It’s a Christmas miracle. THE SING-OFF IS BACK! Actually, it has already gone away again. This year, it was only on for one night, as a two-hour holiday special, compared to the eight crazy nights of Seasons 1, 2, and 4 — or the extended fall 2011 run of Season 3, aka the season that begat vocal superstars Pentatonix.
Also, Ben Folds, aka The Best Judge in the History of Reality TV, was sadly missing in action this year, replaced by Fall Out Boy’s Patrick Stump. “They got the other nerdy rock star they could find,” Patrick explained this Wednesday, accepting a welcome gift of horn-rimmed spectacles from returning judge Jewel. Patrick did his best. But the show just wasn’t the same.
But… still… THE SING-OFF IS/WAS BACK! For me, this so-uncool-it’s-cool, Nick Lachey-hosted, a cappella talent show is as much a part of the cheesy holiday season as tacky snowflake sweaters, ABC Family reruns of A Very Brady Christmas, and Grandma getting run over by a reindeer. Plus, on a more serious note, the talent almost always impresses. Hark, the herald angels sing, indeed.
So put on your ugliest Christmas pullover, pour yourself a big ole mug of spiked soy nog, and let the (one-night) celebration begin! Here’s my full recap of Wednesday’s show…
Timothy’s Gift – The singers of Timothy’s Gift are complicated ladies. They’re a little bit country and a little bit rock ‘n’ roll, just like Donny & Marie. They’re sweet Nashville churchgoers, but they perform in maximum-security prisons, and they dress like Coachella hippies. They’re on The Sing-Off, but their signature song is “Ghost” by Ella Henderson, an X Factor U.K. contestant. So, after all that bio info, I expected a much more interesting performance than the one they actually delivered. Yes, girl groups tend to be at a disadvantage on The Sing-Off because of their lack of bass (and you know, with a cappella, it’s all about that bass). But Timothy’s Gift’s additional lack of percussion made their song sound especially thin to me. However, the judges mostly liked this. Jewel said the absence of percussion could have been like “showing up to a baseball game without a bat,” but somehow the group’s vocal blend worked. Boyz II Men’s Shawn Stockman, a Sing-Off judge since Season 1, marveled at one money note that “sounded like heaven.” I thought this was nice, but not exactly heavenly.
a.squared – These Yale grads made a big deal about how they utilize computerized looping techniques (via consoles similar to the ones used by singer-songwriters Ed Sheeran, KT Tunstall, and Joseph Arthur onstage) to layer and manipulate their voices. Well, that’s “pretty neat,” as Patrick put it, but this just didn’t seem fair. Isn’t The Sing-Off supposed to be all about singing, with no instrumentation of any kind? I dunno… a DJ station counts as an instrument to me. And besides, Pentatonix do exactly what a.squared do without having to rely on any fancy technology at all. Shawn hyperbolically called a.squared “revolutionaries,” but then he declared himself an “a cappella purist” and rightfully criticized a.squared for depending too much on their “cool machine.” Added Jewel: “A gimmick can be interesting… but emotion makes you memorable.” Oh, snap. Obviously these guys were trying to be “edgy,” but they eschewed tradition too much and strayed too far from this show’s purpose. It’s called The Sing-Off, people, not The Loop-Off or The Computer-Off.
Traces – These sassy NYC church ladies elevated the energy with “River Deep, Mountain High,” but I thought their bass singer, Tamika — who had the deepest voice of any female Sing-Off contestant ever, according to Jewel — totally upstaged her sister, lead vocalist Keesha, who wasn’t quite at a Tina Turner level. However, Shawn loved Keesha (“You could wake up a dead person with that voice,” he told her), and Patrick enjoyed their chemistry, declaring, “You can’t teach what you just did. That was excellent.”
The Exchange – This group, which has toured with the Backstreet Boys, comprises alums from previous Sing-Off groups YellowJackets and Urban Method. And their experience showed. They were the first act of the night that was truly percussive (a must with a stompin’ song like OneRepublic’s “Love Runs Out”), and their egalitarian arrangement showcased everyone’s strengths. “You personified your name,” said Shawn. “Everyone got to shine in such a unique way,” concurred Patrick. The studio audience’s response was noticeably louder here than it was for the previous three groups. The competition only seemed to begin when the Exchange showed up.
SanFran6 – These guys started singing together only a month before going on The Sing-Off, but they were hardly inexperienced in the a cappella world. Their leader, Kevin, a direct descendent of Filipino rock royalty, set out on a mission to assemble a “best of the best” “dream team,” and he pretty much succeeded. Their champion beatboxer, Danny, plucked at his vocal cords like guitar strings to create all sorts of rad effects, and his freestyle was awesome. Their lead singer, Cherilyn, may be a full-time chemist, but perhaps she should quit her day job, because she did an awesome Ariana Grande impression. I liked these kids from the get-go; they were in fact my favorites of the night. To quote Patrick Stump, I was entertained the whole time.
