A cappella group’s original album exceptional in style and execution
Leading-edge a cappella group, Pentatonix released their first original album, self-titled Pentatonix, on October 16, 2015. The dynamic seventeen-track list ranges from R&B to pop, with a hint of reggae and classical a cappella mixed in.
Pentatonix originated in 2011 for The Sing-Off, an a cappella game show. After winning first place, they created a YouTube channel to post covers of songs, attracting a following with their distinctive style and talent. Since then, they have amassed over 9 million YouTube subscribers, collaborated with distinguished musicians like Lindsey Stirling, Jason Derulo, and Tori Kelly, and won a Grammy for their medley “Daft Punk.” Their newest album stems from the desire to be considered a band “like Maroon 5 or Coldplay,” beatboxer and singer Kevin Olusola said in an interview with Billboard.
The album starts out with an upbeat clapping rhythm and moves into a vocal melody with lyrics full of optimism, easing the listener into the boisterous chorus section of “Na Na Na.” Most of the song lineup alternates between heavy and relaxed vibes, creating an overall engaging album. Their intros are intriguing and catches the listener’s attention quickly, and lyrics dance through vivid imagery, meaning, and sharp rhythmic lines. The best moments occur when the group leads the progression of sound through unexpected, dissonantly beautiful twists, such as in the bridge of “Misbehavin’” and near the end of “New Year’s Day.”
Additionally, the individual singers show an impressive amount of musical flexibility in this album. Scott Hoying, the mid-range voice, expresses every variation of style – reggae, light R&B, heavy pop – as though it were his sole specialty. Mitch Grassi, the highest male voice, sings lower than in any other Pentatonix song in the intensely techno “Ref” and exercises huge restraint in the relaxed way he flows through the melodies of “Na Na Na” and “New Year’s Day.”
Kirstie Maldonado, often neglected by critics, sings the main part of “Water” with a smooth, crystal tone, but her skills are exemplified most in “Ref,” in which she switches her voice from intense sass to gentle sweetness quickly between verse and chorus. Avi Kaplan, bass, leads the verses of “Can’t Sleep Love” through unusual upward turns and sings lullaby “Light in the Hallway.” Olusola simultaneously makes percussive and electronic sounds in “Cheerleader,” debuts his rapping abilities in “Sing,” and pushes songs through transitions skillfully. The album is solid thanks to the individual strengths of the musicians.
Being an ardent fan of Pentatonix, though, I recognized a few aspects that bothered me significantly. The first is the overall Hoying-heavy instrumentation – Hoying sings a main part in thirteen of the seventeen songs. While Hoying is a strong vocalist and officially the “lead singer,” Pentatonix’s best pieces are the ones where each member of the band gets a chance to shine equally, like in their old arrangements of “Can’t Hold Us” or, especially, “Daft Punk.” In the new album, each member of the group showcases their talent clearly at specific points as well as subtly throughout the music, but overall Hoying’s parts outweigh theirs.
Moreover, parts of the production itself aren’t as strong as they could be, or cause awkwardness in performance. Grassi has lovely harmonies in “Sing” that are barely audible in the mix, but musically could have added much to the forward motion of the song. But bigger than that is the fact that Pentatonix overlaps their voices in up to three layers at once for the sake of creating a fuller sound. This tactic makes it extremely difficult for the group to perform some of the more intricate pieces live, including “Cracked,” “Ref,” and “Can’t Sleep Love.” Ultimately, though, the fuller sound they produce sounds amazing and expresses something new and bold for them. Whether the overlayering sacrifice is worth the cost will be determined by live concerts to come.
As a whole, Pentatonix’s new album is dynamic, talent-driven, dance-inducing, and a huge push for the group’s musical growth. On October 26, Pentatonix hit No. 1 on the Billboard 200 chart, making Pentatonix the first a cappella group in history to achieve this honor. Judging from the album’s well-thought-out compositions, smooth execution, and strong sense of style and variety, they most definitely deserve it.
Rating: 4.7 stars