Pentatonix, consisting of Kevin Olusola (beatbox/cello), Mitch Grassi (tenor), Kirstie Maldonado (mezzo-soprano), Scott Hoying (tenor) and Avi Kaplan (bass/bass undertone) released their fourth album, PTX, Vol. III in September 2014. (The prior albums where Vol. 1, Vol. II & PTXmas). Pentatonix are an incredibly creative a cappella group, winner of NBC’s season 3 of The Sing-Off and Youtube sensation. Pentatonix modus operandi has been to cover songs and make them uniquely their own; while that certainly is true of PTX, Vol. III, they also perform original songs “On my Way Home”, “See Through” and “Standing By.”
Pentatonix covers Ariana Grande’s “Problem” adding vocal and structural complexity to it. While Ms. Grande’s version is a great pop song with some wonderful sax, drums, and other musical elements, Pentatonix matches those elements while taking a fun pop song to the next level by adding additional layers both vocally and structurally. Where the sax kicks in during an open section in the original, that same kind of sound is layered onto the vocal melody in this version. I like both versions but stand in awe of Pentatonix‘s ability to add some richness with their voices being their only instruments. Mr. Hoying does a nice job taking the lead; he keeps the melody fluid and moving while Mr. Grassi can go toe to toe with Iggy Azalea any time, attitude and all.
While covers are the norm for Pentatonix, they have a terrific original in “On My Way Home”. The vocal layering makes for an interesting song. Looking straight at the lyrics, as if they were sung in linear order, they seem less than brilliant: “All of my life been running / Paying the price for living / How do the young survive / We’re never satisfied / Only if I could listen.” Yet when heard in their version piled on top of another, they make sense and even invoke the sense of a ramped up life without much of an anchor or purpose. Clearly a great song for such a young group.
The mashup, “La La Latch” combines songs by NaughtyBoy and Disclosure, both featuring Sam Smith and melds them into something new. Pentatonix never simply combines songs, rather they weave them together, each part delving into the other until it sounds like they always belonged together, as they do here. I’ve read a few folks suggesting that this track might be a bit over-produced or artificial sounding. I think it is merely is polished. These guys have been together for awhile now. Their vocals are really tuned to each other and it’s equally clear that they really listen to one another. While some might lament the loss of it feeling raw, I simply see artists honing their craft.
Covering Clean Bandits’ “Rather Be” with Ms. Maldonado leading allows for all sorts of vocal textures laid over the track. They’re able to exude the light fun the track provides while unfolding the intense desire to be together with a vocal texture that brings out both: “Strolling along casually” and “You can’t shame me”. The related video, like the song, is a close riff of the original, spun off to their own making. That’s one of the things I love about Pentatonix covers, they keep within the ballpark of the original (rather than taking it into a completely different sound/genre) while making the related song sound creatively different and new.
“See Through” is another original, lead by Mitch Grassi. This song is all about being transparent to others, especially to the one you love as being the bedrock of a relationship. “World under my skin there for you to find. All I’ve kept within lay before you eyes… Stripped down to my heart, naked to the core.” It goes on to convey that nothing, even the past, must get in the way of the relationship. If we abandon our shell and the one we love knows the worst about us and still chooses to love us, how freeing is that? Nothing to hide. No mask to put on. Mr. Grassi’s incredibly clear tenor plays well with this song as does his vulnerability. Having seen this openness work in my own life, this song is near and dear to my heart.
Pentatonix does an amazing cover of Belgian Stromae’s “Papaoutai.” Lindsey Stirling, once again, brings her violin to collaborate with them on this song. (If you haven’t seen the video of their blow-up combined cover of Imagine Dragons’ “Radioactive”, you, my friend are living a culturally deprived life. Seriously, just go see it). They keep the original French lyrics, which is a fairly bold move, but the oft-repeated “Où t’es? Papa, où t’es?” is pretty clearly about the father and his lack of involvement and connection (“where are you Papa, where are you?”). Like “Rather Be”, this cover is in the same vein as the original but with many new elements. You have the beautifully harmonic opening that morphs into a syncopated jam backed by Ms. Stirling’s violin and Mr. Olusola’s cello. So they adopt Stromae’s beat with their own harmonies layered into the overall frenetic pace. Even if you can’t follow the French, it’s an amazing piece.
I’m so glad that Avi Kaplan leads on “Standing By,” the final song on the album and another original piece. He has this deep, rich, chocolatey tone to his voice that he uses to convey not only the longing for relationship from the lyrics but also the commitment to it. Besides having the amazing bass he usually exhibits, Mr. Kaplan has some serious range for such a natural bass. The overall sound from the group is enveloping like the relationships desired. I love that the brief interlude towards the end, where there are no words just their voices woven together in notes that almost merge to one sound. Again, like the relationships the song celebrate. One of my favorite songs of the album and such a deep, solid way to anchor it.
It’s pretty clear by now that there are only seven songs in the album, just a little past what would typically be termed an EP. However, the pricing certainly reflects this – you can get it at Amazon for $5, so we can’t fuss too much. For a guy not overly fond of covers and mashups, I remain mesmerized by their work and the original, creative power they bring to covers and original songs. I keep thinking that my enthusiasm for Pentatonix will dwindle since they’ve been around for awhile; after all, how many fresh, new ideas can you bring out of an a capella group (at least most of the time)? It turns out, quite a few. As long as they keep bringing the fresh, I’ll keep bringing the ears. They’ve yet to disappoint. If you’re a fan of Pentatonix, you’ll love this album. If you haven’t heard them or think that an a cappella vocal group is boring glee club stuff, give these guys a listen. There things they can do with their voices that are simply stunning.