Melodores – These Vanderbilt University chaps declared straight away that they hoped to be the first collegiate group to win The Sing-Off. (Yep, that’s right. No collegiate group had ever won The Sing-Off before.) I dunno… I mean, if Tufts University’s Beelzebubs couldn’t win in Season 1, what chance did Melodores have? They were entertaining and energetic, and Jason Derulo’s “Trumpet” was a fun choice, but this wasn’t anything I hadn’t seen on The Sing-Off before. With all those people onstage (it looked like about a dozen; Shawn jokingly estimated it was closer to “150”), I expected a lot more. The judges loved Melodores, however. Jewel even described one group member, William, as “cuter than kittens on YouTube,” and she likened another guy, James, to Jason Mraz. Did all this high praise have anything to do with one the group’s members having a role in the upcoming Pitch Perfect 2, which will also star Pentatonix? Insert your ringer conspiracy theories here…
So, the three groups moving on to the next round were… the Exchange, Traces, and Melodores. That’s right — no SanFran6 in the mix, despite the raves the judges had just bestowed upon them. (No explanation was offered regarding the panel’s verdict.) I would have totally swapped SanFran6 for Melodores, based on the first-round performances. Maybe it was a good thing that this show was only on one night this year, since I’d been watching for barely an hour and I was already angry. And I could not help but wonder, “WWBFD (What Would Ben Folds Do)?” I think Ben would have saved SanFran6. He’s a total nerd, and he would have felt a strong kinship with that chemist girl.
Traces – This was the “Judges’ Choice” round, so Jewel selected “I’m Every Woman” for these dynamite ladies. (Everyone kept referring to this as a Whitney Houston song, so kudos to another judge, Shawn, for giving Chaka Khan proper credit.) This performance was a blast — a great example of the right song matched to the right singers. These women were really selling the song, with En Vogue-style choreography and plenty of attitude. (“Attitude is everything,” said Shawn.) This was also much groovier and more percussive than their “River Deep.” Patrick called this performance “jaw-dropping.” I thought it was very, very good.
The Exchange – My favorite of the three groups still in the running, the Exchange got the most challenging song assignment of this second round. Shawn, the toughest judge, was not playing when gave them Ed Sheeran’s “Sing,” a lightning-fast spree of syncopated, polysyllabic raps and dog-whistle falsettos. But these totally guys pulled it off and made it look easy-breezy, even ambitiously turning Ed’s rap breakdown into a three-part harmony. “It was fun, it was harmonic, it was on-point,” said Shawn. Yes, the Exchange sang the heck out of “Sing.”
Melodores – I will say that Melodores did a fantastic job with Patrick’s pick, “Take Me to Church” by Hozier. Or, more specifically, the group’s little guy with a big voice, Dan, did a fantastic job with it. This performance was all about Dan. He should just sing lead on every Melodores performance from now on. Overall, though, this song worked for a larger group because of its choral vibe. While Matt McAndrew did a better job with Hozier’s Grammy-nominated hit all by himself on The Voice not too long ago (maybe that’s where Dan got the idea for that dramatic knee-drop?), Melodores’s version was also impressive. “Melodores took us to church! This performance is what I’ve been trying to articulate the whole night,” raved Shawn, foreshadowing the final result in a quite spoiler-y manner.
Melodores won, of course. I suspect the fix was in before any of the groups had warbled a single note, and that the Pitch Perfect 2-affiliated group was destined to win in an act of cross-marketing synergy. I would have given the $50,000 to the Exchange, personally. Not only were they better, but with fewer group members to divvy up the post-income-tax prize money, that 50 grand would’ve gone a lot farther.
All that being said, none of the groups that competed on this extremely truncated fifth “season,” with the exception of maybe SanFran6, came close to the greatness of the aforementioned Pentatonix, or even last year’s winner, Home Free. Need proof of that? Just scroll down for both groups’ guest performances on this Wednesday’s special. That’s Christmas to me!
Anyhoo, see you December 2015, hopefully, for another Sing-Off run — and, even more hopefully, for the triumphant return of Ben Folds, the Pentatonix of singing-show judges. And in the meantime, if you’re interested in catching The Sing-Off Tour with Melodores, the Exchange, Streetcorner Symphony, and VoicePlay, you can get your tickets HERE. Happy holidays!