By Jodi Walker
Updated December 10, 2013 at 09:00 AM EST
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Credit: Tyler Golden/NBC
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I have to put all of my biases on the table, here: I really love The Sing-Off. I am a fan. I’ve been there since the beginning and, to me, it’s like the runt of the singing show litter that I just want to protect and make sure it’s happy. But, oh, like its very own judges, I expect the best out of it too. Because I know how great it can be.

The Sing-Off exists in this bubble of a world where it’s not important to be cool. In fact, it’s better not to be. It’s full of questionable matching outfits, silly song choices and more music puns than you could have possibly believed existed. Its host is a former second-tier boy bander, its judges are acclaimed, but not exactly charting anymore, and its productions consists solely of the bodies on the stage and the voices they produce. But those judges are more charming and musically educated than just about any other, that host literally has nowhere else he’d rather be, and those voices can, at times, take your breath away. Who needs cool when you can just have fun? In its earnestness and specificity, The Sing-Off presents a few weeks of television that don’t attempt to change the world, just give you some good and interesting music from some quirky and modest dreamers.

Of course, it’s exactly off the pulse of popular music to feature a fun. medley as the opening number at this point in 2013, but The Sing-Off doesn’t care, and the 10 groups of season 4 sound great! “Some Nights” is full of important arm movement choreography; “We Are Young” is sung by the high school group, Vocal Rush (because the a cappella world is known for its subtlety); Element takes the stage with some handheld pyrotechnics, lest you forget this show is now “from the producers of The Voice”; and Home Free gets a standout intro on “Carry On” because I think they’re being set up to take this thing.

Your favorite jewel-tone-dress-shirt-wearing host, Nick Lachey, introduces the judges as “a cappella aficionado” Ben Folds, “Grammy winner” Shawn Stockman and “platinum singer/songwriter Jewel,” and it’s time to hear some a cappella.

Vocal Rush

Notable names (and blazers): De’Zhanice Kirtdoll, Elvind Limon and Jada Banks Mace; Forever 21’s finest offerings of black, white and red statement pieces keep these kids looking cohesive.

By the notes: The Oakland School for the Arts high schoolers take the stage with such poise and artistry on Delta Rae’s “Bottom of the River,” I forget that they can’t get into R-rated movies entirely. Oh, and they step. They step! Ben says Jordan kept a beautiful and focused lead performance and Jewel notes their “righteous anger,” telling them that’s important in youth, in order to bring about change. New girl’s got quotes.

Tidbits with Nick: Did you know Boyz II Men started at a performing arts school? Nick Lachey is here to educate you.

Home Free

Notable names (and blazers): No standout names but soloist, Austin Brown, is dressed like a character from Newsies.

By the notes: These guys are being sold pretty hard as the first-ever country a cappella group, which, probably not. But the fact that they’re a touring a cappella group, presumably making a living, is pretty impressive. And from what I hear in their intro package and have seen in promos, I think they have more to give than what comes across in Florida Georgia Line’s “Cruise.” Ben says he feels the bass in his butt from Tim and Austin carried a confident lead.

Tidbits with Nick: Apparently, basses get all the ladies.

Princeton Footnotes

Notable names (and blazers): Ben Barron and Samson Schatz; these guys had it all in the a cappella wardrobe department: Princeton orange blazers, patterned shirts, madras bowties and oxfords with coordinating laces and soles.

By the notes: Adam, who will one day be your handsome state senator, starts off Taylor Swift’s “Trouble” with a crisp and clear solo and then passes it off to a more pop-y sound that never quite hits its peak. It’s a promising song choice, but as Shawn says, they needed to let loose a little.

Calle Sol

Notable names (and blazers): Their normal-sounding names can’t be changed (easily), but I’m going to need some more variety in the wardrobe department next time, Calle Sol. You thought you could just get away with red dresses and black collared shirts? Not in The Sing-Off’s argyle house.

By the notes: Choosing any early era Rihanna song to show off vocal prowess is an odd move, but at least “Pon De Replay” has fun beats for this all Puerto Rican group. During a dance interlude, the male percussionist and bass step up to the plate while the ladies show off some sassy choreography and Gloria Estefan yells. But as Ben says, bringing something unique to the table can be an asset and a liability and they need to find ways to keep their sound full while they pon de party.

Tidbits with Nick: “Hold that note,” as he throws to commercial. That’s the punnery I’ve been missing!

