of professional backup singers, making me wonder if Mark Burnett had just assembled a bunch of "Voice" auditioners into a prefab group. That conspiracy theory was supported when Ten revealed that they'd barely rehearsed and this would be their first actual public performance. Regardless, their consummate professionalism showed when they stepped on the stage and belted "Tell Me Something Good" like they'd been performing together for years. This was a truly exciting performance, full of groove, funk, soul, and heart; Shawn in particular seemed to be feeling it, hooting and hollering midway through. Shawn did admit, however, that the performance could have been a little more cohesive, and Ben agreed. But Jewel dissented, saying, "I thought your harmonies were tight, especially for a first time." This group has a ton of potential, and they can only get better from here.
Element – This was the only all-girl crew of the season, which put them at a disadvantage since they didn't have a low end to work with. I liked their vibe and energy (and their song choice, Ellie Goulding's "Burn"), so I was hoping that they'd be able to use their creativity to overcome those limitations. I don't think they quite did. Their performance started off slow, and they never really revved up the momentum that this song required. They kept singing they had "fire, fire, fire," but they didn't burn up the stage. Jewel thought they rushed the buildup. Shawn told them, "Vocally, you didn't leave yourself enough room to build the way the song should have." Ben urged them to be more inventive with their female vocal blend. I don't think Element are fully in their element yet.
VoicePlay – These Orlando theme park veterans were tight vocally on their cover of Pitbull's "Feel This Moment," but I found the voice of the group's star female singer, Honey, to be less than sweet. She was shrill, and her voice grated on me from note one. Also, I thought VoicePlay were trying way too hard to be young and colorful and cartoonish, and they ended up just coming across as the poor man's Pentatonix. I was not feeling this moment. Shawn thought it took a while for the song to take off, but loved the percussion. Jewel actually liked Honey, saying she had a lot of character in her voice. Ben liked the harmonies in the chorus, but cautioned, "The midrange sometimes isn't exactly there. When you pass around vocals a lot, you start to lose focus." VoicePlay need to play around with their voices more and figure things out.
The Filharmonic – I'm already predicting that these boys will win Season 4. They have an American-dream backstory (they're first-generation Filipino-Americans, whose parents have sacrificed for them); they traffic in '90s nostalgia (they were raised on boy bands like *NSYNC, Kris Kross, and, yes, Boyz II Men); and they're cute as heck, with charisma for days. Their performance of Bruno Mars's "Treasure" was a hoot. "You have so much personality, and it's really coming through," said Jewel. Ben described them as "absolutely fun and entertaining and grabbing from the first note," though he did say they sometimes got ahead of the beat. Shawn compared their "smooth, not too loud" style to Boyz II Men's. These boyz are going to go far, mark my words.
AcoUstiKats – This Kentucky collegiate crew did not deliver the most solid vocal of the night, but they compensated for that with so much personality, they almost made the Filharmonic seem sedate. Their wacky "Blurred Lines" performance, filled with stripper-style hip-swiveling and goofy falsettos, had me smiling so hard that my face hurt. The judges were cracking up, too. "I was afraid that was going to be an AcoUstiKatastrophe, but that was fun!" said Shawn. "The fun was anchored by some stuff that was very, very right. It was responsible fun," added Ben. "I don't think I've giggled that much in years. That was a lot of gyrating! I've never seen men gyrate their hips that much," laughed Jewel. For pure entertainment value, AcoUstiKats could not be topped tonight.
In the end, the Princeton Footnotes and VoicePlay were selected to battle for a spot in the top nine, facing off on a fitting song choice, *NSYNC's "Bye Bye Bye." Both groups were way better in this vocal duel than they had been in their individual performances: There was fire, there was choreo…there was even some arm-wrestling! I thought the Princeton fellows had the technically stronger vocals, but VoicePlay brought the showmanship and edge, so the judges decided to save them when all was said and done. And thus, the Princeton Footnotes lived up to their name, as they became the first castoffs of the season.
What did you think of "The Sing-Off's" Season 4 premiere? Are you glad the show is back? Let me know in the comments section below.