You guys, I’m going to be honest with you: If you have to sit through an hour-long half-episode of The Sing-Off, the absolute worst time to do it is in between a Dismemberment Plan concert and the discovery that Beyoncé has dropped a new album. An innovative and underappreciated band coming back on its own terms on one side, the world’s biggest artist brilliantly subverting the hype machine on the other. And in between, a show that could do either of those things and does neither. Tonight has brought me some sneakily sublime musical experiences, and they highlight the flaws of The Sing-Off, a show that could be great if it would just stop trying to be big.
We begin, as we must, with a group number. The remaining groups take on Peter Gabriel’s “In Your Eyes” in a way that is vocally beautiful but clunkily overstaged. Here’s an idea: Since much of the backstage footage on this show takes place on what I assume is the Universal back lot, why not go all the way and shoot the whole show back there? It could serve as a nod to the street-corner origin of modern a cappella pop music, while solving the problem of that massive stage. The Sing-Off needs some stripping down, some of these groups actually need less room to move, and I guarantee you nobody is tuning in for the choreography. Let these folks wear their own clothes, keep the focus on the harmonies, and let’s try something new. If we have to do an opening number, why not model them after the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction-night jams, rather than the Miss America pageant?
This will of course never happen.
Anyway, half the eight remaining acts will perform tonight: Ten, Street Corner Renaissance, the AcoUstiKats and the Filharmonics. Shawn Stockman will be coaching. The big Filharmonic is excited because Shawn “was in one of the first boy bands,” a statement that strikes me as — just off the top of my head — five specific kinds of wrong.
Ten, “Chain of Fools” by Aretha Franklin
The brand-new group from Dallas, Texas, finally gives us a taste of what their sound could be. There’s a full rhythm section and a half-dozen absurdly talented singers switching off lead vocals. It’s contemporary and churchy, full and rich, without ever losing focus or cohesion. My only complaint is that one of the guys has a soul patch that looks like a coffee bean and it’s extremely distracting. The judges love it.
Acoustikats, “Amazed” by Lonestar
These University of Kentucky kids had a rough night last night, and I’m beginning to think the fast songs don’t suit them. Their rearrangement of “Hey Ya” probably does great at the student rec center where everyone knows them, but their individual identities can too easily get lost in the shuffle. And since each of these kids looks like a pundit who’s about to get his own show on MSNBC, they needed to slow it down and let us get to know them. “Amazed” is a perfect choice. It’s sincere, simple, and understated, and the lead vocal is sung beautifully by a miniature Rob Riggle. After the performance, the bass vocalist calls his girlfriend out of the audience, and when it becomes clear that he’s about to propose to her, Jewel cries out: “Oh, no,” which is exactly the right reaction. (She then realizes cameras are on her, and quickly amends it to “Oh, yes!”) Real talk: If you’d known how many stunt engagement videos we’d be sitting through, would you have changed your opinion on marriage equality? I might have.
Street Corner Renaissance, “Forget You” by Cee-Lo Green
I love these guys — it’s impossible not to — but they’re always going to be at a disadvantage here. They don’t pretend to be a full band, they don’t beatbox or fabricate a rhythm section, they just sing well. In a more stripped-down version of this show (on an actual back lot street corner, for example) they might excel. As it is, they seem uncomfortable in fuchsia jackets, taking up just a tiny part of a massive, glittering stage. They’re not going to win, and they seem to know it; here’s hoping The Sing-Off at least gets them some better gigs.
Filharmonic, “One More Night” by Maroon 5
These guys are the Filipino Hi-Five, which is not a thing I knew I needed. They’re young, they’re exuberant, they’re gayish, they know how to work the crowd. They fill their sound out with percussion, but they don’t overpower you with it. So if they sing a song that I’m pretty sure is Satan’s girlfriend’s ringtone, and if they’re dressed like a variety pack of Jell-O cups while they do it, these are just things we’re going to have to accept.
The Ultimate Sing-Off requires Filharmonic and Street Corner Renaissance to face off on Steam’s “Na Na Hey Hey (Kiss Him Goodbye),” and the simple presence of Filharmonic’s rhythm section sets them head-and-shoulders above their elders. The two groups are exact equals in terms of jacket hideousness, but that’s cold comfort to Street Corner Renaissance, whom the judges cut loose. You deserved better, gentlemen!
Back to this Beyoncé album. See you next week.