I know this places me firmly in the demographic group along with cat owners and crocheters, but I enjoyed The Sing Off, NBC's mini summer series last year. Ten a cappella groups of various regions, ages, genres and backgrounds, competing to see who was the most entertaining and least in need of accompaniment. While I disagreed with America's choice (not unlike Seasons 8 and 9 of American Idol and the 2008 US Presidential election), I enjoyed the path we took to get there.
This year there are ten new teams against demonstrating that the only unifying feature is the fact that none of them had to learn an instrument. The teams range in age from the high schoolers Eleventh Hour from Columbus, Ohio, to the members of Jerry Lawson & Talk of the Town from Oakland, CA, who stopped off on their way to the early bird special at IHOP. The progeny of the world's first collegiate a cappella team was there in the starched shirts and white gloves of uber-exclusive Yale's Whiffenpoofs. Competing against them were viral video sensations On the Rocks, from the "lower-SAT scores are welcome" University of Oregon. There were two teams carrying the redemption story, with both the afore-mentioned Lawson and Jeremy Lister of Street Corner Symphony seeking to reclaim past musical glory.
Back behind the judges' table were Ben Folds, Nicole Scherzinger and Shawn Stockman -- all three of whom have more musical knowledge and are better able to articulate their opinions than the last group of judges on American Idol. They split the ten competing teams into groups of five and eliminated one team from each group -- the public need not weigh in at this phase.
The first group had On the Rocks, Eleventh Hour, Groove for Thought, Pitch Slapped and Jerry Lawson et al. I thought On the Rocks had the best overall performance with a repeat of their YouTube sensation -- Lady Gaga's Bad Romance. It was cute, it was kitschy, it was fun. The judges did not love it and they even channeled Randy Jackson by referencing certain pitch problems which I think are besides the point when you have over a dozen dudes pretending to be Monsters.
I also liked the group from the Berklee College of Music (which they called the Ivy League of music schools, causing the Whiffenpoofs to sue for trademark infringement). First, they had the punniest name with Pitch Slapped and they were all ridiculously multi-talented, singing a song my daughter would have loved, Good Girls Go Bad by Cobra Starship. C'mon, points for introducing them to a new audience. Second, they rocked it. Their vocals were spot on, they had energy, they incorporated a lot of variety, and they entertained. Loved them. So, of course, they were the first group eliminated.
Instead, the judges became nearly apoplectic lavishing praise on the oldsters for singing exactly like they would have fifty years ago. They didn't stretch out of their comfort zone or do anything new, but they were really old and made the judges feel better for ignoring granny and putting her in that smelly home. They also inexplicably liked Groove for Thought, comprised of music teachers and one of their daughters (and for the first time the phrase "father-daughter" made me squirm) doing a passable job on an old Stevie Wonder classic. Perhaps they thought they were voting for the song and not the performance?
The second group opened with the nattily attired Whiffenpoofs, a supergroup of seniors culled from the other Yale a cappella groups. They looked stiff and silly, then they broke out with Grace Kelly. Seriously. They were over the top and weird and wonderful. They apparently have perfect pitch, or they're cyborgs, because they sounded amazing, but they were also funny (something I thought Yale beat out of you if you stayed all four years) and entertaining. Huzzah, boys.
If I hadn't already loved the scraggly, relaxed sextet from Nashville, Street Corner Symphony, from their pre-performance video, I would have fallen hard once I heard they were doing Tears for Fears. One of the most underrated bands of the 80s, I'm thrilled any time I have a chance to hear anyone sing their songs (rememberAdam Lambert's version of Mad World? Mesmerizing!). The lead singer of the group had been through the music industry ringer, record and album and watch it die, and this was his last chance at fame. I don't know if this is the show that will give it to him, but he and his group really moved me with their performance of Everybody Wants to Rule the World.
The last group to perform was Committed and with their introduction as a gospel group that is relatively unfamiliar with music out of the god-genre, I was concerned. But they not only chose an unexpectedly ungospel song, This Love by Maroon 5, but they sang the hell out of it (if I can say that without being sent there as punishment). I was far less impressed with the so-called supergroup from Cali, The Backbeats, whose lead singer sounded like an East German speed skater with a mouth full of marbles for much of Beyonce's If I Were A Boy. But they were spared and it was Men of Note, a New Jersey based all men's group, who sped through the Billy Joel song For the Longest Time perhaps realizing how not good it was.
We saw and heard snippets of next week's songs and it looks like the groups will all be stretching themselves more creatively and that should make for a good show. I'm looking most forward to the Street Corner Symphony, the Whiffenpoofs, and Committed which means, with my track record on backing talent show contestants, you should not expect to see any of them in the finals.