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The Sing-Off Season Four Premiere Recap: All In

THE SING OFF

It was only a matter of time. Thanks to the surprise success of Pitch Perfect, a cappella groups are suddenly more popular socially acceptable tolerated than ever before, Macklemore’s commercial breakthrough has diminished our collective skepticism toward the concept of white people beat-boxing, and savvy online retailer bonobos.com has brought reasonably priced, brightly colored trousers to the masses. The stage could not be more perfectly set for the return of NBC’s The Sing-Off, surely the most breezily enjoyable of the Idol-come-latelies. By taking itself a tiny bit less seriously than its competitors, and by managing its hopefuls’ expectations — nobody is trying to convince anyone that a college a cappella group is going to be the next Mariah Carey — The Sing-Off has managed to do what almost no singing competition can do these days: put a winner on the charts. Right now, season-three winners Pentatonix’s Christmas album is in the iTunes top ten. A cappella may not be a glamorous genre, but in 2013, it’s possible that we’ve taken glamour as far as it will go.

Returning is the show’s host, Nick Lachey, with the medium-market sportscaster energy that is his calling card. Also back: judges Shawn Stockman (from Boyz II Men, who recently toured with Backstreet Boys and New Kids on the Block, and I will take that tour memoir whenever it’s ready, thanks) and Ben Folds (whose 1995 debut album I listened to so much that my roommates actually had to hide it from me, and who I am just glad is on television in some capacity). And taking over that ever-important, middle-of-judges'-table-cutie-pie seat is Jewel, who tells us how excited she is to “introduce [her] snaggletooth to America,” so that’s out there. She’s taking over for Sara Bareilles, whom I’d like to congratulate on her surprise Album of the Year Grammy nomination, and who I hope is too busy dangling Katy Perry off a hotel balcony by her ankles and shaking “Roar” royalties out of her pockets. Winner gets $100,000 (potentially split fifteen ways) and a Sony recording contract, which these days sounds more like a liability than an asset (Pentatonix did put themselves on the map via YouTube, after all). It’s a very relaxed affair.

Let’s do this.

Hey, have you guys wondered what the songs of fun. would sound like if the band were more convinced of their own charm? Well, The Sing-Off has got you covered; we open the show with a “Some Nights/We Are Young/Carry On” medley that is Broadway in the best way. I like a singing competition show that starts in medias res; there’s no time for auditions in a seven-episode season, so we start with the best of the best. What a relief.

First up is the youngest group of the bunch, Oakland high schoolers Vocal Rush. Though she is not their lead singer, and though she does not distinguish herself in their take on Delta Rae’s “Bottom of the River,” I must single out De’Zhanice Kirtdoll for having the best name I’ve ever heard. I’m asking Santa for a Kirt doll this Christmas. Their performance incorporates elements of step, Jewel praises them for evoking Nina Simone’s “Sinner Man,” and Ben acknowledges their vocal percussionists’ bi-labial plosives. I am comfortable with all of this being on prime-time network television.

Home Free is from Arkansas, and they are pure country. The producers literally introduce them from behind stalks of corn, like they’re on Hee-Haw. Home Free does Florida Georgia Line’s “Cruise,” because it is 2013 and it is required by federal statute. It’s country with showtune faces. They’re led by Austin Brown, a Jonathan Groff type who will be poached from this band and put in a touring Rock of Ages–style country jukebox show by January 1. The judges single out the bass, who also ably takes on Nelly’s rap verse. I find it weird, and I mean that positively.

The Princeton Footnotes are the real life Dalton Warblers of the competition, right down to the piping on the blazers. Their version of Taylor Swift’s “I Knew You Were Trouble” is exactly what you expect from a show like this: It’s energetic bordering on chaotic bordering on irritating. They’re basically a holiday Gap ad in matching Cole Haan LunarGrands. No one singer stands out, which I suppose is the point.

Bringing some Puerto Rican flavor to the proceedings is Calle Sol, from actual Puerto Rico. And while they bring a high level of energy to Rihanna’s “Pon de Replay,” there aren’t a whole lot of levels to that energy. At this stage, they have to do a lot more to stand out; again, nobody’s really bad in this competition, so competence can only take you so far. The judges love it. The judges aren’t doing much judging.

