Last year, NBC scored a surprise hit in December when it aired “The Sing-Off,” a brief four-part special series that saw a handful of a cappella groups compete for dominance among those who want nothing to do with instruments (a six-member ensemble called Nota scored the victory in the first go-round). The show is back for another spin (this time with an eight episode run) and a whole new batch of contestants (including higher profile acts like Yale University’s Whiffenpoofs and the University of Oregon’s On the Rocks). Nick Lachey is back again serving as host (he remains one of the most engaging personalities of the boy band era) and the three judges — Boyz II Men member Shawn Stockman, Pussycat Dolls head mistress Nicole Scherzinger and piano rocker Ben Folds — have all returned for second stints as well.
Though all of the judges are excellent, the show really does belong to Folds. His responses to the performances exist in a middle ground that isn’t normally permitted on television, as he’s biting without really being mean and insightful without being fawning. It’s the sort of balance that they would never be able to strike on “American Idol.” And in addition to being the chief songwriter for breakout indie band Ben Folds Five and having a long and fruitful solo career, Folds also has plenty of a cappella in his background. He would often lead instrument-free singalongs during his solo shows (check out the version of “Army” on his Ben Folds Live album), and he recently put out a collection of his songs performed by a number of different a cappella groups. He has both the chops and the experience to really deliver in the judges’ chair.
But mostly he is an engaging personality, and it’s a crime the he doesn’t have a regular gig as a talk show host, band leader or pundit. (In the old days of MTV, he would have made a great VJ.) All we have is his music, which is roundly excellent. He just put out a collection of songs made up entirely of lyrics written by “High Fidelity” scribe Nick Hornby (it’s called Lonely Avenue), but his most enduring work remains “Brick,” the breakout 1998 single from Whatever and Ever Amen that turned Folds into something of a household name.
What did you think of the premiere of the new season of “The Sing-Off”? Let us know in the comments!