Pentatonix (self-titled) Review.

Now that the scrappy kids are a full-fledged success story, how does thier newest album stack-up?

When Pentatonix released thier first album, PTX Vol. I, I went looking for a review. As a fan of the group who won “The Sing-Off,” I was wishing them well, and hoping to find kind words posted by the usual music outlets.

But I didn’t find a darn thing. Apparently, the music world was not immediately leaping at the chance to see what the young winners had to offer. So I thought to myself, “I’ve got a blog, time to try my hand at a review.” I do believe that It was the first review of their freshman effort, and I still get numerous hits on that blog post. It was actually my first review of anything, and it was a post from a humorist, to boot. It Just proves that OTHER people were also desperate for a review: they actually settled for mine

Well, they certainly don’t need this pseudo-reviewer’s opinion, anymore. Pentatonix is a Grammy-winning pop group, spreading thier message of a cappella-relevance in an increasingly loop-driven world. In fact, the production is perhaps a bit over-slick to try to compete on that level; filled with echo, some chorus channeling and heavy duty bass for Kevin’s beat-boxing, to be certain that it has a modern sheen over the already reality-bending capabilities of the group.

This heavy-hand can be a good thing, and a bad thing. The higher the slick factor, the more I fear that the group’s sensibilities will be lost to the newer listener – as far as I know, including this album, they don’t overdub; they sing it in one take, so to speak, and bounce from lead to backup to lead in the same song, giving the amazing illusion of more than just thier five members. With production at this hit-machine level, people may assume overdubs, and miss some of the subtleties that give their signature sound it’s amazing punch.

Make no mistake, in this current release, all that punch is present in full-force. In fact, my main criticism of thier last (non-holidy) work, PTX 3, was the lack of a really “blow my socks off” number. This one starts with that punch, and manages to hold onto the “wow factor” for quite some time. However, the energy starts to wane in the last third of the album, as if the group couldn’t bear to part with a couple of the tunes that they had worked so hard on. And work hard, they did, as the main album is 99.9% all original tunes – unheard of in the current world of a Cappella music, which is known for taking current hits and spinning them in an all-vocal direction. The only cover on the main album is truly done as a cover, not a gimmick.

The extended version brings in the more traditional pop remixes, and feels like a tacked-on, “RCA said we should” set of tunes, including a remix of thier own original tune, Can’t Sleep Love, featuring the rap artist Tink. Good for them, good for promotion, but not really good for the album itself. I’ll be sticking with the bulk of the main album for listening, and use the extra tunes when I’m doing a giant mash-up on random of all thier albums – they’re all well done, but don’t really add to the main album.

The album suffers from a bit of repetitiveness as it draws to a close – Cracked, Take Me Home, and New Years Day evoke the exact same tone as earlier tracks, causing the last third of the album to slow down. However, the main album ends with the haunting, tear-inducing, Light In The Hallway. Avi, the groups baseline, sings with such feeling, and the groups backs him up with such heart that there is no way the average person won’t be moved emotionally.

And that is the key to Pentatonix – good singers sing well, even amazingly, but without the performance, the emotion, they are simply singers. What made Sinatra? Why is Mel Torme still drawing in a crowd in his eighties? The ability to bring music into the heart. Despite some missteps, Pentatonix’s self titled album continues to deliver music with wow-factor, and offers hear-felt performances greater than the physical years of its members.

Imperfections aside, here are young professionals in the top of their talent. Now I think they stand at a crossroads: Can a hit-driven music industry handle an A Cappella group? When you move from the slickly-produced tunes to a simpler, vocal-driven peice, does your new audience follow? If they added instruments, as I’m certain RCA probably pushed for, would they still be Pentatonix?

Previous albums from the group have been ninety-percent pop-cover remixes, and ten-percent original tunes. This one flips it, ninety-plus percent original, with some tacked-on pop covers. I think a natural progression for the next album would be ninety-percent A Cappella, and ten-percent traditional instruments. It would give radio a slick Pentatonix tune, and allow them to stay more true to thier A Cappella roots, instead of mixing-to-the-hilt for impact. I think we would all be accepting of an expansion of Pentatonix’s musical direction.

But what the heck do I know? I’m a humorist. =)

Here is a breakdown of my notes while listening to the album, track by track. My initial reactions are there – with (most of) the grammar cleaned up to protect the innocent:

  1. Na Na Na. Good intro, boisterous and exciting, exactly what I didn’t find in PTX Volume 3
  2. Can’t Sleep Love. The single of sorts from the album. Great mix, definite push to be competitive with current pop and r&b offerings from people who use instruments or those darn new-fangled computer loop thingies…
  3. Sing. Rolling stone blasted this song for simplistic lyrics – I’m sorry, didn’t they notice Pharrell’s “Happy” is just as sappy and silly – a great effort to bring about this type of catchy, everybody join in type of tune.
  4. Misbehavin’. Once again, were purposely hitting the pop notes – complete with “yup” for a timbaland vibe – yes, I know what that is. Even with its do wop vibe.
  5. Ref. So far, the tightest tune in the album. Catchy, clever. It all comes together well. Surprised that it wasn’t the initial single release.
  6. First Things first. Fits well after ref, continuing the sharp, professional pop mix. It’s always hard to believe that Kevin is driving the beat with nothing but his mouth and a ton of clever – and now, with the more competitively-driven mix, He sounds even more super-human.
  7. Rose Gold. Just a freaking awesome tune. Someone please tell me how much practice it took for everyone to sound electronic in the background.
  8. If I ever Fall In Love. Pentatonix’s take on an r&b classic by Shai, with Jason Durello in tow – It’s easily the poster child for ridiculous vocal showmanship. Damn.
  9. Cracked. Okay. Love you guys, but now we’re getting a bit long in the tooth, or a little unfocused. This song has the exact same vibe in the chorus as the opening track, and I’m no longer feeling the freshness of the earlier songs.
  10. Water. Kirsty gets a song, and that’s a good thing. She often backs up the boys, and Scott is a perfect front-man, but everyone in the group is incredibly talented, and it’s always good to hear them on their own.
  11. Take Me Home. An ensemble peice. Simple, once again allowing the vocals to be front and center, instead of cranking up the production machine. However, at this point, it’s feeling, as Cracked did, as if it’s already been done earlier.
  12. New Year’s Day would be great on PTX Christmas 3, but here, it is way to reminiscent of Rose Gold.
  13. Light In The Hallway is the end-peice to the main album. Avi takes the lead, and the whole thing brought tears to my eyes. It’s that good. Good singers sing well, even amazingly, but great singers “perform” the work, embuing mood and resonance into the life of the listener. Pentatonix are beyond talented, and kill it.
  14. – 17. Now, we’re into the deluxe edition songs. Frankly, never mind. The album was complete with Light in the hallway. The next four tracks are three pop remixes, and an extended version of Cant Sleep Love with Tink. It feels like RCA informed them that it was necessary to include these to be certain not to alienate thier fans who have followed them since the sing off. Fine. But it pushes the album into “Amadeus” territory: there’s just so many random pop songs the royal ear can hear… =)

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