PENTATONIX: THE ALBUM (OVERVIEW)

Since signing with RCA Records, Pentaholics like myself are wondering how RCA will take this group to the next level.  We know they conquered Christmas last year with their platinum That’s Christmas to Me, so we waited in bated breath  how their music can gain inroads in the pop realm–especially promoting original songs to radio.  What gladdens me is that there is indeed heavy amount of publicity in media for the album, along with guest appearances on the Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon and the Today show, both on NBC, among other promotions.  They particularly did a terrific version of the intro to Jimmy Fallon’s show, check it out below:

 

The only peeve I have about how the media wrote up about the release of this album is that some of them created the impression that this is the first time they sang original songs.  This is definitely not the case, as from their first EP, PTX Vol. 1 they have featured original songs.  And several of those originals were terrific, like  “Show You How To Love” from PTX Vol. 1; “Natural Disaster”, “Hey Momma / Hit the Road, Jack”, “Love Again” and “Run to You” from PTX Vol. 2; and “On My Way Home” and “Standing By” from PTX Vol. III.  The only disadvantage was for the first two EPs, they were handled by an indie label who don’t have the marketing muscle to push those songs to radio, and for the third EP, well, let’s excuse RCA for just starting to figure out how to promote an act that is associated with a less-regarded genre, though they squanderedsuch a big opportunity in giving “On My Way Home” a push, especially with the release of their tour documentary last June.  But there are outlets who got it right that this is their first album of almost solely original music (with the exception of their Jason DeRulo collaboration on the standard version, plus the three covers on the deluxe version).

During their tour with Kelly Clarkson, they debuted a new cover, Omi’s summer smash “Cheerleader”.  It was fun listening to the festive beats employed by Kevin, but the highlight was they added a breakdown featuring three-part counterpoint.  It was a treat to hear live, but the studio version is enjoyably silky smooth.  The video is a simple affair, set in a school gym and the five members in collegiate black-and-white hooded jackets.  There is a nice homage to their classic formation in their “Evolution” and early videos in the middle, too.

The end of the above video features a teaser of their first single.  Towards the latter part of Kelly Clarkson’s tour, they debuted their original song and first official single off the album, “Can’t Sleep Love”.  The song is an R&B romantic ditty.  I liked it, but at first listen in my opinion it paled compared to “On My Way Home”, “Natural Disaster”, and “Love Again”.  But I have to say, on further listens it won me over with its charms–and Scott’s “Uh-huh”s and Mitch’s “Yeah”s are a fun touch.  The video is pretty lush and stylish, with the gimmick of vibrant backdrops, backup dancers painted to blend into those backdrops, and the five members clad in printed haute couture fashions.  My only quibble was Kirstin’s hairdo–in my opinion it’s not a good look on her.  The first thing that pops in my mind when I was watching the visuals was “K-Pop”.  I think Korean (and Japanese) music videos  have a whole host of these visuals.  I think I started liking this song more when I heard the version that added rapper/singer Tink–just like a good dish, a little seasoning could make it go to the next level, and that’s what Tink’s contribution did to this song–she added some spice and that extra “something” that made this a more delicious and memorable treat.  It’s such a shame she’s obviously a tack-on in the video version; I wish they integrated her more in the video ending, at the very least.  Below is the “featuring Tink” version of their song, which just made a chart bow at No. 99 this week.

When I saw the track list of the deluxe version, I was stoked to see Jack Ü (aka Skrillex and Diplo) with Justin Bieber’s “Where Are Ü Now?” in the tracklist.  I was intrigued how they’ll do the instrumental hook and will they do a vocal “jump” like in the song’s intro?  I was a bit surprised that they stripped it down–but this arrangement showcased the song’s lyrics better and it made for a more emotional, heartbreaking rendition.  I also love the disembodied vocal effect on the “I need you” line–it undercuts the desolation the singer feels.  They did bring the electronic instrumental hooks later in the song, and it’s a treat, especially how Mitch mimic the instrumental hook.  This, for me, is one of their masterpieces.  My only quibble–after they did a rave-up and one run of the instrumental hook, it then abruptly ended.  Well, on one hand, it undercuts the frustrated feeling expressed in the song’s lyrics.  But on the other hand, it felt like listening to the Beatles’ 7-minute-11-second “Hey Jude” and cutting off after the first “Na na na na” coda.  I wish they have another go-round of the raveup and instrumental hook, and let Scott do more runs.  In fact, just like “Hey Jude”, I can fantasize them making the song even much longer by repeating the rave-up and hook, and add more ad-libs and perhaps tack in mash-ups of other songs–I thought of Loreen’s Eurovision winner “Euphoria” and U2’s “Beautiful Day” as mash-up possibilities, though the way the lyrics of those two songs contradict the sentiment of the main song would result in an effect that the singer became lost in a delusional reverie.

