PENTATONIX UPDATE: PTX VOL. III

In the last blog I made before my brother died, we see my favorite group Pentatonix signed up to RCA Records and enlisting the support of Patreon to finance their subsequent music videos.  We are now witnessing the results of these moves as they have now released their latest seven-track EP, PTX Vol. III.  I’ll discuss more about my thoughts on the album later on.

Prior to the album release, Pentatonix filmed a cameo part in Pitch Perfect 2,  playing a rival a cappella group to the protagonists, the Bardem Bellas.  In the real world, no doubt Pentatonix would be unbeatable, but well, they are not the protagonists, but let’s see if they’ll put up a good fight…  Anyway, they’ll be one reason I’ll be looking forward to the movie’s release next year.

As a rival group in Pitch Perfect 2

They also finally got to be in the Pacific region besides China, as they went on a mini-Asian tour–too bad they didn’t set foot in the Philippines, but they went to South Korea, Japan, Singapore, and Australia.  In line with that, their first two EPs were compiled together for the Asia-Pacific market (including this country), bundled together with “Radioactive” (with Lindsay Stirling), “Royals”, and “Say Something”.  For Japan, there is another extra: they have a version of “Let It Go”.  It’s a lovely, reverent rendition of that Frozen mega-smash, though I missed the full-throttle way Mitch performed it as a solo in their Superfruit video.  It’s also interesting to note that this version is now a Mitch-Kirstie duet.

The PTX Vol. III EP features four covers and three originals.  Three of the covers already have music videos as of this posting, and visually, we see the band deviating from their “trademark” look for fresher effects and angles.

The first video they released was their cover of Ariana Grande’s “Problem” (featuring Iggy Azalea and an uncredited Big Sean providing the whispery chorus).  Here we get Scott exploring his higher register (yes, the “head in the clouds” lines were delivered by Scott, not Mitch), Mitch providing the Iggy Azalea rap (with some innovative vocal percussion support from Kevin), and Avi providing a treat at the end as his prominent bass vocal at the end provided a nice twist.  The video feature a nice interplay of edits and shadows on a stark white backdrop.

They followed this up with their mash-up of “featuring Sam Smith”* songs, “La La La” and “Latch” entitled obviously, “La La Latch”.  I love Kirstie’s opening childlike rendition of the “La La La” chorus, and it’s worth marveling how Scott’s higher register can closely approximate how Sam Smith actually sounds like (though Mitch handles the higher-pitched “Latch” chorus).  Another treat for me is how Mitch and Kirstie could approximate an electronic “wah-wah” sound with their harmonies.  In  contrast to the stark white backdrop in the previous video, this video was cast in dark shadows, with a solitary overhead fluorescent light hovering above the quintet.  It does make for a moody atmosphere.

* Though Sam Smith’s vocals were clearly very prominent in the originals and most listeners would think of those numbers as Sam Smith songs, the primary artists for “La La La” and “Latch” were Naughty Boy and Disclosure respectively.

We all know Pentatonix never rests on its laurels and the group always tries to challenge itself in every album, and here the biggest and arguably most rewarding risk is to cover a hit song…in French.  Behold their cover of the Belgian artist Stromae’s pan-continental European smash “Papaoutai” (which is a fanciful spelling of the French phrase “Papa, ou t’es?” which means, “Dad, where are you?”).  Reading the French lyrics, I have to say those lines don’t really fall off the tongue easily and not easy to figure out the proper phrasing simply by reading them (compound with the fact that French spelling is always rather peculiar and daunting with all those silent consonants to begin with).  But Scott did a superb job that even earned the admiration of native French speakers.  Sure, some might quibble that Scott didn’t sound as intense or angry as Stromae was when he spat out the middle verses of the song, but to my ears Scott still conveyed the right emotion–but the real highlight of this recording was the string section provided by Kevin’s cello “Beyonce” and guest violinist Lindsay Sterling–their dissonant, minor key passages underline the painful undercurrent of this deceptively uptempo, danceable song (remember this song is generally railing against a distant father–in Stromae’s case, one must note that his father was one of the casualties of the Rwandan genocide 20 years ago).  Listening to this song, I felt I was transported to a French cafe and was listening to a group of roving musicians seemingly singing a “happy” song, but the string duet tell a rather sad tale that somewhat unsettles you.

