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'The Sing Off' Recap: Judges Take Off the Kid Gloves

This week's competition round features tougher love and higher technical standards

September 27, 2011 3:20 PM ET
messiahs men nbc sing off tv
Messiah's Men perform on NBC's 'The Sing Off' last night.
Lewis Jacobs/NBC

The three Sing-Off judges must have watched the game film from last week's kick-off episode and gotten a wake-up call, because the kid gloves came the hell off with the second set of eight in the show's sixteen-group competition last night. Tough luck for this week's two enthusiastic losers.

The first hour pitted two quintets, a college group, and another social advocate ensemble against one another; the all-male Dartmouth Aires launched the first hour of competition with their rendition of Stevie Wonder’s "Higher Ground." Maybe it was the scent of age-old educational excellence, maybe it was the carrot-colored outfits, maybe it was just the song choice – whatever "it" was, it got the whole audience on its feet.

The Arlington, Texas-based five-piece Pentatonix, who recruited their beatboxer Kevin Olusola from his YouTube videos, performed Katy Perry's "E.T." to the judges’ usual enthusiasm. Sara Bareilles continued her  streak of endearingly awkward comments from last week, claiming, "I feel like an alien now," to uncomfortable giggles, while Ben Folds praised Olusola's beatboxing and the group’s syncopation. Shawn Stockman was similarly impressed with the authenticity of their FX, claiming, "I could have sworn you were cheating."

The other quintet, Sonos (yet another from L.A. – apparently the Burbank-filmed show didn't want or need to look much farther than the studio's own backyard), was met with a less enthusiastic reception for their rendition of Chris Isaak's "Wicked Games." The group, who usually performs with effects pedals, felt the absence of their electric element; while Bareilles confessed that she and Sonos member Chris Harrison had been done a cappella together in college and praised the arrangement, even she called the group’s beatboxing "weird." Folds and Stockman both called into question the ambitiousness of the arrangement, with the former noting that the group’s harmonies needed to support the female voices better.

Afro-centric soul singers Messiah's Men brought a "big" performance to the stage, too, though the judges noted it wasn’t quite pitch perfect. The Minneapolis-headquartered ensemble, garbed in traditional Liberian digs hoping to bring awareness to the civil war in the home country of many of the group’s members, sang a heartfelt arrangement of the gospel standard "People Get Ready." All three judges commended their storytelling vocals, while Stockman noted, "Isn't it amazing that, in times of oppression and sorrow, music becomes that spiritual elixir?" Still, the group's technicality (as well as, Bareilles noted, their feet) wavered precariously.

In the end, Sonos and Messiah's Men went to the chopping block, and the judges decided to go with their cruel, cruel hearts, kicking the latter to the curb. Sonos' arrangement, the judges said, got too big for their small size, but their adventurousness was admirable nonetheless. Messiah's fitting (albeit a tad macabre) exit song, "Swing Low Sweet Chariot," was perhaps a better performance than their competition song – Messiah's Men, we hardly knew ye!

The second hour of last night's episode, which kicked off with a guest appearance by season two winners Committed, seemed to find some clarity: the judges' comments foretold their decision to cut the group with the weakest performance.

Nashville's all-soloist group the Collective, the adorably kosher Wilsonville (Oregon) High School ensemble Soul'd Out (two words: double-popped collars), Boston's seasoned doo-woppers North Shore, and the University of Delaware's band of misfits the Deltones held a more eclectic head-to-head, but the Collective’s theatric, soulful performance of "Rolling in the Deep" by Adele and North Shore’s technically perfect cover of Dion’s "Runaround Sue" blew the two younger groups out of the water, despite their imperfections. While Bareilles commented that there was something "missing" from the Collective’s arrangement, the group of soloists’ short tenure as an ensemble was apparently forgiven, and they were safe.

Sidenote: it’s likely nothing bad will ever be said about North Shore on the Sing-Off stage. The bowling-shirted quintet, which has opened for the likes of Frankie Valli and the Temptations (and the Platters and Ben E. King and Roberta Flack and...), charmed the pants off the judges: Bareilles exclaimed, "I’m in love with you all! You feel like family," while all three genuflected to the group’s decades of experience and scary-good vocal blend. Folds’ comment, that "we kids all learn from you," makes it pretty clear that either North Shore is going to win the Sing-Off, or the judges are going to feel like spoiled brats kicking these expert vets off.

The Deltones, whose motto "friends first, singers second" brought the feel-good sap to the second half, covered Randy Newman’s "Feels Like Home," but the arrangement called for more solo strength. Fellow chopping blockers Soul’d Out just seemed too young for this world: judges noted their technical disadvantage and said they fell flat with the harmonies during their high-school-musical-y performance of "Age of Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In" from Hair. In the end, the judges dropped their A-for-effort act from last week, the Deltones’ skilled dynamics survived the cut, and the spirited (candy-colored) teenagers were sent home (singing a painfully off-key arrangement of Ozzy Osbourne’s "Mama I’m Coming Home") to practice – and, you know, graduate high school.

Last Week: Heart and Soul Win Out

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