Eight a cappella groups take the stage, but only six survived the night.

By Grady Smith
September 20, 2011 at 08:18 AM EDT
Mitchell Haaseth/NBC
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The Sing-Off premiered its third season last night, and despite all my worrying that the show would lose its charm in the transition from quaint December surprise to fall season anchor, everything felt just right.

Nick Lachey brought the puns, Ben Folds showed off his stupendous musical vocabulary, and Shawn Stockman donned a bright purple sweater. All was well in the world. New judge and former a cappella performer Sara Bareilles fit right into the mix as well. Though she maybe focused a bit too much on the “story” and “journey” of some groups for my taste, she provided clear, helpful insight, and was refreshingly sincere compared to the consistently inauthentic-sounding Nicole Scherzinger. Bareilles was a bit nervous in her first episode (Who else loved when she told Cat’s Pajamas they are a “super huge package,” and then clammed up and tried to recover with a dignified queen wave?), but as she loosens up, I think she’ll become a major asset on the show.

Oh, and let’s not forget about the music — that’s the whole reason we’re here! Eight remarkably talented a cappella groups performed last night, proving that The Sing-Off really has some of the best singing on national TV. There were times when I was watching the performances, and I’d completely forget that there were no instruments on stage. Every single sound was being made by someone’s mouth. I say this as a former college a cappella singer — these groups are incredible.

The show kicked off with a rainbow-colored performance of Pink’s “Perfect,” which was just that. Sure, I’d seen the clip on NBC.com about, I dunno, 47 times before the premiere, but I still loved watching it again. With so many people onstage, it was definitely a lot to take in, but I did have a few general impressions. To the Kinfolk 9 singer who belted, “They don’t like my hair,” you’re right! To the phalanx of yellow up front, you’re looking sharp! To the slightly mullet-y girl who sang, “To MEEEEE!” at the end, your tone is amazing. Basically, it was a gigantic group singing a big ballad in tune. I was chuckling with giddiness.

Nick announced that the winner of this season of The Sing-Off would receive $200,000 and a Sony recording contract. (WHAT?! No Sing-Off trophy?!) He also explained that this year, because there are 16 groups, the show will be divided into two brackets for the first four episodes. The first bracket would be whittled down from eight to six groups this week, and then the other bracket would do the same next week. In week three, the first bracket would eliminate one group, and in week four the second bracket would do the same. All 10 remaining groups will unite for episode five. Got it? Good.

Because we’ve got some performances (and eliminations) to get to! Here they are in order:

NEXT: Grading the first four performances…

The Yellow Jackets  “Wavin’ Flag” by K’naan

I can tell I’m going to like these guys and their snazzy yellow blazers! The group, which hails from the University of Rochester, has a few Winkelvossian rowers and a couple “funny guys” (read: unathletic), but thankfully, their differences don’t keep them from collectively nerding out when they take the stage. In my mind, a cappella is all about putting on a show, and like last season’s goofy performers, On The Rocks, the Yellow Jackets seem willing to let loose and not take themselves too seriously. They literally waved flags — okay, maybe they were juggling scarves — I love that! Inspired by their recent trip to Kenya (the footage from which I actually found pretty touching), the boys sang a very “Circle of Life”-ish version of “Wavin Flag” that had the whole room on their feet. With terrific choreography, a silly arm-around-the-shoulder duet, and one very impressive tenor named Aaron, whose angelic voice pierced right through all the noise, the Yellow Jackets opened the season in style — even if, as Ben Folds remarked, “the tempo was a little fluctuating.” B+

Fannin Family  “Who Says” by Selena Gomez

I was always jealous of families who grew up singing in harmony — they have such a leg up on other singers! It takes years of diligent practice to be able to naturally harmonize like that, but for kids that grew up doing it, it’s no sweat. And that showed in Fannin’s beautifully blended performance. Unfortunately, the apple-faced Wisconsiners fulfilled too many Midwestern stereotypes with their plain-Jane outfits (Mind you, that’s coming from a Virginia boy living in New York — I know nothing about fashion — but even I thought the ruffled dresses, denim jackets, and boots looked a little homely) and white-bread staging. Except for the bright “Na na na” counter-melody, it all felt rather sluggish. I wrote in my notes, “Feels like turkey and gravy.” It was warm and satisfying, but it also made me feel pretty snoozy. The judges liked their “timbres” (Ben Folds must moonlight as an SAT tutor), and thought the performance was wholesome. B-

