Monday, October 26, 2015

album review: 'pentatonix' by pentatonix

I was hesitant about covering this album. And no, not just because covering fellow YouTubers always makes me feel a bit awkward - although you could argue that most acts starting these days can present themselves as YouTubers if they do enough vlogs. And it's not that YouTubers can't transition to making very respectable music - there are plenty of examples that proves that misguided assumption false, look at Lindsey Stirling. 

No, my concern was rooted in something a little more universal, with the closest analogue being when the one big hit of a one-hit wonder is a cover... because eventually you have to start writing your own songs, define a unique musical identity. It was one of the biggest stumbling blocks that hit Karmin with their major label debut, and deep down I was dreading that happening here with Pentatonix, the five person singing group that became a YouTube powerhouse with a capella arrangements and covers of popular songs. Now I'll admit to not being a huge fan of Pentatonix - I liked a lot of their covers, they had unique personality, but they were never really a group I found as more than a curiosity... but maybe that was being unfair, because they had always included a few original tracks across their albums and the five-person a cappella presentation guaranteed they'd have that unique personality that so many one-hit wonders have lacked - hell, they've already won a Grammy for it! And besides, if you cover so much material, you've bound to pick up some tricks from the best in terms of melodic composition and writing, so I did have hope this would come together - after all, I wouldn't have gotten this many requests if this wasn't a good project, right? So I checked out the self-titled album from Pentatonix - were all of my fears unfounded?

Well, here's the thing: how much you'll like this album is dependent upon how much you've accepted the increasing wave of a capella music in modern pop. And thanks to the musical successes of Glee and Pitch Perfect, if you're a fan of either, you'll have an easy entry point into Pentatonix. But even if you're not into either - and I would get why, they both hit real points of diminishing returns - the self-titled record from Pentatonix does have some real high points, at least in terms of infectious pop music that springs from the Internet's unique well of eccentric tastes.

And for a change, my discussion of instrumentation and production will be perhaps the shortest it's ever been: the only instrumentation that's on this album consists of snaps, handclaps, and the vocal percussion and beatboxing from Kevin Olusola - that's it. Any melodic backdrop has to come from the layered vocals of our singers: Mitch Grassi's lilting countertenor, Kirsten Maldonado's strident soprano, Avi Kaplan's supple bass, and Scott Hoying's soulful baritone. Now that's not saying they don't use vocal production - if you listen closely you can pick up the reverb or hints of pitch-correction to add depth and colour to the mix - or that they don't use a full backing choir like on 'Misbehavin' or 'New Year's Day', or which I'd be inclined to say is cheating if it wasn't so well executed. And really, for as polished as the production is - and on some of the R&B-inspired tunes, it very much falls into this vein, for better or worse - it doesn't have that blatantly synthetic or slapdash layering that plagued Glee production that sounded like it was done cheaply and quickly. 

And it helps that the group has great natural chemistry, which is highlighted most on the more traditionally arranged a capella tunes near the back half of the album... but what I wasn't expecting was the choice of leads. Normally Pentatonix has been pretty democratic in deciding who takes the primary vocal line, but across the majority of this album it almost seems to fall by default to Scott Hoying. And this isn't a bad choice: outside of his thin falsetto, Hoying has probably one of the more versatile vocal tones, he's more than capable of handling the lead, but I do think the standard edition of this record could have benefited from giving the others more tracks. Particularly Grassi, who sees most of his leads pushed to the deluxe edition and the covers, and Maldonado and Kaplan only get leads for one song apiece. Granted, they also found room to include an appearance from Jason Derulo on the Shai cover of 'If I Ever Fall In Love', and while Derulo acquits himself well, his looser tones and delivery don't really click into the harmonies quite as well. And I'll say what I always do about groups that have multiple lead singers: if your songwriting doesn't set them to play off of each other in some way, it strikes me as a wasted opportunity.

Granted, the songwriting doesn't really have that sort of ambition beyond your pop staples - love songs, heartbreak, and a few affirmation songs to book-end the album. And honestly, the lyrical content doesn't really stretch into interesting territory beyond a few details - I really liked 'Misbehavin' for playing the Andy Grammer 'Honey I'm Good' mould about having fun on the road and yet staying true, 'Cracked' takes a bluesy stomp that might be a bit out of Pentatonix's wheelhouse when it comes to vocal texture but lyrically is pretty satisfying, and the inversion of hip-hop bragging cliches to focus on the work on 'First Things First' was pretty damn satisfying. That said, it's the usage of those other genre elements on this record where I respect Pentatonix for experimenting, but the steps are awkward to say the least - mostly because there's not a hardcore or rough bone anywhere within this band, and it makes pieces like the rap bridge on 'Sing' feel about as ridiculous as when S Club 7 did it. And it applies to the subject matter too - like it or not, Pentatonix are too warm and affable to make the slamming on an ex who wants to come back on 'Ref' or the icy opulence of 'Rose Gold' believable. That said, while I can appreciate the stab at writing a New Years anthem with 'New Year's Day', it comes across as a bit too slick and cheesy to really stick with me, mostly in the same way that there's a significant chunk of Christmas music that doesn't work with me in the same way anymore. And while I know it's not exactly Pentatonix's fault to criticize the lyrics of the cover, I've always found the sentiment of 'If I Ever Fall In Love' exasperating - if you're so in love with your current girl, why all the more planning for the next one across your chorus? 

Really, where Pentatonix shines most is on tracks like the sunny 'Na Na Na' or 'Misbehavin' - where the vocal melody oddly reminds me of George Ezra's 'Budapest' mixed with the theme from Robot Unicorn Attack - or the anxiousness of 'Water' or the more classical a capella arrangements of 'Take Me Home' and the lullaby-like 'Light In The Hallway'. And really, the best tracks here do enough to raise this album into quality territory, but I do reckon Pentatonix can do more in the future. In short, this album feels transitional, Pentatonix testing the waters with an entire record full of original material and stabs towards sounds they might have utilized on covers but never on a larger scale. And here's the thing: as a full-fledged unit, I'm not sure Pentatonix needed to be so tentative - the writing is perfectly workable for pop and they could have easily gone bigger and grander if they wanted. And while I do think Josh Ramsay's harmonic arrangements on Astoria hit with a more visceral punch, Pentatonix delivered solidly as well, enough for me to give this record a light 7/10. Fans will adore this record, non-fans will find a fair amount to like, and given how well this album has sold, Pentatonix probably have a bright future ahead. And you really can't complain about that.

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