I love a singing competition with some old people. And none of this X Factor so-and-so-is-24-so-this-is-her-last-chance bullshit. I want some AARP eligibles. And I get them in L.A.’s Street Corner Renaissance. They’re more a doo-wop vocal group than an a cappella group, and that alone sets them apart. Smartly, they do One Direction’s “What Makes You Beautiful” and give the song a little depth; suddenly you can imagine this song being sung to a woman whose looks are actually fading. Ladies and gentlemen, we have our sentimental favorites.

This season’s Shocking Twist is that the bottom two groups will face each other in the Ultimate Sing-Off, kind of a real-life Pitch Perfect Riff-Off. But it’s actually not really the bottom two, it’s the bottom one from each of the show’s two halves. It doesn’t seem quite fair, but again, the stakes are low. The judges choose the Princeton Footnotes out of the first five groups.

Kicking off the show’s second half and also putting in their first ever live performance is Dallas, Texas’s Ten. Lead singer Peaches prayed for a sign to keep singing, then immediately heard about the return of The Sing-Off, so she whipped this group together. And by God, you wouldn’t know it; their harmonies on “Tell Me Something Good” are tight, their stage show is engaging, and their pants are metallic, but I am willing to overlook it. Also, one of them looks like a deflated Ruben Studdard.

Element are the Barden Belles of The Sing-Off, except they’re all Anna Camp. Their version of Ellie Goulding’s “Burn” is super sterile and immediately forgettable. But Jewel tells us that women only have two octaves in their chest voice, so female singers are forced to do more with less. This is information that is actually good to know.

As their regular gig, VoicePlay perform at Universal Studios in Orlando, so they are irritating at the professional level. Their choice of Pitbull’s “Feel This Moment” is unwise, as there’s not much song to that song, just a dial-a-beat and Christina Aguilera yelling at you. It’s as gimmicky as you would expect a theme-park a cappella group’s version of a mall-EDM song to be, and everything I went into The Sing-Off worried about. One bright spot comes from a sign held up by an audience member, one that was surely made by a production assistant in a great big hurry. It says, simply: “VOICEPLAY FAN.” Period and everything. Delicious.

Filharmonic are from Los Angeles, and they are all adorable teenage Filipino boys with tight harmonies and a clear knowledge of their own charm. They’re not the most memorable, but their teen-idol bearing will take them far.

The University of Kentucky brings us their a cappella fraternity the AcoUstiKats, who are like the Princeton group but with some state-school energy. It’s hard not to root for them, even though they sing “Blurred Lines,” the feel-raped hit of 2013. They crush it with some interesting vocal choices, some simple choreography, and better sport coats. The judges go wild! Rather, the judges stay wild! Jewel and Nick engage in this witty banter:

Jewel: After that, I need an acoustishower!
Nick: Well, we gotta take an acousticommercial in a little bit!
Jewel:
Oh my heck.

(Listen, people, it’s better than Seacrest and Cowell managed in nine seasons.)

Element and VoicePlay are the bottom two from the second half, and Element survives, robbing us of the real-life Belles vs. Treblemakers Riff-Off America craves. VoicePlay must face Princeton! Theme-park entertainers vs. America’s educational elites! Pick a winner!

So here’s how the Ultimate Sing-Off works: both of the bottom teams take on the same song at the same time, trading lines in a way that is supposed to look unrehearsed but absolutely cannot be. And then when a team is not singing, they’re supposed to give stank-face or pretend to be preschoolers taking a nap. They should have gone all the way and done this in an empty pool. The song this week is N’Sync’s “Bye Bye Bye,” and the Footnotes dominate it, though that may have something to do with there being twice as many of them. Ultimately, though, Ben says only one group showed the potential to grow over the course of the competition, and that’s VoicePlay. Good-bye, Princeton Footnotes! Right now, a writer for the Daily Caller is throwing together a post about reverse classism.

Low stakes! Innovative takes on popular songs! Only seven episodes! Singing competitions of America, take a cue from The Sing-Off! I’m sold. The next episode’s theme is “Party Anthems,” so pull out a bottle of something nice and join me tomorrow.

Photo: Tyler Golden/NBC