Afro-Blue  “Put Your Records On” by Corinne Bailey Rae

These jazzy students from traditionally black college Howard University (which apparently has at least one white student) say they all want to work in the music industry, and if their oh-so-smooth debut performance was any indication, that’s definitely a good place for them to be. Lead singer Christy busted out effortlessly gorgeous runs over a warm jazz arrangement that Shawn said felt “like warm butter on grits.” Another food metaphor! See? All paid singing judges use them. Bassist/percussionist Reggie provided an intriguingly fluid foundation, which injected the somewhat bland pop song with a zippy energy. Afro-Blue’s gorgeous blend and upbeat arrangement hinted that they’re capable of serious vocal intricacies, so I’m hoping that the attractive crooners bring on the funk in future episodes. Plus, as Sara Bareilles pointed out, they’re “all very attractive.” As your Sing-Off fashion expert, I can confirm that that statement is definitely tr—wait a second, is cheetah print tacky or stylish? Whatever, it’s definitely true! B+

Delilah – “Grenade” by Bruno Mars

It’s funny that this rocking group of sexy former Sing-Off female contestants is named Delilah, because all I think about when I hear that name is the unnaturally calm radio host of Delilah After Dark. De-liiii-laaaaah. She’s pretty much the exact opposite of what this group brought to the stage with their searing rendition of “Grenade.” I was a bit nervous when Lachey announced that they’d be singing the Bruno Mars track, since one of Delilah’s members, Kendall, was eliminated last season when her group, Eleventh Hour, took on “Just The Way You Are.” Thankfully, the ladies avoided a repeat disaster, and they turned out a truly powerful performance — easily the best of the night. The girls sauntered around the stage, slowly moving their hips (Hello, Ingrid from Pitch Slapped — nice to see you again!) as lead singer Amy absolutely tore up her part with a vocal that alternated between clear-as-a-bell poignancy and rough growl anger. Ben Folds rightly complimented the “Watch me burn down” line of the chorus, which emanated fierce done-me-wrong rage. It was the lyrical delivery (and best use of dramatic posing) of the night. I’m not usually a fan of girl groups, but DANG, that was terrific. A

NEXT: One group gets eliminated, four more perform…After this, all four groups were called back out onto the stage, and the judges made their first elimination of the season. The sweet kids in the Fannin Family were sent packing, as they just didn’t seem to be ready for the big leagues. The genial troupe sang a shaky “Tomorrow” from Annie as they left the stage.

Just like that, it was time for the next four groups to perform!

Urban Method – “Love the Way You Lie” by Eminem ft. Rihanna

These Colorado natives pride themselves on having a sound that’s “more edgy, more on the street, in the dance and hip hop genre,” since most of their fellow Denver citizens probably prefer the toooootally chill sounds of Phish. Still, despite the show’s insistence on trying to showcase them as a “Rapappella” group (Gretchen, stop trying to make “Rapapella” happen!), I didn’t find anything particularly unique about them. Didn’t On The Rocks rap last year while singing “Live Your Life?” I know those guys were white Oregonians, but they were still rapping! I thought Urban Method’s backgrounds lacked punch, and the rapper, Mykal, just didn’t impress me all that much. The girl singing Rihanna’s part lacked the dark drama that makes the song work, and the subdued arrangement barely built. The incredible beatbox/bass combo was the song’s saving grace. “The bass was actually shaking my ass,” Ben quipped. B–

