Monthly Archives: March 2012

HOOKED ON PENTATONIX — PART 2: SYNERGY IN FULL FORCE

The acts that performed in all three seasons of The Sing-Off are formidable and the performances they deliver are of superior quality.  The champions of the first two seasons, Puerto Rico’s Nota and Alabama’s Committed, have consistency and the quality of their performances were generally indeed the creamiest in their seasons.  But as brilliant as these two groups were, their styles tend to harken to older musical styles, and are rather too familiar–Nota specializes in mixing in Latin flavor in their contemporary pop tunes, while Committed is essentially very similar to Boyz II Men, with extra “church” thrown in.  So far the albums they released only managed to chart at the lower half of the Billboard 200.  There ought to be an a cappella act that could be relevant and radio-ready to break through…

Nota (courtesy of Trae Patton for NBC).
Committed (image courtesy of NBC)

…and I think we found it with Pentatonix, the 3rd season champion.

Pentatonix (image courtesy of NBC)

So who are Pentatonix, and why do I think they are so special?

The core of the group is formed by three high school friends from Martin High School in Arlington, Texas: Scott Hoying, Kristie Maldonado, and Mitch Grassi.  Individually, they are stellar vocalists in their own right.  Scott is the most experienced and the one who already had previous national TV exposure, having competed in the 2004 revival of Star Search (hosted by Arsenio Hall)–junior singer category, of course (he was 12 then).  During his stint he performed a whitebread Billy Gilman number titled “There’s A Hero”, a commendable though just-okay and clearly imperfect performance.  He lost against Karina Pasiano during that time.  Anyway, it’s a good thing that as he grew up his voice evolved into this highly appealing radio-friendly low-tenor/high-baritone range, developed a taste for more current Pop, Soul and R&B music, and learned to connect with the songs he sings better, making him a more compelling performer and vocalist.

Kirstie and Mitch, meanwhile, were oriented towards musical theater in high school as most of their performances feature repertoire from Broadway musicals.

I think it’s a blessing they were enrolled in Martin High School in Arlington, Texas as this school seemed to be a perfect nurturing ground for their talents.  Contrast this to the fictional McKinley High School in Lima, Ohio of the TV series Glee, as it is likely this trio would be perfect Slushie bait there.  They do seem to each have a Glee character archetype from what I have observed:  Scott is like Blaine if he has Finn’s body*, Kirstie is like an amalgam of Rachel and Tina, while based on voice alone Mitch is obviously like Kurt.

Blaine & FInn on Glee (image courtesy of Fox TV).
Rachel & Tina on Glee
Kurt from Glee (image courtesy of Fox)

* NOTE:  Darren Criss, the one who is playing Blaine, originally auditioned for Finn’s role, which went of course to Cory Monteith.

If these three were to compete individually, they would each make a strong impression in the likes of American Idol, The Voice, and X Factor.  Scott would probably make the most impact, probably even going as far as Top 3 on Idol or even X Factor.  Mitch would make most serious inroads in The Voice with that distinctively high tenor voice of his (Maroon 5’s Adam Levine and Cee-Lo Green would probably be battling over him).  Though Kirstie is an undeniably talented and strong vocalist, she may get the short-end of the stick here as because she’s trained to be malleable from the Broadway repertoire she sang in high school, it would make it seem that her voice lacks a “unique” or “distinctive” quality that would allow her to make serious inroads into any of these individual competitions, so the most she would probably end up is a semifinalist in any of those contests (albeit a well-regarded, should’ve-made-farther type of contestant like, say American Idol Season 9’s Katelyn Epperly or Lilly Scott or Season 10’s Kendra Chantelle).

But as fate would have it, these three friends decided to become a group, generating initial buzz as Scott uploaded their version of “Telephone” on YouTube, and then received offers to perform like as an interval act in their high school’s spring concert, shown below.  They also performed two more songs as a trio that are posted on YouTube, Beyonce’s “Sweet Dreams” and Katy Perry’s “Firework“.  They also are friends with American Idol Season 9 semifinalist Todrick Hall, and collaborated on a number where they set a Starbucks order into a song.