On the album release date, they released the video of their second single, “Sing”.  Two weeks prior to the album release they let fans hear a snippet of the song as they have a promo that some of the home videos they would submit singing along to that snippet would be included in the final music video.  The Pentaholics delivered in full force as the video is a great collage of those home videos (plus several celebrity home video contributions like Today Show‘s Hoda Kotb, Modern Family‘s Jesse Tyler Ferguson, and Game of Thrones’ Maisie Williams, not to mention YouTube friends/stars Tyler Oakley and Todrick Hall) interspersed with Pentatonix filmed across various Los Angeles locations. One of my favorite shots was Pentatonix walking on a street crosswalk reminiscent of the Beatles’ classic Abbey Road album cover–it’s so apt as at this point Pentatonix could be regarded as the a cappella Beatles.  This upbeat, uptempo jam is for me an immediate charmer.  My only quibble is that Kirstin didn’t have a solo part–yes, Scott is the main lead singer here, but Avi and Mitch each had a solo line, and Kevin got a rap verse.  Why no room for a line by the girl in the group?

Pentatonix’s main competition on that release date for the No. 1 album honors was Demi Lovato.  Demi had more significant inroads into radio over Pentatonix, especially since she already has “Cool for the Summer” on the radio, and the title track from her album, “Confident”, was given a splashy push.  With the Billboard 200 now factoring individual track sales and streaming, it is highly possible that Pentatonix may be tops in true album sales, but may be pipped off the Billboard 200 number one–it happened earlier this year with Madonna’s latest album versus the Empire soundtrack.  But to the relief and delight of Pentaholics like myself, Pentatonix officially topped both the Album Sales chart and the Billboard 200–in album sales it beat Demi Lovato by 11,000 units, 88,000 vs. 77,000, but though Demi obviously caught up with streaming and individual track downloads factored in, Pentatonix still pipped Demi by 200 equivalent units.  And with that, Pentatonix made history as the first a cappella group to make it to No. 1 in the album charts.

This breakthrough is indeed an achievement worth celebrating.  However, Pentatonix has a long way to go.  There is still radio resistance towards a cappella music, though some of that was worn down by “Can’t Sleep Love”.  Hopefully the big sales can convince radio stations that their songs are worth playing, and I hope there would be more streams and spins for their follow-up, “Sing”.  There is also thhe international market to think of–though they did make the charts in other territories, they were not as big as in the US.  Well, Pentatonix has already hurdled one major obstacle with the Billboard 200 achievement, so the other challenges ahead are achievable, and it looks like this group is up for them.

COMING UP: TRACK-BY-TRACK ALBUM REVIEW

 

A PENTATONIX UPDATE: LIVE IN MANILA!!! PLUS THE STORY SO FAR…

For Filipino Pentaholics like myself, the most resounding news came during Maundy Thursday:  Pentatonix will be touring Southeast Asia, and Manila is part of the itinerary–their concert is on 05 June.  On top of that, they will be performing at the Araneta Coliseum.  Now, in most of the venues Pentatonix has performed in thus far, they are generally from 1,000- to 5,000-seat venues.  The Araneta Coliseum’s seating capacity is about 16,000.  I’m not sure if there are enough Filipino Pentaholics out there who could fill out the Coliseum but you never know, considering Metro Manila has about 13 million inhabitants, bigger than most US cities or even entire European countries.  I wonder if they’ll be seeing some sights while here in this country as this concert is two days after their scheduled Jakarta, Indonesia gig, and they will then go to Japan five days after this concert.  Would they find time to promote their concert with noontime variety show appearances on It’s Showtime or Eat Bulaga?

This is also the perfect opportunity to do my long-belated update of the goings on with this group, and the past four months has been highly eventful.  When I last blogged about them, their Christmas album That’s Christmas to Me has gone platinum and ended up the fourth biggest selling album for 2014.   They capped the year with some notable TV performances.  One is  their medley of pop songs at the German variety show Wetten Dass..? in mid-December.  The Wetten Dass..? medley basically was a tribute to previous musical guests on the show, as that episode was the last broadcast for that variety program.  Many Pentaholics enjoy hearing them do more of the Black Eyed Peas’ “I Got A Feeling”, though mentally (including myself) couldn’t help thinking about them immediately seguing to those other songs from their famous “Evolution of Music” medley. and going “Baby, baby, baby, ooohhh….” (from Justin Bieber’s “Baby”).  It’s also a treat to hear their versions of the Backstreet Boys’ “As Long as You Love Me”, Coldplay’s “Viva La Vida”, Miley Cyrus’s “Wrecking Ball”, and Justin Timberlake’s “Mirrors”.

They later then performed at the Kennedy Center Honors, paying tribute to Tom Hanks by singing the song “That Thing You Do”.  True, there was a band that came in halfway through their performance, but Pentatonix remained terrific here.