Cat’s Pajamas – “Some Kind of Wonderful” by Grand Funk Railroad

A superbly polished, old-lady-serenading quintet from Branson, Missouri (which is apparently the Las Vegas I’ve never heard of) that performs 200 shows a year. They’ve got to be doing something right! Dressed in dapper black and pink, the five sharp looking and sounding men gave an exceedingly professional, if slightly robotic, cheesy performance. Their choreography was on point. Their crystal-clear vocals flawless. Their edginess nonexistent. Of course old people love them!  They’d be an even better elderly destination than that ABBA tribute band, Björn Again, that my parents made me go see last year! The judges all wished that Cat’s Pajamas (best group name, by the way) had been more vulnerable and exhibited more “artisity,” but I didn’t really agree. I mean, sure there are artistic moments in a cappella music, but isn’t the whole genre, which is dominated by cover songs, much more about fun? Are people really flocking to a cappella concerts to hear intense artistry? If I’m a paying customer, I’d rather see a well-crafted, professional, perfectly sung show. But maybe that’s just me! B

Kinfolk 9 – “Secrets” by One Republic

The pre-performance package of Kinfolk 9 tried to showcase how artistic the group was by showing the wine-swilling struggling musicians wearing deep V-necks, thick-rimmed glasses, feathered earrings, fedoras, and if all that wasn’t enough, by saying the word “artist” 4,213 times. The clip did a lot to make me think I’d resent the hipster fame-chasers, especially lead singer Moi Navarra and his 36-going-on-18 style. I’m happy to say I was quite wrong, though. Moi came across as much more humble onstage, and he delivered a supple, longing vocal with a gorgeous falsetto. The judges correctly  noted a few wonky pitch issues here and there, but Kinfolk 9 clearly understands how to build a song well and create exciting dynamics. It will be interesting to see if they need to work on the opposite of what Cat’s Pajamas was told, though: a little less eyes-closed artistry, and a little more showmanship. B+

NEXT: One more performance, the second elimination of the night, and PunWatch…

Vocal Point – “Jump Jive An’ Wail” by Brian Stetzer

These Mormon boys from Brigham Young University love to kiss their girlfriends. Seriously, watch! They’ll kiss! Again! And again. And. Again. Yeesh—we get it, producers! Dressed in slick blue blazers and skinny black ties, Vocal Point delivered a fun, throwback performance that deftly melded stagey choreography and artistry. While they did feature a whole lot of swingin’ 1920s-era dance moves, they dressed up the arrangement with a funky remixed midsection and not one, but two key changes! The lead singer’s soulful “wail” carried the toe-tapper effectively, and the background vocalist’s brassy, ultra-high harmonies had the audience roaring. It was over-the-top energy and tight harmonization, but it lacked that one surprise WOW moment like Delilah achieved. Still, a darn near-perfect close to the show. A–

In the night’s second elimination, the judges sent Cat’s Pajamas home, and the group looked understandably hurt. That’s got to be a tough blow, especially considering how much more experience they had than many of the other newly formed groups. As I listen now to Cat’s Pajamas album Two Words: Me-ow (Yes, if you have to know, I went and bought their album after they were eliminated—I’m an a caholic!), I wish they would have chosen any of their other songs, like their playful mashup of “The Joker” and “Angel,” to perform first! Things could have ended very differently. Oh well, at least they have a steady gig back in Branson! The group sang “Bye Bye Love” by the Everly Brothers as they exited the stage.

And now for our weekly appreciation of Nick Lachey’s gleeful use of puns! There weren’t too many this week, but I figure he’s pacing himself for the longer season. Here are the best ones: It’s PunWatch!

“Will they reignite their Sing-Off dreams?” –introducing Delilah to sing “Grenade”

“We’ll see if you guys are swinging into round two.” –after Vocal Point sang “Jump Jive An’ Wail”

“The Yellow Jackets, some New York college kids with a swarm of fans on campus and around the world. We followed the buzz to the University of Rochester to suit up with the Yellow Jackets!” –Whoa, bee puns and jacket puns!

And so ended the first episode of Season 3 of The Sing-Off, which is shaping up to be a delightful diversion this fall. I know I’ll be sticking around! But what did you think? Any early favorites? Which performances really knocked your socks off? Sound off in the comments.

And for more Sing-Off updates and pop-culture musings throughout the week, follow me on Twitter @EWGradySmith!

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