Since last writing, my favorite a cappella group Pentatonix posted two videos of cover songs. The first is a “produced” (a.k.a., non-sofa or home-based) video featuring a mash-up of Swedish House Mafia’s “Save the World” and “Don’t You Worry Child”. They have been performing the former in some of their later concerts in their recent concert tour, but they decided that the latter hit fits right in so they went for a mash-up, and the results are the usual stellar quality we expect from this quintet. It is of course the kind of sound they explicitly wanted to make, club-based “futuristic a cappella”. Mission accomplished.
Just three days ago, Pentatonix posted a fresh new video with them dressed in wacky thrift store costumes as the song they performed is titled “Thrift Shop”. Admittedly I never heard of this song before though I did glance at the fact that this number was rising up the Billboard Hot 100 charts (now currently at No. 2). Admittedly at first listen, I found this to be more of a quirky experiment with Avi taking the lead singing the hook of the song and the three singers dabbling (very well, I might add) in rapping.
But then on repeated listen (all “Pentaholics” know that they could not resist repeating watching any Pentatonix performance, no?), this “experiment” started turning out to be another in their roster of marvelous gems, in my reckoning up there with “Love Lockdown”, “Dog Days Are Over”, “Somebody That I Used To Know”, “We Are Young”, and yes, “Gangnam Style”. Besides the treat of hearing Avi singing at the forefront, I marvel that Mitch’s rapping (backed with appropriate beats by Kevin) made me suddenly recall old-school rapping by the Fresh Prince (now better known as Will Smith), how the rapid-fire three-part harmonies by Scott, Mitch, and Kirstie gave a Latin twist to the hip-hop track, Kirstie’s utterly comic high-pitched vocals, and Avi’s “Shut up, fool!” at the end of the song. Moreover, upon listening to the original, it’s also incredible how sometimes they actually rapped the verses faster than the original and the creative ways of sanitizing the salty language of the original lyrics with their own customized twist. So, enjoy their cover of “Thrift Shop” below–it is indeed “freaking awesome!”
Listening to Pentatonix’s cover made me want to discover more about the original song and about the artists. Little did I expect that the original is such a quirky, funky blast with an utterly fresh, original sound (like that trumpet blaring throughout repetitively, for instance). It had me at the “Whut? Whut?” intro and it continues to take a firm hold over me beyond the “Is that your grandma’s coat?” spoken ending. I immediately then read the Wikipedia profile of the rapper and found that he is also noted for the pro-gay rights number “Same Love”. It intrigued me that I wanted to delve deeper into his oeuvre, and I was amazed at what I found. But, first, let’s enjoy the hit song…
It’s clearly a rarity that a rapper comes forward to embrace gay rights, but what is amazing about the song “Same Love” is the way the compassionate lyrics still has a hard-hitting edge to it, and with the retro-gospel arrangement and melody (and the soulful singing at the chorus by Mary Lambert), it’s a very spiritual listen. It’s almost as soul-stirring as that Impressions’ classic “People Get Ready” (it does melodically resemble it). Only people with hearts of stone would not be moved by this beautiful number. It was released prior to “Thrift Shop” and charted as a “bubbling under” hit in America. Hope it gets another push as it’s really good–but then again, we’re dealing with “conservative” America here. At least in more “liberal” Australia, it charted at No. 9 (“Thrift Shop” already went all the way to No. 1 there).
Producer Ryan Lewis is a highly creative individual whose skills are not simply confined to DJ-ing and producing. He also co-directed several of the videos (including the two mentioned above) and is also a photographer and graphic designer. The arrestingly distinctive (and occasionally idiosyncratic) visual and sonic stylings that Ryan contributes to their various videos and songs show that the DIY (do-it-yourself) philosophy does not necessarily mean a cheap-and-grimy aesthetic but rather something that epitomizes of the phrase “value-for-money” (in several senses of the word).
I’ve noticed that in some of Macklemore’s rapping style is both rapid fire but very intelligible, and some of his most compelling socially conscious numbers articulate messages that are crystal clear and strike close to one’s core without sounding preachy. Take a gander at his videos for “Wings” (a comment on consumerism using Nike shoes as a metaphor) and “Otherside” (a candid chronicle of his own drug addiction). “Wings” seems to be like a serious flip-side and precursor to the lighter-hearted smash hit “Thrift Shop”.
As intense as his serious raps could be, Macklemore can also provide levity like in “Thrift Shop” above and his hilariously silly video “And We Danced”. Also check out his celebratory song in collaboration with the soulful Ray Dalton, “Can’t Hold Us”.
I’ve rarely fallen hard for a musical act so suddenly and quickly (I only began listening to this music for only three days as of this writing). I guess the convictions expressed in the songs are sentiments I fully subscribe and with the mind-blowing quality of the music, I am now a major fan. Hopefully the rest of the world would realize that there is more to this act than the fun “Thrift Shop”.
As a parting shot, I will feature two other cover versions of the rising smash hit “Thrift Shop”–a stunning violin-and-guitar cover by YouTube stars Lindsay Stirling and Tyler Ward, and a parody version called “Pot Shop” by Steve Berke.