The musical recording alone is already a delight to the ears, but then we have the video–this is the most “conceptual” video Pentatonix delivered so far, and is also their most visually striking.  It pays homage to the similarly striking video of Stromae’s original (featuring Stromae playing a mannequin-like father as his frustrated young son observed dancing child-and-parent pairs and danced out his frustration of having a static, distant dad), as Pentatonix and Lindsay Stirling are small dolls/action figures who came to life in front of a boy (who has similar issues getting his dad to spend time with him), and those jerky choreography evoking the hip-hop dance moves of the original.  I now fantasize that Pentatonix and Stromae must perform this song together–probably at the Grammys or even at a European music awards show, or perhaps at a stop in the inevitable Pentatonix European tour (where this song will most likely earn wild cheers from the audience).  I can imagine Stromae popping up to sing out the middle verses in his mannequin self (yes, he poses like a mannequin when he sings this song live, and sometimes before singing he was carried onto the stage as if he was inanimate).  Both song and video are simply c’est magnifique!

I listened to the other tracks and they are also terrific.  The fourth cover song was Clean Bandit’s “Rather Be”, and here is a PTX first–Kirstie is the main solo lead singer on this track and just like Kirstie herself, at first listen it may not be as striking as the other tracks, but this song wins you over on repeated listens.

In some ways, the originals have equivalent analogues from their previous album, PTX Vol II.  Let’s start with “On My Way Home”–this soaring, African-infused number can be fused musically with the similarly soaring “Natural Disaster” from the previous album.  But this song can also be mashed up a couple of other ways–I can hear Toto’s “Africa” could easily be mashed up with this song, and another way is to fuse it with the South African song that inspires that old classic “The Lion Sleeps Tonight”, “Mbube”.  If we turn “On My Way Home” into a mash-up with “Africa”, I fantasize another a cappella act rendering the Toto part–either Straight No Chaser (which may not be viable as they belong to a rival record company) or perhaps the Sing-Off line-up of college group Vocal Point.  If we mash-up this song with “Mbube”, I can visualize them collaborating with Ladysmith Black Mambazo or perhaps more feasibly with Sing-Off Season 3 also-ran Messiah’s Men (a group of Liberian immigrants).  Whatever the case, this infectious number deserves radio play and I do hope it becomes a hit.

Their second original number for this album is analogous to their club banger “Love Again”, called “See Through”.  Here again we have Mitch singing the lead, and again it is the most obviously electronica-infused number in the album.  For another artist, this would be a big career highlight, but since this is an album with a major embarrassment of riches, this could be considered the “lesser” track of the collection as it didn’t quite exceed “Love Again”.  Nevertheless, it’s still a treat to listen and to dance to.

The final track of the album is analogous to “Run to You” from the previous album–a dark, dramatic number entitled “Standing By”.  This time there is percussion, and a twist–Avi performing lead vocals and Scott doing the bass part (well, it seems in this album Scott explores his highest and lowest registers, plus mastered singing a song in French–could he be this album’s MVP?).  It evokes a Mumford & Son’s vibe and I fantasize a video set in the late 19th century for some reason.  It’s beautiful, stunning, and solemn.

Next month, they will release a Christmas album called That’s Christmas to Me.  And as a first, this album is the first one which features a picture of the group members (remember that previous albums feature only text or abstract images).  For US listeners, this is the album where they can finally listen and legally download their version of “Let It Go”, as it’s featured as a bonus album track.  I’ll probably comment on this most likely after Mister International next month…

JUST ME!

