By Grady Smith
Updated September 27, 2011 at 09:14 AM EDT
Credit: Lewis Jacobs/NBC
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You know that feeling when you aren’t quite crying, but your eyes still get all teary when you’re listening to something truly beautiful?

Well, I’ll admit it. That’s always what happens to me when I’m watching the opening number on The Sing-Off. Hearing so many voices belt out anthemic tunes in perfect harmony gives me chills, and last night, when the veritable rainbow of performers took to the stage with “Sing” by My Chemical Romance, was no exception. I was blown away. But then, I’m also a sucker for a well-placed arm-raise, and there were about 40.

Last night, the second bracket of eight groups took to the stage to perform their signature songs, and once again, two more were swiftly eliminated from the competition. On the whole, the eight performances weren’t quite as impressive as last week’s, but I truly think that had more to do with song selection than vocal ability.

Refreshingly, the judges continued to prove that they actually care about their role as judges, and they didn’t sugarcoat their critiques and tell the acts that they were all “Amazing” or “In it to win it.” Instead, they offered honest feedback (Ben: “You tore apart at the end”), constructive criticism (Shawn: “There was too much spacing between the harmonies”), and delightful anecdotes (Sara: “I remember I have a diary entry when I finally got into my a cappella group… these are my people!”).

But I don’t want to make the judging sound so dour—there were some all-star, joy-inducing performances last night as well! And now that I’ve got my new Street Corner Symphony album, Unpractice Makes Perfect, playing on repeat for recapping stamina, let’s break down how the night shook out:

NEXT: Grading the first four performances…

Dartmouth Aires – “Higher Ground” by Stevie Wonder

Hailing from Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, where they were founded in 1946, this brotherhood of Ivy League boys, dressed in a surprisingly coherent array of oranges and greens (with red shoes!), kicked off the night with ample energy. With theatrical choreography—I loved the marching during the word “soldier”—and tuneful wails, their jazzy cover was definitely loud and exciting, but I wish it had been more dynamic. There was a whooooole lot of bass and baritone going on. Ben Folds thought the background singers drowned out lead singer Michael a bit, but overall, the judges enjoyed the opener. B+ (for bouffant ‘fro, of course)

Pentatonix – “E.T.” by Katy Perry

Originally a trio from Arlington, Texas, Pentatonix (who I guess were called Triotonix at the time) recruited a local bass singer and a beatboxing YouTube cellist to finish off their group’s electropop sound. The result? The fivesome turned in the most impressive performance of the night, hands down. Much of the credit belongs to beatboxer Kevin, whose spacey, funk-tastic effects sounded straight out of a Star Wars light saber battle, but lead singer Scott, whose impressively fast and unpredictably syncopated runs finished each phrase, deserves credit too. Admittedly, I thought there was too much going on in the performance for it to totally gel, but, much like Shawn (who giddily called Scott “bad boiiii,” “son,” and “bruh bruh” in the same critique), I was too dumbfounded by the electronic vocal to really care. A-

Messiah’s Men – “People Get Ready” by Curtis Mayfield

Having escaped from the civil strife in their homeland of Liberia, this band of refugees, now living in Minneapolis, immediately won me over in their pre-performance package with their poetic comments about the power of music (“Music was our salvation.”) and by singing my Sunday School fave, “Wade in the Water,” so I had high hopes. Unfortunately, not even their swaying, gold-adorned indigo robes could liven up their unfortunately boring performance. Sure, there were moments of joyful unison singing—the sort of hopeful bellows that make African choirs so moving—and a lovely section sung in their native tongue, but, much like the Fannin Family last week, Messiah’s Men just didn’t seem ready for the big Hollywood stage. B-

Sonos – “Wicked Game” by Chris Isaak

I imagine that this L.A. quintet’s odd, indie take on Chris Isaak’s slow-burn lament will prove to be the most divisive performance from last night. For the last three years, Sonos has developed a sound that relies heavily on electronic pedals, which manipulate their vocals. Obviously, to use these on The Sing-Off would be cheating, so they’ve got to rely on their voices alone. Strangely, though, they didn’t seem to use their voices all that much, as their rendition of “Wicked Game” was unnaturally sparse—all while being unnaturally fast! The trio of somewhat timid females floated high above the two male voices, without any middle notes binding them, but where the vocals proved uninspired, the complex arrangement and counter melodies made up lost ground. I found myself intrigued, though not really moved. Shawn wished they had been more playful, and Ben called for more confidence, but Sara, who had performed in college with Sonos member Chris, found the performance sexy and interesting. B-

When it came time for elimination, The Sing-Off judges did the thing that so many other singing shows are afraid to do—they eliminated the group with the most heart-tugging backstory. Messiah’s Men were sent packing, but not before they delivered their simple, gorgeous “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.” They did much better without any attempts at choreography.

During the halfway point, Nick also introduced last season’s champs, Committed, who whipped out a soulful, groovy bit of Stevie Wonder’s “As,” which is the standout cover on their debut album and so, so much better than the overly produced first single, “Break Free.” And then, it was time for the second round!

