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There is no Simon Cowell among the judges on The Sing-Off. Ben Folds is the toughest among them, but he always frames his criticisms as constructively as possible, while Sara Bareilles and Shawn Stockman are cheerleaders who give occasional gentle nudges of advice. Which means it’s not always easy—-particularly as the competition narrows and the quality heightens—-to tell who’s going to land in the Bottom Two. One has to read between the lines a bit.

Take Afro-Blue’s first performance last night (theme: R&B past and present). The Howard University jazz group’s song was Mariah Carey‘s smash “We Belong Together,” with an arrestingly simple arrangement that nimbly supported Christie Dashiell‘s affecting lead. Actually, the arrangement built in complexity as it went on, but it was always directly subordinate to Dashiell. (Kudos are due, however, to backup singer Mariah Maxwell and to percussion vocalists Brian Vickers and Reggie Bowens). It was straightforward, connected, and emotionally honest. Exactly the kind of performance the judges have been cultivating in Afro-Blue all along.

Their response? Pretty good. Bareilles started with a twinkly “I love you! I love you!” and singled out the percussionists. Stockman congratulated them on learning that arrangements are about owning the song, not vice versa, finishing with a warm “Good job.” Folds complimented them on their technical choices (“the belltones coming down on seconds…it just shimmers when you do that”), capped with another “great job,” and in between gave a somewhat frustrating piece of advice: “When the song is coming out that clearly now, you can afford to put back some of the stuff you might feel is signature to you.”

Good enough. And yet there was something a bit uncertain—-the praise was a bit perfunctory, the consensus that it was solid but not spectacular. Spectacular is increasingly important here, though, and as only the best of the best remain in the contest, that kind of noncommittal praise is worrisome. Then there was that exasperating word from Folds; first you beat all of their ornamental stylings out of them, then you criticize them for not having their signature touches?

It was a criticism that would come back on their classic R&B number, “The Best of My Love.” Dashiell and Danielle Withers took co-leads in a performance that was notable for their different styles: Withers all sparkly charisma, Dashiell effortlessly engaging. The choreography was cute, the enthusiasm infectious, and the technique surprising—-as the song closed, the harmonies thickened and became more unusual.

Folds gave them perfunctory praise again, but heard holes in the chorus (I didn’t), suggesting again that this would be remedied if they “come back a little bit more to Afro-Blue.” Bareilles agreed: “You’ve got that leeway to sort of come back to the party a little bit.” Stockman felt that “in certain parts it kind of came undone, but it still felt good.”

This time there was no doubt, comparing Afro-Blue to the more effusive praise most other acts had received: They would be in the Bottom Two, again. And so they were, alongside Brigham Young University’s Vocal Point. The Utahns, however, had fared less well with the judges on their awky attempts at soul on “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg,” and while they’d been praised for their first performance—-Bobby Brown‘s “Every Little Step”—-a 1989 hit seemed a pretty big stretch for “contemporary R&B.” Nevertheless, this writer was worried, and breathed a gigantic sigh of relief along with Afro-Blue when Vocal Point went home. (Shout-out to member Eliza Berkon, who with every advance looks charmingly shocked, like she’s just walked into a surprise party.)

Finally, in rewatching the performances and judgments for this review, the maddening “Now go back and do what we told you not to” critiques start to make more sense. The judges’ intent was to have Afro-Blue peel back the layers (not remove them entirely) and find the heart of the song, its meaning and its mood; Now, satisfied that Afro-Blue is grasping the songs, the judges are encouraging the group to decorate them again without losing that grasp—-which means decorating only according to what the song requires, not to the utmost of the group’s virtuosity.

That won’t be an easy task either. The good news is, they’ll have another chance to pull it off.