JOSEPH

LAUREN BACALL, 1924-2014

I was supposed to complete writing this immediately after my blog on Robin Williams’ death, but somehow I didn’t have the time, energy, and approach to push through with it–but then I still couldn’t get Lauren out of my mind so let me just post this anyway even if it’s over a month after her death…

A day after Robin Williams passed away, we learned news of the passing of another beloved Hollywood legend–this time under very different circumstances.  While the world reeled in shock over the depressingly tragic circumstances behind Robin Williams’s death, Lauren Bacall died of a stroke at age 89.  Though there were people who were surprised at her passing, for most people it seems she has already lived a full life and has achieved all that she needed to achieve and considering the nature of her death is more of natural causes, it didn’t feel as abrupt as that of comics Robin Williams and Joan Rivers (who passed away more than three weeks later).

Because of the age when Lauren died, the fact that it was of natural causes, and that unlike Joan Rivers she was not really that currently active in the spotlight, it was probably expected why her passing did not garner as much media mileage as the passings of Robin Williams and Joan RIvers.  But her passing marks a major loss–she was our last living link to what was deemed the Golden Age of Hollywood*.  As some people had posted over social media, she was the last living Hollywood legend name-checked by Madonna in her 1990 dance classic “Vogue”.  Her passing may actually have as deep, if not deeper, repercussions as the deaths of Robin Williams and Joan Rivers.

* I am aware that Oscar-winning actresses from the same era like Olivia de Havilland (now aged 98) and Luise Rainer (now age 104!) are still living but neither of those actresses captured the popular imagination the way Bacall did.

I don’t pretend that I have actually seen her film noir classics like To Have and Have Not, Dark Passage, or Key Largo, though I’ve seen snippets of her most famous scenes in her debut film To Have and Have Not (yes, including the “whistle” line).  I first encountered her reading magazine articles from some of my mom’s imported women’s magazines, and also from Time-Life anthology books, where I encountered such indelible images as the photo of her on a piano with then Vice-President Harry Truman, as shown below.  Those images were spellbinding and were indelibly etched in my memory.

Lauren Bacall with then vice-president Harry Truman, February 1945

It dawned on me when I look at her images in the late 1940s and 1950s, Lauren allowed her features to mature and let the lines on her face show–she wasn’t the youthful vixen we encountered in her classic debut, but she still has glamour, class, and style in spades.  In today’s Hollywood, most actresses would be obsessed to have the features they had in their early twenties preserved into their forties–what Lauren allowed herself to do would be considered verboten in this day and age.  I found it rather refreshing.

The first film of hers I actually watched in full was the 1974 all-star film Murder on the Orient Express which I saw on TV on a late night screening when I was a teenager, though I don’t remember much of that film anymore (and I was more focused on finding out why Ingrid Bergman won an Oscar for that film).  The film that I can still remember very well was the Barbra Streisand-starred-and-directed 1996 film The Mirror Has Two Faces.  Lauren earned her only Oscar nomination in this film portraying a domineering mother.  I was rooting for her to win for this film, but well, unfortunately there was a backlash against Streisand late in the Academy campaign and Juliette Binoche garnered an upset win for her role as a nurse in The English Patient instead.

I learned that while becoming less active in film since the late 1960s, she has found a bright career in Broadway, earning two Tony awards for musical performances in Applause (1970) and Woman of the Year (1981).  Coincidentally, these two musicals were derived from Hollywood films that were originally starred by other Hollywood legends (All About Eve  starring Bette Davis and Woman of the Year starring Katharine Hepburn respectively).  Knowing her famously low, throaty voice, I’m intrigued to hear how she sounded like singing, and I also wondered if she also dances in her musical roles.  Well, I discovered this 1973 TV recreation of Applause,  and I have to say, she acquitted herself very well in the musical milieu.  The scene I’m showcasing below, “But Alive”, may seem dated and quaint now, but it dawned on me it inspired a scene from  a Season 5 Glee episode  (where Rachel, after her Broadway premiere triumph in Funny Girl, skipped the post-premiere dinner to hang with her high school friends in a gay dance club as Rachel and the gang sang to NONONO’s “Pumpin’ Blood”).

