Pentatonix's self-titled quest to legitimise acapella music in a charting context brings us one of the year's most enjoyable and varied pop records.
If I had a pound for every time I’d seen a link to Pentatonix’s self-titled debut album on social media over the last week, dealing with student loans would be a thing of the past. Their onslaught of promotion may appear desperate, though it is perhaps more appropriately understood as a battle to legitimise acapella music in a post-Pitch Perfect world.
To date, the Texan quintet has only dabbled in original music, after YouTube brought them over a billion views of covers ranging from a Grammy-winning Daft Punk medley to Fleet Foxes at Christmas. Each of their three EPs (and two festive compendiums) contained new music in the same way that a salad contains lettuce. These examples were inoffensive and provided some modicum of substance, but they must have known as well as we did that there was nothing special.
Each member of the group receives at least three writing credits on Pentatonix, and the result is a thoroughly enjoyable album that ices 2015 in pop. Lead single ‘Can’t Sleep Love’ demonstrates the album’s strengths tremendously, sounding like a prime fillet of Justin Timberlake with enough funk to extinguish Bruno Mars. This, along with the boisterously High School Musical-esque ‘Na Na Na’ and ‘Sing’ which sandwich it, lay the foundations with almost ridiculous intensity and energy fuelled by the impeccable Kevin Olusola on beatboxing duties. It’s all too easy to forget, the occasional backing chorus aside, that Pentatonix is just five voices, and over time the listener comes to realise how little that even matters.
A testament to this is how dropping the tempo takes nothing away from the quality, and even the odd cliché-laden ode to monogamy on tour comes off without any suggestion of unease. ‘Rose Gold’, which is sure to soundtrack an Apple commercial any moment now, may simultaneously be the weakest and most infectious of the lot, and ‘Cracked’ is a stomping blues-y number that delves deeper into Arctic Monkeys territory with every listen.
Most vocal leads are handled by baritone Scott Hoying, which is my greatest frustration with Pentatonix. Though he is a tremendous showman and powerful vocalist – and his splendid duet with an unannounced Jason Derulo on ‘If I Ever Fall In Love’, which is the regular edition’s solitary cover, stands out from the record’s other down-tempo ventures – only three songs fully allow his bandmates the spotlight.
Whilst I accept that this is likely intentional, designed to provide a constance throughout whilst reinforcing acapella as a modern pop device, those moments for the others to shine glow yet brighter. Mitch Grassi’s vibrant (counter)tenor tones open the record and Kirstin Maldonado’s ‘Water’ sets up an immaculate roll to the finish. The band do indeed save the best until last, as ‘Light In The Hallway’ is a beautiful Avi Kaplan-led buttery flutter. Pairing an unbridled choral masterpiece with all voices on harmony duty alongside a conventionally contemporary structure builds a blanket of a song that could melt the coldest of hearts away.
The deluxe edition, which is in fact the only edition available in the United Kingdom, contains four bonus tracks. Three bridge the gap between the YouTube cover artists we fell for – renditions of ‘Where Are Ü Now’, ‘Lean On’, and ‘Cheerleader’ were far from necessary but delightful nevertheless – and the fourth, a remix of ‘Can’t Sleep Love’ featuring a verse from Tink, feels like an alarming collaboration on paper but can be quickly be ignored if so desired.
From the raucous ‘Na Na Na’ to the mesmerising ‘Light In The Hallway’, the versatile Pentatonix comfortably dispels any lingering concerns about the viability of the band as a pop phenomenon, which ‘Ref’ – about the industry figures who refused to take them seriously – shows Pentatonix revel in. For once, a venture from online fame into the conventional media zeitgeist delivers on its promises.
Pentatonix is out now via RCA Records.