NEXT: Four more groups take the stage… The Collective – “Rolling in the Deep” by Adele

My favorite group last season was Street Corner Symphony, a group of aspiring Nashville crooners, so I was fully prepared to love the Collective, which was similarly constructed by Street Corner Symphony front-man Jeremy Lister. Man, was I let down. The group’s first mistake was choosing to perform the way, way, way over-covered “Rolling in the Deep.” Haven’t we all heard enough of those? They never quite live up to the original. The second mistake was choosing Ruby as the soloist. Don’t get me wrong, she has an interesting, sort of bleating voice, but the way she cooed the lyrics didn’t match with the woman-scorned emotions, and she fell rather flat on the first chorus—I’m not sure what the judges were hearing. I would have preferred to listen to impressive harmonizer Rachael Lampa (whom some viewers may recognize from the contemporary Christian music scene) belt out the lead. Messy. C+

Soul’d Out – “Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In” from the musical Hair

Fortunately, these high schoolers from Oregon kept their clothes on during their kooky, but strangely fun hippie-inspired (though, how hippie can you be with a double-popped collar?) performance. I spent most of the time wondering why on Earth these kids chose this as their signature song—was Hair the Spring musical at Wilsonville High School?—but I kind of admired their nerve at doing something so blatantly weird in their Sing-Off debut. The judges felt that Soul’d Out’s harmonies tore apart during the second half of the song, which I didn’t really hear, but I may have just been distracted by male lead singer, Ethan, who was perhaps the most facially expressive performer I’ve ever seen.

He gave the whole song a healthy dose of over-the-top entertainment value, but sadly, that didn’t help it look any less like a high school production. Were these kids fun? Totally. But did they have a legitimate shot at a recording career together? Not a chance. B-

North Shore – “Runaround Sue” by Dion

Bada bing! These old-school Bahhstan doo-wop fellahs smoke cigahhs and drink wine, and really sing from they heahhts—ya know, toots? Unfortunately, despite their passion for music and decades of experience, singing hasn’t been paying the bills during this recession, and if The Sing-Off doesn’t bring North Shore some notoriety, the group could be headed South. Thankfully, these old souls didn’t have any reason to worry after their performance, which featured the cleanest harmonies of the whole evening. They may not have been as flashy as their competitors, but their relaxed, jovial vocal was a pure joy to listen to, and all five men were hamming it up on stage. You could tell they were seasoned professionals. Admittedly, I have a major soft spot for doo-wop—my first high school a cappella solo was Dion and the Belmont’s “Teenager In Love,” and for a period during college, my fraternity brothers and I would share pizza and drinks with an elderly barbershop/doo-wop quartet on Sunday nights (seriously)—so I hope North Shore sticks around for a while. A-

The Deltones – “Feels Like Home” by Randy Newman

University of Delaware’s co-ed (though, by the looks of it, heavily female) group began their pretty performance sitting behind lead singer Jessica, who delivered a lovely, lilting vocal, which began a bit hesitant, but eventually blossomed. The song slowly built, and just as the Deltones hit the big bridge and final chorus, they took a page right out of Jerry Lawson & Talk of the Town‘s choreography book and… slowly walked to the front of the stage! It was their big, dramatic move, and actually, it worked quite nicely. Still, I would’ve preferred to see the group make a bigger entrance with a splashy, uptempo song, rather than introduce themselves with a subtle ballad. It all felt a bit sleepy. B+

NEXT: One more group goes home… In the night’s second elimination, the judges sent home the young high schoolers of Soul’d Out. Personally, I would have preferred to see the Collective get cut, if only so we could enjoy Ethan’s facial expressions for one more week, but alas, it was not to be, and I’m okay with that. The youngest competitors sang the remarkably appropriate “Mama, I’m Coming Home” by Ozzy Osbourne on their way off the stage.

Next week, Nick explained, would feature songs by Ke$ha, Coldplay, Lady Gaga, as well as some greats from the 1960s: It’s Top 40 and ’60s week! Because, you know, that’s a logical pairing (or a retroactively constructed theme). But before we start thinking about next week, let’s wrap up this week the right way…

…with PunWatch!

“When we return, we’ll rocket to another planet with a Katy Perry smash hit.” –Not quite a pun; more just a lie. But I like the effort!

“We strutted down to Texas to take five with Pentatonix.” –Simultaneously musical and numerical. Pentacular!

“We’ll see if your sign is on the rise when we return.” –after “Aquarius” (and you guys, Nick is a Scorpio!)

“We’re minutes away from seeing if your run will be extended” –I’m fairly certain Nick ad-libbed this one following the performance “Runaround Sue.” Impressive!

What do you think readers? How did this episode of The Sing-Off compare to the premiere? Which bracket do you think has the stronger talent? And are you enjoying watching a series with such terrific singers and insightful judging as much as I am? Sound off in the comments!


And for more Sing-Off musings throughout the week, follow me on Twitter and Google+

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