Since we left The Sing-Off in December, a cappella music has had a chance to settle into the American psyche more than ever. The third season debuts following the Glee cast's second broken chart record, surpassing Elvis' 108 singles on Billboard's Hot 100 with 113 in February – proving that theatrically earnest cover songs performed by the youth have momentum. Now, the competition show is ramping up as well, bringing the number of competing groups up to 16 from last season's 10, and ditching their last lady judge – Nicole Scherzinger of the Pussycat Dolls, now an X-Factor judge – for three-time Grammy nominee Sara Bareilles, whose music is a sight more a cappella-friendly.
As fellow judge Ben Folds put it, "The first two seasons of the show introduced America to a cappella. Now, the third season [is] pushing the art form into the future." We'll see.
During last night's two-hour premiere, the first of two installments of eight groups – four groups per hour – faced off following the kickoff ensemble number, Pink's "Perfect." Each team introduced themselves, their hometowns, and their heartwrenching sob stories, all in the hopes of winning over judges Bareilles, Folds, and Boyz II Men's Shawn Stockman, before the singing had even begun.
The first hour had the first four acts battling it out: the all-male, all-blazered Yellowjackets of the University of Rochester; the wholesome Fannin Family of Hortonville, Wisconsin; the jazz-infused Afro-Blue of the historically black DC college Howard University; and the all-female supergroup Delilah from Los Angeles.
The Yellowjackets' (let's be real, here) gimmick was that they recently traveled to Kenya on a "musical exchange" to teach local children. The experience inspired them to try out for the show (the logic is mystifying), and they performed K'Naan's "Wavin' Flag," the official anthem of last year's South Africa-hosted World Cup. If they persevere, any bets on how long it'll it take for the humanitarian angle to get old?
Next up were the eight Fannin siblings, whose cover of Selena Gomez's "Perfect" befitted their soloist, 14-year-old Maria. While all three judges lauded their effort and their youth, all pointed out a handful of pitch issues, with Folds noting that one brother, Chris, was singing bass outside of his range. (On an unrelated note, in their intro, one Fannin sister explained, "There are eleven of us," but with eight singing siblings and two parents in the audience…who is the eleventh Fannin?)
Two judge favorites of the night then performed back-to-back in the first hour: Afro-Blue and Delilah. Afro's impeccable jazz sensibility brought refreshing new life to Corinne Bailey Rae's worn-out hit "Put Your Records On" and temporarily disarmed the judges; Folds made an uncomfortable joke ("Afro-Blue! That was the name of my first band, too!"), while Bareilles gushed over how attractive the group's members were. Even Stockman lost his cool, telling soloist Christie Dashiell that her voice sounded "like warm butter on grits."
It remains to be seen when people will start calling all-female supergroup Delilah a bunch of cheaters, but for now, we're not complaining—and frankly, people had better not. The ensemble, composed of past competitors from groups like Pitchslapped and Noteworthy who gathered after the second season to form a new elite team, blew the hinges off a cover of Bruno Mars' "Grenade." The performance elicited a standing ovation from Bareilles and Stockman, as well as accolades from all three judges on their flawless dynamics. If Delilah doesn't win, someone, anyone, please give soloist Amy Whitcomb (the one who sported a white-blonde mohawk in season one) a label deal anyway.
First cuts on reality competition shows can be pretty transparent: in the beginning, the weak antelope in the pack is easily identified as the judges (and the audience) zero in for the kill. The Sing-Off is no exception. Though Afro-Blue and Delilah were obviously safe, Yellowjackets and the Fannin Family were led to the chopping block, and in the end, technique triumphed over cuteness. The adorable Von Trapp aesthetic didn't quite cut it, and the Fannins were sent packing; they exited singing a fitting goodbye song, "Tomorrow" from the musical Annie.
The second hour showcased two all-male ensembles and two of the show's more urban groups: pink-shirted cruise ship crooners Cats Pajamas from Branson, Missouri; the dapper Mormon boys of Vocal Point from BYU; the eclectic Kinfolk 9, another L.A. ensemble; and Denver's Urban Method, the show's first "rap-appella" group.
The green-clad Urban Method drew surprised accolades from the judge panel with their rendition of Eminem and Rihanna's "Love the Way You Lie." All three lauded rapper Mykal Charles' star quality, while Folds also noted that the group's bass, Sean "shook [his] ass" in his seat. (We worry about you, Ben.) The praise they received made it abundantly clear: the Denver crew was safe for this round.
The other clear favorites of the second act was Vocal Point. After clarifying (perhaps too vehemently) that despite their religion, they went out on dates all the time, the blue-blazered, skinny-tied gentlemen wrapped up the second half in style, with an all-American rendition of "Jump, Jive and Wail," racking up not one but two key modulations that blew the judges away.
Unsurprising considering the ovations given to Urban Method and Vocal Point, on the chopping block the second time around were the Cat's Pajamas and Kinfolk 9. Each act possessed what the other lacked, the cruise shippers needing work on the emotional while the scrappy Angelenos could brush up their technical finesse.
Heart won out over technique in the second act, however, as the Cat's Pajamas, a quintet whose 200-show-a-year business seems to have made them the delight of many a Branson senior citizen, were voted out. The hair-gelled dudes sang an energetic yet passionless rendition of "Some Kind of Wonderful" and were complimented on their technique, but Folds said he was left wanting more personality, while Stockman was concerned that their sound was far from radio ready.
On the other hand, while judges called Kinfolk's harmonies "quirky," the passion displayed by frontman Moi Navarro – who was also the group's emotional centerpiece last night, explaining that financial trouble had found him and his wife and two children living in a friend's garage – as the group performed Onerepublic's "Secrets" seemed to tug at judges' heartstrings the way the Fannin family's wholesome act had not.
Official winners and losers aside, however, a consolation prize on the Sing-Off ought to be added: Groups Who Inspire the Judges to Say the Most Awkward Things. Though Cat's Pajamas were booted, they did get Sara Bareilles to describe them as "a super tight package" and express a desire to "see you guys in jeans and a T-shirt." Nice effort, fellas.