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

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