Even as they were catching sparks as a trio, obviously they were aspiring for something bigger, to be an ongoing concern and to have thriving careers as performers, preferably together as a group.  First, they know the best way to get national exposure as an a cappella act is to compete onThe Sing-Off.  Second, they know that to compete and win (with a recording contract), they would need to have a distinctively full-bodied sound, something that cannot be achieved by three members.  One thing they realized they crucially needed to fulfill their “Eye of the Tiger” ambition is a rhythm section, so they could focus better on their strengths with melodies and harmonies.

After graduating high school, Scott enrolled in the University of Southern California and joined the a cappella vocal group SoCal Vocals (not to be confused with The Sing-Off Season 1 act, the SoCals, who are alumni of that group) and while he was there, he learned of a great vocal bass named Avi Kaplan through a friend.  Avi was part of the International Championship of Collegiate A Cappella (ICCA) champion group of 2009, Fermata Nowhere, where he also earned distinction as “Best Rhythm Section” (formerly “Best Percussionist” but because he’s not technically a percussionist but a vocal bass, they renamed the distinction specifically to honor him).  Augmenting his skills as a vocal bass is that he can also do overtone singing (also known as throat singing, which most people heard about from tribesmen in Tuva, Russia).

To complete the rhythm section, Scott discovered the renowned cello-beatboxer named Kevin Olusola via his 1-million-viewed viral video hit “Julie-O” on YouTube.  Kevin is an overachieving East Asian Studies graduate with premed credits from Yale University who had a 1 1/2 year scholarship stint in China (with authentic skills speaking Mandarin).  Besides his cello and beatboxing talents, he could also play the saxophone and vocally he likewise provides the brass section (like the flugelhorn) from time to time.  His Renaissance-man array of talents along with the arsenal of vocal tricks he could provide makes me recall cartoon character Ferb Fletcher from the Disney Channel TV series Phineas and Ferb, especially since in musical numbers in that cartoon series, he provides so many various types of vocal sounds.

Ferb Fletcher of Phineas and Ferb (image courtesy of Disney Channel).

Pitting these five individuals together is a perfect example of synergy at work.  Individually, these five members have achieved distinction with their talents, but together, what they could deliver is exponentially beyond the sum of their parts.  As the weeks of The Sing-Off competition wore on, they frequently provided moments of pure musical alchemy on the way to becoming the champions.  To close this part of my essay, I shall feature a couple of performances from The Sing-Off that only provide a hint of their brilliance–their first number, Katy Perry’s “E.T.”, and their last non-collaborative performance before being declared champions, David Guetta featuring Usher’s “Without You”.

On the final part of this essay, I’ll feature the five best Pentatonix performances at The Sing-Offand what they have been up to after their victory.

HOOKED ON PENTATONIX — PART 1: THE SING-OFF

I am aware that many people are fixated over American Idol, or (if you’re in the US or an Asian who has the cable channel AXN) the Voice, or perhaps are waiting with bated breath with the fresh shake-up being planned for the US edition of X-Factor.  I’m definitely a fan of those shows, too, but my issue with these reality singing competitions especially during the live performance rounds is that from a musical standpoint we have to endure a varying amount of dreadful performances before arriving at some magical musical moments.  One reality-based singing competition for me provides more satisfying music for the buck and it is not one of the shows I mentioned above.  Ironically, this particular show specializes in showcasing groups performing without musical instruments–a cappella, as it is termed.  I’m of course referring to The Sing-Off.

This series debuted on NBC in December 2009, conceptualized originally as a special series that would span in a two-week period during the Christmas season.  It proved to be a success during the first two seasons that NBC decided to see how it would fare if they went bigger and structure the program as a weekly series in a regular season–unfortunately, probably due to the fact that it went against stronger more-established series (like Dancing with the Stars), ratings plummeted.  Which is such a shame as there are superbly sterling performances in this season, too, and it yielded a champion that is the reason why I’m writing this essay (just look at the title).

