Thursday, June 1, 2017

An Impressive "Debut" Without Enough Substantive Hook: Pentatonix (Deluxe Edition)

The Good: Amazing vocals and musical abilities, Many good lyrics
The Bad: Some predictable lines, Very few hooks for the songs outside the novelty of how the music is created
The Basics: Predictably amazing on the vocal and vocal music front, Pentatonix (Deluxe Edition) is a tough sell in that most of the songs are unfortunately forgettable after the album is done playing.

I am not, historically, a fan of reality television or competition style television shows. It's just not my thing. In fact, I have absolutely no idea how my wife and I ended up watching most of the third season of The Sing-Off on NBC. I can't even think of what might have been on NBC before or after it that we were watching, but somehow, I became aware, interested and impressed by Pentatonix from that. Pentatonix is an a capella quintet that impressively performed cover songs on The Sing-Off (and for much of their musical career since) with a powerful and distinctive style. Using only their voices - no musical instruments - Pentatonix has done an awesome job of reinventing songs previously created by other people.

But, for my first Pentatonix album I decided to listen to and review, I went with Pentatonix (Deluxe Edition), which is the group's fourth studio album and their first to be dominated by original tunes. With seventeen songs, clocking out at 54:07, Pentatonix (Deluxe Edition) is largely the creative work of the quintet Pentatonix. The members of Pentatonix arranged all seventeen songs and they are credited as writers or co-writers on thirteen of the seventeen songs. The quintet performs all of the vocals and use their voices to create what often sounds like instrumental accompaniment. Pentatonix is also credited as a co-producer on Pentatonix (Deluxe Edition), so it does seem like this is exactly the creative vision the band had for the album.

What is perhaps most surprising for me, as someone who listened to the early works of Pentatonix on The Sing-Off is that the lead vocals on Pentatonix (Deluxe Edition) are delivered most frequently by Kirstin Maldonado. Maldonado was distinctive on The Sing-Off for bringing an amazing soprano voice to songs that had been previously performed by men. For the bulk of Pentatonix (Deluxe Edition), Maldonado delivers supporting vocals instead of presenting most of the album's compelling lines.

Pentatonix (Deluxe Edition) is a powerful a capella pop album that is reminiscent of Boys II Men for the harmonies and . . . someone far more techno-dance-pop for the rest. Most of the album is made up of danceable pop numbers with up-tempo beats and the deeper vocalists creating basslines and melodies that compliment the smooth singing. In many ways, Pentatonix (Deluxe Edition) is a celebration of the predictably great. "Rose Gold," for example, features vocal accompaniments that sound like bells. And it would be absolutely amazing for anyone . . . but we expect this level from Pentatonix. That does not diminish what they are doing on Pentatonix (Deluxe Edition), but the truth is that the band has been so successful by pushing the envelope of what vocalists and harmonies can create. The quality of the music on Pentatonix (Deluxe Edition) endures because the sounds like the bell-like harmonies and reverb sound on "Rose Gold" quickly lose their novelty and the listener gets lost in the actual music they are hearing. In other words, by the time "Misbehavin'" comes up on the album, the listener is lost in the music instead of just thinking, "That can't really just be their voices!"

The lead vocals on Pentatonix (Deluxe Edition) are homogeneously good. In fact, only "Rose Gold" features lines that are not quite articulated clearly enough to make every word perfectly heard. The rest of the album tells a decent series of musical stories poetically and clearly.

Many of the songs on Pentatonix (Deluxe Edition) have the members of the band exploring the nature of celebrity. While that is not uncommon as a subject for young musical artists, Pentatonix manages to make the conflicts and questions raised by competing for celebrity sound fresh and new. With lines like "Sing, sing, sing, sing / Sing it out as hard as you can / Make 'em hear ya from LA to Japan / Don't let 'em bring you down / This is how we do it now" ("Sing"), Pentatonix explores their own journey into celebrity with a very original quality.

Pentatonix (Deluxe Edition) also allows the members of the band to explore singing about relationships. From the strangely upbeat musical exploration of a badly ended relationship ("Cracked") to the paranoia that can come surrounding fidelity issues ("Misbehaving"), the members of Pentatonix have a lot to sing about about relationships! When Mitch Grassi and Scott Hoying sing "Everyone around me is just kissin' on somebody / But I'm just dancing by myself around the lobby / I'm having a good time, oh, oh / And I've had two too many / But I'm just doing this to pass the time" ("Misbehavin'"), Pentatonix makes musical the awkwardness of avoiding any form of temptation when away from the one the musical protagonist loves.

Kirstin Maldonado breaks out on "Water." Sounding at moments like Amy Lee and Imogen Heap, Maldonado explodes vocally with poetics that sound incredibly authentic (she was only one of three writers on the song). Maldonado sings longing incredibly well when she articulates "If I showed you all I really want to / Would you stay, dare to push me away / I just can't return anymore / Timid heart, hide my scars / Make me stronger / I can't take this any longer / I need, I need you like water" ("Water").

Pentatonix (Deluxe Edition) is an impressive creative debut for Pentatonix. In fact, most of the cover songs that are presented on the Deluxe Edition stand out for being less of a good fit with the band's original works. But the more I listened to Pentatonix (Deluxe Edition), the more I kept thinking of what I would come back to the album for. Outside "Misbehavin'" and "Take Me Home," none of the songs got stuck in my head the days after I listened to Pentatonix (Deluxe Edition) on heavy replay. As a result, it is hard not to think of Pentatonix (Deluxe Edition) as a masterwork of technical greatness that just has not quite found their own musical and lyrical statement to make that hooks the listener as much as the novelty of how they create their music.

The best song is "Misbehavin'," the low point is "New Year's Day."

For other albums that are vocally-driven, please check out my reviews of:
Both Sides Now - Joni Mitchell
Live: Working Without A Net - Janis Ian
Jagged Little Pill Acoustic - Alanis Morissette


For other music reviews, please check out my Music Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2017 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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