'The Sing Off' Recap: Competitors Cram for History Test - Rolling Stone
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‘The Sing Off’ Recap: Competitors Cram for History Test

Judge Ben Folds keeps up the crazy comments as groups show off 1960s style

yellow jackets sing off nbc

The Yellow Jackets perform on NBC's 'The Sing Off'.

Lewis Jacobs/NBC

With the third week of The Sing-Off came the singers’ first test of versatility: a history lesson. The surviving six candidates from the show’s first episode were challenged to show off knowledge and mastery of both contemporary and vintage hits. Starting things off easy with an ensemble cast performance of Keane’s hit “Somewhere Only We Know,” the first hour had the six groups battling via personalized arrangements of contemporary hits, while the second saw those same six trying their hand at 1960s tunes, where the challenge for many of the more modern-sounding groups lay in choosing era-appropriate stylings.

The bright-eyed, bushy-tailed Mormon boys of Vocal Point (whose still-missing member Ben Murphy’s ill father had passed on since the last time we saw them) made the obvious go for Justin Bieber’s appropriately vanilla “Never Say Never.” The group’s arrangement, however, was anything but, according to the judges. Ben Folds was shocked, admitting, “I can never again say I wouldn’t enjoy listening to Justin Bieber coming from a bunch of Mormons,” while Shawn Stockman couldn’t stop laughing at the thought of grown men covering the teen poster. Sara Bareilles, straight up, called the team “Thundercats on steroids.” Whatever that means musically, we think it’s a good thing, though we doubt the Thundercats’ choreographing abilities.

All-female supergroup Delilah got similar praise from their cover of Adam Lambert’s “Whataya Want From Me,” as they joined each other, vocal part by vocal part, on stage. Shawn couldn’t say enough about the group’s unusual “thunder bass,” which “brought the drama” to the arrangement, while Sara had a bit of trouble with superstar belter Amy Whitcomb’s pitch; Ben went ahead and blew his fellow judges out of the water, though saying, “I understood the song better after you sang it. This is the reason I do this show … You totally reinvented the song.”

Denver’s “rap-appella” group Urban Method drew praise for their Black Eyed Peas cover, “Just Can’t Get Enough,” which they entirely re-interpreted. Shawn loved their fresh take on the song, while Folds called their sound “music of the studio” (getting a little too fancy on us, Folds), though again lauded rapper Mykal Charles’ “punk-rock attitude.” Sara had this to say: “You’re all like Katy Perry’s ‘Firework’ – that’s what you are.” We’re just going to take this as an expression of her disappointment the group didn’t tackle that song – it’s all we can do.

This challenge was a real one for Afro-Blue, who said their vocal jazz tradition made contemporary arrangement more difficult, but that difficulty seemed absent in their standing-ovation-getting performance of Estelle (and Kanye)’s “American Boy.” Shawn had no words at first, then gushed over their ability to bring the song into the Harlem Renaissance era, exclaiming, “My god, I went there.” Sara was also rendered (mostly) speechless, and Ben applauded their ability to bring jazz, a genre that can seem “elite” in today’s age, into a humble, groovy place. Also, all three judges are (rightly) still in love with member Christie Dashiell.

Yellowjackets and Kinfolk 9, the final two groups, performed “Dynamite” by Taio Cruz and “Price Tag” by Jessie J, respectively. Ben joked that, for the Yellowjackets’ “selling” ability, they were going to get “recruited to sing the army theme song,” but lamented that they “had the audience do it for them” at times. Shawn wanted more bass, too, while Sara was concerned about their pace. Kinfolk drew similar concern over energy at the beginning, but overall the judges were proud of their serious improvement since their last appearance. Sara scolded Jenilee Reyes for being too shy, while Shawn  seemed bored with the arrangement’s dynamics.

Despite any shortcomings, the groups had another whole hour to win back the judges’ favors. At the end of the first hour we weren’t vaulted headlong into a completely new group of ensembles. Nay, our headrushes seem to have been laid to rest once and for all, as the six groups reprised their appearances instead, this time performing 1960s-era classics to contrast the top-40 hits. Based on their notes during the second hour, judges were looking for well-versed knowledge of the styles of the 1960s and modifications that reflected the groups’ personal styles.

The good ol’-fashioned boys they are, Vocal Point shined in the first true challenge of the season, opting to cover Sinatra’s “The Way You Look Tonight” in skinny ties and fedoras, to standing ovations from Sara and Shawn (Will Ben Folds ever leave his seat? We’ll have more as this story develops). Bareilles noted how the group managed to be polished and theatrical without being corny (sure, Sara), while Ben commended their “encyclopedic” knowledge and utilization of 1960s styles, from samba to big-band swing. All Shawn had to add was that they were “really, really, really, really good.”

Also co-opting the era well was Urban Method, whose modernized performance of “Dance to the Music” by Sly and the Family Stone was lauded as “perfect” by all three judges. Soloist Troy Horne got big ups for his impressive range (“You channeled the voices of both a man and a boy,” said Shawn. “Are we gonna need to perform an exorcism here?”), and Ben and Sara told the group that it was the best performance they’d seen yet from the Denver ensemble.

Sidenote: cheers to this week’s stylist, whose savvy, modernized Sixties wardrobe choices were almost as drool-worthy as Mad Men‘s. (Never mind the Rat Pack – Did Vocal Point come out looking like a handful of Don Drapers? Ohhhh, yes they did.)

Surprisingly, though Afro-Blue might have had the upper hand as a more traditional ensemble, the judges were too overwhelmed by their performance of Marvin Gaye’s “I Heard it Through the Grapevine.” Shawn and Sara applauded their modulation and cohesion in their polite ways, but again Ben brought the usual awkward bummer-dom: “I felt like I put a bag over my head and went through a car wash backwards…because that’s what we did in the Sixties…anyway, I thought you over-thought it.” (…Oooookay…)

Our keen friends the the University of Rochester’s Yellowjackets must have seen the judges’ weakness here, because, with their performance of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons’ “Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You,” they bee-lined (pun intended) straight for the jugular. The soloist, who (members confessed) had a massive crush on a certain lady judge, rendered Sara temporarily blushed into oblivion as he professed his love on his knees, taking her hand and kissing it at the end. On the bright side, she, Shawn and Ben didn’t have to give many notes other than “perfect,” “excellent,” and “seamless” to get their point across.

Though adorably cotton candy in their mod frocks, Delilah disappointed judges with their cover of Martha and the Vandellas’ “Love (Is Like a Heatwave).” Despite Nick Lachey’s best attempt to pump up their responses with a dorky, “It’s heating up in here – it’s almost – dare I say – 98°?” the feedback was nothing but flat: Shawn lamented the soprano-heavy arrangement. Sara was like, “Meh.” And Ben, of course, went the extra passive-aggressive mile, adding, “It’s amazing that you got through that song,” due to the group’s alto-heavy lineup. The performance was apparently bad enough to put them on the chopping block at the end – so much for the power of “thunder-bass.”

Luckily for Delilah, though, there was a lower common denominator in Kinfolk 9, whose performance of “Let It Be” was emotional – Shawn himself admitted to a single tear – and a sight better than their last performance, but still simply not up to par with the choral qualities of their competitors. (Though, in truth, come on, guys. An entire decade of music at your disposal, and you chose “Let It Be”? Weak, bro.) They joined the all-girl supergroup on the block, and ended up the ones cut – though one might almost have wished they hadn’t been, so as to avoid hearing their uncomfortable choice of swan song, Beck’s “Loser.” It’s just a TV show, Kinfolk – no need to get dramatic.

Last Episode: Judges Take Off the Kid Gloves


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