'The Sing-Off': Ben Folds Is Still Fantastic, Plus: Shut Up, Yale Guy We look at the first night of NBC's singing competition The Sing-Off, and how Yale has apparently sent its representatives to play the role of the villain. Who knew a singing contest needed one?
NPR logo 'The Sing-Off': Ben Folds Is Still Fantastic, Plus: Shut Up, Yale Guy

'The Sing-Off': Ben Folds Is Still Fantastic, Plus: Shut Up, Yale Guy

I wrote last year about NBC's The Sing-Off, which turned out to be a crowd-pleasing little surprise that is now back for a second season that kicked off last night.

Back as judges are the wonderful Ben Folds, Dancing With The Stars champ and Pussycat Doll Nicole Scherzinger, and Shawn Stockman of Boys II Men.

I never expected that a singing competition show would have an immediate villain, but this show has one in the Yale Whiffenpoofs. (Yes, really.) Founded in 1909, the Whiffenpoofs are indeed giants of the college a cappella scene. Hilariously, one member of the group decided that being the country's best-known men's college a cappella ensemble was not adequate, and he made the highly inadvisable comment, "We are the first a cappella group in history. We invented it." (A comment for which, to his credit, Stockman mercilessly mocked them later.) That's right: "The first a cappella group in history." All choral singing was done with electric guitar accompaniments until the Yale Whiffenpoofs came along!

[Insert gigantic eye-roll here, please.]

In addition to the fact that it's just kind of goofy to claim a cappella singing didn't exist until after 1900, you want to be careful how much you rely on the legacy of a group of whom there are no current holdovers. The name of the group has been around since 1909; these guys were born around the time Tom Cruise made Cocktail. (It reminds me of the old Cosby Show where Cliff Huxtable heard one of his kids say "we're rich" and said, "Your mother and I are rich. You have nothing.")

The Whiffenpoofs, rather than attempting (in vain, undoubtedly) to escape the potential Ivy-League-snootiness issue, embrace it. Their official uniform is white tie, and they were clear from the beginning that although everyone else was expected to be good, expectations would be especially high for them. You know, because they invented a cappella singing.

This would have been a less embarrassing attitude if they weren't competing against, among others, a group called Jerry Lawson & Talk Of The Town. Jerry Lawson was in the genuinely legendary group The Persuasions for 40 years -- 40 years -- and has now joined up with a new group of guys. (Here's one of The Persuasions' most well-known arrangements, of "Up On The Roof.") Jerry Lawson, in terms of musical credibility, could snap any chosen Whiffenpoof like a twig, and any attempt on the part of the fellas from New Haven to be the entrants wearing the big shoes needs to stop immediately.

In fairness to the Whiffs (they really do call themselves this, and I think we can agree it is less fraught than some of their other alternatives), some of this is obviously their persona; they know that it's very stereotypically Yale to be ever clad in the little white gloves and whatnot. They're not clueless to what they're doing; they just embrace a particular sort of ultra-aristocratic concept that would be easier to embrace as mildly satirical and knowing if they didn't say, with apparent seriousness, that they invented a cappella singing.

ANYWAY. Those are your villains, because: bleh.

So who's good? Well, Jerry Lawson & Talk Of The Town, for one. I also dug a group called Eleventh Hour, an Ohio-based high school group riding the Glee wave -- though they could use 100 percent more interesting musical choices (they performed Justin Bieber's "Baby") and 100 percent less porkpie hat-wearing.

But the sound with which I'm most in love is that of Committed, a group that, like many great singers, learned everything it knows at church. They explained that they've done mostly gospel and are new to trying pop, but taking on Maroon 5's "This Love," they displayed a level of harmonic complexity that's going to be really tough for the rest of the groups to match, I think. Groups are often judged on how tight they are (roughly, how precise and coordinated), and lots of these groups are tight. But Committed is equally tight doing significantly more sophisticated work. Stockman was genuinely speechless after they performed, clearly trying to avoid declaring them the presumptive winners prematurely.

I should point out that singling these folks out is nothing against the other groups; they just didn't stand out quite as much. I liked The Backbeats (a sort of all-star group brought together from other groups, including one from last year's season of this very show), I liked Street Corner Symphony, I liked the jazzy Groove For Thought ... they're all fine, and over the next few nights (the show is next on Wednesday), they'll show their colors. (But, as a newly minted fan, I say: they are no Committed.)

(Oh, and: Street Corner Symphony, WHY are you doing "Hey, Soul Sister" next? It makes me lay down my head in sadness.)

I should mention: The first two eliminated groups, called Pitch Slapped and Men Of Note, were both okay but not particularly distinguished, and Pitch Slapped really deserved to be eliminated based on name alone. I mean, really. I love the fact that the judges, and not the audience, boot the groups off this show, because the judges are really fairly sensible and tend to be right. And Ben Folds, in particular, continues to absolutely set the standard for reality judges by being honest, fair, polite, and most importantly very specific about what he likes and doesn't like.

It continues to be a very entertaining show, and when it goes away again in a couple of weeks, I'll be sad again. Kudos to NBC for finding and bringing back this odd little holiday-season gem.