The series is hosted by former 98 Degrees singer Nick Lachey.  His hosting style might be considered milquetoast compared to say, Ryan Seacrest or So You Think You Can Dance host Cat Deeley (for me, the best reality competition show host ever!), but his style is pleasantly unobtrusive enough to be almost downright comforting and reliable.  He does have a couple of noticeable traits–wardrobe that rarely deviates from shades of grey or purple, and a penchant for puns (usually related to the song the group would be performing at that moment).

Host and judges, season 1 & 2 (from L-R): Shawn Stockman, Nick Lachey, Nicole Scherzinger, Ben Folds (image sourced from sugarslam.com).

The judging panel does seem to follow the classic American Idol example set by Simon Cowell, Paula Abdul, and Randy Jackson, though with a few twists.  In my opinion, they could probably be improvements on the original model, though some might feel they sound defanged as they generally give positive constructive criticism.  But then again, if these judges pinpoint the flaws in a performance, however constructively they are delivered, you have a feeling that act might be in danger of getting eliminated (because the slightest flaw, as it turns out, could spell the difference between staying put or being eliminated).

The Simon in the judging panel is Ben Folds, but in lieu of Simon’s famously mean and snarky critiques, we have an extremely keen ear for detail, professorial musical expertise, and wry witticisms.  He may not have sold as many records as his other colleagues (his biggest hit is the airplay-only song “Brick” back in 1997), but he generally garners critical acclaim and has great credibility among music insiders.

Clearly the “Paula” in the first two seasons of The Sing-Off was former Pussycat Doll Nicole Scherzinger.  Like Paula, her insights could be shallow, or sometimes a bit spacey-sounding and far-out, but generally she does act like a supportive cheerleader for the contestants.  She had to leave the panel for third season, because she was hired to be part of X-Factor, which turned out to be a controversial judging stint (and she was among those ousted in a massive shakeup after the season concluded, along with co-judge Paula Abdul and host Steve Jones).

It might be a bit too obvious to pin Boyz II Men singer Shawn Stockman as the Randy Jackson in this bunch.  Yes, he’s black, and he speaks like the way we expect a black American man would speak (while Randy would go “Yo, dawg”, Shawn tends to go with “Maaaannn….”).  But he has about 50-100 times Randy’s vocabulary and infinitely more wit, wisdom and insight, on top of the fact that during moments he would be at a loss for words (like when, as Nicole puts it, he goes into a “musical orgasm”), even those moments would be more articulate than what Randy would be able to utter.

In fact, in his DNA seems to also contain a judge from another reality-based competition show–So You Think You Can Dance‘s ballroom-oriented judge Mary Murphy.  While Mary would have her legendary screams, Shawn would have his visceral, bodily reactions that would speak as loudly as a Mary Scream.

Replacing Nicole in the judging panel for the third season is hit singer-songwriter Sara Bareilles (best known for “Love Song” and “King of Anything”).  In my opinion, she actually is like the Kara Dioguardi of this panel, except she’s way more charming, insightful and less prone to malapropisms (though she goes inadvertently naughty at times).  She also has a cappella credibility as she performed in an a cappella group back in college.

Season 3 host and judges (from L-R): Ben Folds, Sara Bareilles, Shawn Stockman, Nick Lachey (sourced from eonline.com).

To demonstrate the quality of the acts featured in the show, I would like to highlight two acts that were eliminated after their first performances, Berkeley College act Pitch-Slapped (season 2) and veteran Branson, MO act the Cat’s Pajamas.

A couple of unique features of this show is that when an act gets eliminated, they would perform a “swan song”, which usually would sound so good you either wish they should’ve sounded like that when they performed, or just wish they were not eliminated.  The other feature is their stunning opening numbers, where all acts in competition perform all together–to my ears, this is what a choir of angels would sound like, that’s how blissful these opening number performances are.  Contrast that to how usually a trainwreck the American Idol group performances would be.  Featured below is a season 2 opening number performance of “With a Little Help from My Friends” (I will be counting down the best opening number performances in a subsequent blog).

It only gets better from here… I’ll finally talk about the group in question in the second part of this blog.