Then early February came and one big dream was finally fulfilled–Pentatonix won a Grammy!  They won for best arrangement for “Daft Punk” (yes, it was a 2013 recording, but the Grammy eligibility period is from October 2013 to end-September 2014 and “Daft Punk”–and PTX, Vol. II for that matter–was released in November 2013), which is a great win.  Actually having checked who the other nominees were, it was obvious this group will win.  Now, let’s see if they’ll receive nominations for That’s Christmas to Me at the end of this year, or even perhaps their upcoming studio album.  It’s nice how Scott noted in his acceptance speech that they recorded the song in a closet then filmed their video in a kitchen–but with more than 127 million views as of this writing, this now-YouTube video classic still looks and sounds stunning to this day.

It was reported prior to their Grammy win, they performed at Clive Davis’s pre-Grammy party performing a medley of Bee Gees in tribute to the sole surviving member of the Bee Gees, Barry Gibb.  I wish we have footage of that performance–the only footage I could find is the highlight reel below (you can hear them from 2:46 onwards to the end).  I suppose another consolation besides the highlight reel is the group featured in Clive Davis’s annual all-star class photo.

Most of the group’s energies since then has been on the tour, but that didn’t stop them from branching out and pursue other musical pursuits outside of the group.  The Superfruit duo of Scott and Mitch posted a Broadway-styled medley featuring three current pop songs–Taylor Swift’s “Blank Space”, Nick Jonas’ “Jealous”, and Ariana Grande’s “Break Free”–and collaborated with singer/Broadway star Shoshana Bean and framed it as a love triangle story,  It’s almost akin to the “Frozen” medley they performed a year earlier, and yes, Mitch was wearing the blonde wig again.

Superfruit continued on with their version of Nicki Minaj (featuring Beyonce) “Feeling Myself”.  It’s really good, with both Mitch and Scott showcasing how well they can navigate rap rhythms.  Though, I still am more impressed with their medleys of Beyonce, Miley Cyrus and Taylor Swift.

Kirstie started to also branch out on her own.  She played a muse on the acoUstiKats video for “I’ll Be Home This Christmas” (as she’s become the girlfriend of one of the members, Jeremy Michael Lewis).  She is not heard here, not seen, but still it’s worth watching.

Finally, she got heard as she collaborated with high school a cappella group Forte on a cover of Ariana Grande’s “Why Try”.  Though Forte is supposed to be the main artist, all the lead vocals here are done by Kirstie, and she, as expected, did a great job.

But the one who has the highest profile branching out is Kevin, as he released his own EP, The Renegade.  This is of course a showcase/outlet for his cello skills and he released three videos promoting the album.

The first was a cover of Sam Smith’s mega-smash, “Stay With Me”.  It was performed with Kevin starting some founding plucks, riffs and beats and then looping them as he then played melodic lines over the loops.  It’s definitely a treat and a worthwhile instrumental cover.

The next video he put out was a cover of John Legend’s “All of Me”.  This time, it’s about overlapping cellos and no beatboxing.  It’s more a classical crossover showcase for this number.

He then featured his original composition, “Renegade”.  If I’m not mistaken, he performed this in their previous tour, but I never realized the song starts with ethereal wordless singing before it went into rhythmic territory.  I love it.  The video can also serve like a sequel to Pentatonix and Lindsey Stirling’s cover of “Radioactive”, as it seems to be shot around the same desert setting.

The EP also featured two tracks that he previously recorded and posted on YouTube.  There was his first famous piece, “Julie-O”, that was the first time the world has heard of him and his cello-boxing skills (and also by fate ultimately led him to become part of Pentatonix).  The other track was his strinq quartet version of Demi Lovato’s “Heart Attack”, which he posted on YouTube in July 2013.  For a classical music album, it did pretty well, debuting at No. 53 in the Billboard 200 (but actually debuting at No. 20 if you only count album sales and not streaming and individual track sales).  He also momentarily dislodged Lindsey Stirling at the top of the Classical Crossover chart.  I think one of these days the Classical Crossover chart will be basically Kevin or Lindsey trading places at the chart summit.

Finally, to express his religious faith (he’s a devout Seventh-Day Adventist), he released a single, called “Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus”.  No beatboxing for this number–just a single cello with differing musical moods and textures.  The video also has a visual cue to a previous Pentatonix video–remember “Little Drummer Boy”?  It seemed to be filmed on the same hilltop site overlooking the city of Los Angeles.

I just bought a ticket to watch their concert–it’s a bargain compared to, say, One Direction, as the price is bearable enough.  I’m like the Filipino Pentaholics out there squealing with excitement and looking forward to Friday evening, June 5, to watch this incredible group live in concert.  Two months might seem to be a long wait, but time will pass, and that moment will soon arrive. [In my fangirl mode] SQUEEEEEEEEE!!!

JUST ME!

JOSEPH