The musical somehow also gave me an idea that this could be a great project for Madonna to pursue–perhaps modernize the songs a bit, and I think Madonna could give a nice, more girlish and poppy twist to the song above (though she’s currently older than when Lauren performed in the musical above).  Ideally, I would love to cast Lady Gaga in the role of Eve, and as much as I do love Lady Gaga’s music, I think the current dynamic between Madonna and Gaga mirrors the plot of this musical (and the classic film inspired from it).

The  above song from Applause, and how Lauren lived her life, somehow also inspired me to move out of my recent funk (after this I’m now ready to blog about the topics I normally write about–I will be writing about Pentatonix in my next post, and then my homestretch review for the Miss Philippines World 2014 candidates) and aspire that I would want to live a life well lived and fulfilled the way Lauren did.  Her kind of life and her relatively peaceful death is something that I would aspire for…

JUST ME!

JOSEPH

JOAN RIVERS, 1933-2014

About three weeks after the world reeled over the loss of Robin Williams, another comedy legend suddenly departed from this world.  A supposedly routine throat procedure reportedly went awry and Joan Rivers went into cardiac arrest and had to be hospitalized in Mt. Sinai into a medically induced coma, then had to be in life support.  After a week, she passed away.  Prior to that tragedy, this woman still was in the prime of her life, with a full schedule and her legendarily sharp, acid wit still very much intact (even after six decades in the business).

I first heard of this comic legend when I read my mom’s Mod magazine (a local women’s magazine) when I was in my adolescence–it was about Elizabeth Taylor “recovering” from her troubles then and they referenced a famous one-liner by this comic–“Elizabeth Taylor has more chins than a Hong Kong phone book.”  It was an outrageous remark, I thought then, and was amused at the daring guts for her to say that about a revered Hollywood icon.

I learned a little more about this irreverent comic as I read some entertainment news in various magazines, imported and local, during my college days, especially about the fact that she got to host a talk show in Fox rivaling Johnny Carson’s legendary Tonight Show.  The way they framed the story then was that she was a traitor to Johnny, and I was conditioned to dislike her for that.

As we started subscribing to cable when I became part of the workforce, there was a UHF channel then known as CTV (from 1992-2000), then E! Philippines (2001-2002) where we see programming from the US cable entertainment channel E!, and during awards season in the 1990s, we started seeing Joan RIvers back in the limelight interviewing celebrities on the red carpet.  Her critiques and acerbic wit could be a bit too much to take at times, but I started appreciating her commentary, and when I started doing pageant reviews online starting in the year 2000, I had Joan Rivers in my mind when I review pageant evening gowns.  Of course I couldn’t get away with her brutal frankness in reviewing wardrobe but she became one of my inspirations when I do my “Homestretch” reviews.

When E! is finally back on cable full time two years ago, there was one program that had become one of my must-watch programs–Fashion Police.  I enjoyed watching Joan praise and/or rip through celebrities’ wardrobes, even if her saucier comments are muted out in our shores.  Her last Fashion Police was the Emmys/MTV Awards dual extravaganza (which I unfortunately missed as the program airs during the time i had to commute to work, and I missed any repeat broadcast as they chose not to show it during her health crisis that led to her death).  I also saw in this program also hints of her renowned graciousness and compassion, like the way she relates to (and sometimes teases) her co-hosts Giuliana Rancic, Kelly Osbourne, and George Katsiopoulos, plus the guests they have over the years.

I wonder if she didn’t have that throat procedure, how long she would’ve lasted before even showing a smidgen of losing a bit of her edge.  As it is, even if she had such a long career, her departure felt abrupt.  Much has been said what a trailblazer she was and she undeniably has left a gap that no one could fill at this point.  I’m forever going to miss Fashion Police and red carpet events from now on would seem rather empty now that we can’t hear Joan’s hilarious comments anymore.

JUST ME!

JOSEPH