Look and Listen

Five members of Pentatonix on stage
Still of Pentatonix from The Sing-Off 3.11 © 2011 NBCUniversal. Photo: Lewis Jacobs.

Well, America got it right in voting Pentatonix winners of this year’s edition of
NBC’s The Sing-Off. I was a bit bummed that just about everybody turned in sub-standard performances on Monday night’s live finale, when presumably viewership would get a bump from Dancing with the Stars’ absence; maybe it was the lack of pressure, since voting was already closed, but more likely the crazy rehearsal schedule and holiday weekend are to blame. Friends who finally tuned in after hearing me rhapsodize about Pentatonix, Afro-Blue, and Urban Method have my apologies.

I complained in a post last month about the judges’ surprising (to me) preference for certain groups over others — on the whole, traditional large university-based ensembles beating out more inventive, idiosyncratic but clearly cooler combos. Not that a cappella is all about being “cool”, nor that I have an inherent dislike of the collegiate model; quite the opposite, in fact. The Sing-Off’s diversity of size and style in the participants selected is one of the things that makes it so fascinating, however, and if the aim of the producers or the judges is to maintain that diversity as the competition pushes on then I think they should be entirely up front about it. Shawn Stockman rose even higher in my esteem last week when he chose Afro-Blue, a great jazz outfit born out of a class at Howard University, to advance to the finals, whereas — much to my dismay, as I appreciate where both are coming from in general — Ben Folds and Sara Bareilles’ selection of the Dartmouth Aires borders on the criminally insane.

Afro-Blue returned last night anyway, to back up Smokey Robinson on “You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me” — lovely despite not quite having the special swing of their usual arrangements. Host Nick Lachey reprised a tune from his 98 Degrees days, “Give Me Just One Night (Una Noche)”, with Pentatonix, while Folds took a page from Bobby McFerrin’s book in getting the audience to participate in a performance of his “Not the Same”, backed by the Aires, and Bareilles teamed up with Urban Method for a version of her single “Gonna Get Over You” (whose music video is embedded in Bareilles’s Sing-Off blog). Boyz II Men have a new album to promote as well, so I’m not sure why Stockman didn’t take the stage.

The above links all go to clips from the show, and I’m going to add a few more. While
a cappella handles doo-wop, classic and modern pop, showtunes, and jazz very well, it’s rare to hear a voices-only group that can really rock; Pentatonix did just that when tackling Steppenwolf’s “Born to Be Wild” — full of vocal “guitar fuzz” and a driving beat even though the gang also throws in its trademark faux-electronica tricks. My all-out favorite performance of the group’s is probably either its rendition of Florence & The Machine’s haunting, powerful “Dog Days Are Over” or its reinvention of Kanye West’s “Love Lockdown”, but the epitome of the crazy-sick Pentatonix sound — where the quintet really made its mark on the show — is its cover of The Buggles’ “Video Killed
the Radio Star”
. Pentatonix killed the need for instruments and studio production.

Next Monday The Sing-Off will return for a live holiday-themed episode at 8 p.m. ET featuring Season 1 winners Nota, Season 2 winners Committed, and various groups from Season 3.

Related: Double “You” Sisters Go Bangles Vocal Opposition

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