NEXT PAGE: Street Corner Renaissance, testifyin’ swag

Street Corner Renaissance

Notable names (and blazers): Charles “Sonny” Banks and Maurice Kitchen; this is what we call an a cappella classic, ladies and gentlemen: jeans and blazers with bright fuchsia dress shirts and fedoras.

By the notes: The gentlemen of SCR are taking their turn at following their dreams by competing in The Sing-Off and they had a grand ole time putting a doo-wop twist on One Direction’s “What Makes You Beautiful,” which EW premiered a few weeks ago. Shawn says, “y’all talk about swag, this is swag,” while Jewel tells them they were great because they weren’t worried about being perfect, they were just “testifying.” Preach.

Ten

Notable names: Peaches, Sydnii “Jazz” Raymore, Emoni Wikins, DeeDee Yancey-Macky, John “Jontez” Montes: back-up singers are a gold mine.

By the notes: Collectively, these 10 singers have backed up the likes of Justin Timberlake, Nicki Minaj and Florence and the Machine, but they’ve never actually performed together in front of an audience. That might be why Rufus and Chaka Khan’s “Tell Me Something Good” technically sounds great, but somehow doesn’t leave much of an impression (except for their hair game, which is unrivaled). The judges all agree that Ten brought sounds to the stage they hadn’t heard yet, but Ben thought they needed to work on telling a story with the song.

Element

Notable names (nope, just blazers): Even though I liked their eclectic city-boho-chic look in their interview package more, I appreciate the head-to-toe sequins they brought to the stage. A cappella is glamorous, don’t you forget it.

By the notes: All of the women of Element come from strong musical backgrounds, but I wish they had pushed their creativity a little further on Ellie Goulding’s “Burn” — a promising start never quite went where I thought it could with the two soloists. Jewel loved Rachel’s electronic drum loop, but felt the ladies rushed the pocket of the song.

Tidbits with Nick: “Let’s check in with our periodic table of judges.” Nick, what are you talking about?

Voice Play

Notable names (and blazers): You know the one: Honey LaRochelle. The gentlemen opted out of blazers and went for that other a cappella staple: vests.

By the notes: The five men of Voice Play are all performers at Universal Studios and brought in Honey to spice up their group (I’m dying to know where she works). The first half of “Feel This Moment” by Pitbull is your average great-sounding number, and then they start changing their sound about every line in the second half and things get both weird and interesting. Shawn thinks it took them a while to get into the groove and Ben says the harmonies were there but the mid-range was lacking.

The Filharmonic

Notable names (and blazers): Their group’s name is hands down the best; hoodie vests, varsity jackets, blazers and hipster glasses…Filipino boy band, indeed.

By the notes: The Filharmonic unabashedly say they’re inspired by ’90s boy bands and they get out there and tear into “Treasure” by Bruno Mars, a great modern song that showcases a more nostalgic sound. The judges find VJ’s lead (and smile), Jules’ suave solo, and the bass to be particularly impressive.

Tidbits with Nick: Nick takes a special trip up to The Filharmonic box to mention that while he is not Filipino, his wife is half. That’s it.

acoUstiKats

Notable names (and blazers): Banks Mattingly and Patrick “Young Fonty” Banks (seriously); all of the Kats’ navy blazers with cream piping are of note.

By the notes: Interesting that they lined up these cute, fun guys right next to the last cute, fun guys, but the men from University of Kentucky held their own and then some. I cringed at all the aca-terminology thrown around in their intro package (acoustic-frat, yeesh), but an acousti-crush is a very real thing. I’ve had one, I have one and I’ll have them again. Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” was both a risky and predictable choice, but Acoustikats weren’t afraid to get weird with it: dancing, flirting and, frankly, gyrating all over the damn place. Ben says it was technique-fueled “responsible fun.” Everyone points out Ron’s octave-defying lead work, but I was equally impressed with the other soloist.

Tidbits with Nick:

Jewel: I need an acousti-shower after that.

Nick: Whoa, gonna have to take an acoustic-commercial here in a minute!

An update to this post-Pitch Perfect season is the “Ultimate Sing-Off” where the two groups in the bottom face off to an a cappella death by elimination. The Princeton Footnotes and Voice Play are selected by the judges as the bottom two and after going 10 times harder on N’Sync’s “Bye Bye Bye” than either did in their original, Voice Play comes out of the first Ultimate Sing-Off victorious. My only objection to this new format is – no more swan songs? That means no more last shot for the groups to prove us wrong and for that, I cannot forgive “the producers of The Voice.”

The next episode of The Sing-Off airs Wednesday, December 11th at 8:00 p.m. ET on NBC.

The Sing Off

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  • TV Show
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