There’s no denying that Pentatonix are phenomenal a capella singers. But more so, it’s their arrangements that set them above the competition. A capella singing thrives on cover versions and Pentatonix have excelled, from their breakthrough viral video of Gotye’s Somebody I Used To Know, to Internet smash Daft Punk. Their arrangements are filled with little touches, flourishes and crunchy harmonies that are nearly always smart and inventive, whether singing a song relatively straight or turning it on its head. These sorts of arrangements are successful because they take the familiar and twist them into something unique, a skill that the five-piece have thrived on.
However, Pentatonix have their sights on something higher: pop success. And that seemingly requires two developments in their sound: songwriting and production.
So let’s revise that opening statement: Pentatonix are phenomenal a capella singers and arrangers, but their songwriting needs work. Increasingly their EPs have contained more and more original songs and ‘Pentatonix’ – their first full album – is almost entirely original material. Where their covers are reimagined versions of popular hits with recognisable hooks, they don’t have that luxury with original songs. No matter how interesting the arrangements, or how novel it is hearing original songs performed vocally alone, it’s difficult to hear these sorts of songs in the charts.
It’s not helped by the dated sounds and clichéd lyrics. Opener Na Na Na might be catchy, but it’s based around a nonsense lyric. The laidback feel and jazz harmonies of Can’t Sleep Love and doo-wop Misbehavin’ sound old fashioned. And whilst Sing may be the group’s statement of intent, lyrics like “Sing it out as hard as you can / Make ‘em here you from L.A to Japan” and “Sing it with your hands in the sky / Light it up like it’s the 4th of July” are Disney levels of nauseating (Katy Perry reference notwithstanding). This isn't the cool singing group many have grown to love.
Luckily the second half of the album is an improvement as it moves into darker, more contemporary territory (even if Cracked sounds like a cover of Ed Sheeran’s Sing). Ref and First Things First have more of an R&B feel, whilst the syncopated rhythms and finger clicks of Rose Gold are reminiscent of a more spectral futuristic sound. Water sees Kirstie (the group’s only female) taking lead vocal in an edgier, more percussive arrangement. And New Year’s Day is a euphoric stunner. Light In The Hallway is the real highlight, though, proving that a relatively simple ballad arrangement sung with haunting harmonies is often most effective – something the band surely discovered from their own Run To You. The yearning “goodnight” lyric is sublime.
The group have still managed to sneak in a cover, this time Shai’s If I Ever Fall In Love (also covered by East 17 and Gabrielle as If You Ever). They’re joined by Jason Derulo, though his inclusion is unnecessary beyond an impressive falsetto note (he doesn’t even sing his own name). The deluxe version of the album additionally includes covers of Jack Ü’s Where Are Ü Now feat. Justin Bieber and Major Lazer’s Lean On, two of the best covers the group have delivered in some time.
So what about production? In their pursuit of chart success, the group have gradually polished their recordings more and more. In this album, their voices feel more over-produced than ever before, given a glossy coating and wrapped in reverb. It sounds far less intimate and far less like they’re actually singing together in a group. And isn’t that the whole point of a capella singing? Watching the group perform live is still the best way to experience their music.
Whether Pentatonix have achieved their pop agenda remains to be seen, but on the evidence of this debut album they’re certainly well on their way – they’ve cornered their niche and could well start a revolution. Equally it proves they’re more live singers than recording artists.
* New Year’s Day
* Light In The Hallway
Listen: ‘Pentatonix’ is out now.