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Little Dark Age

Pentatonix | Top Pop Vol. 1

Label: RCA
Release Date: April 13, 2018
Rating:  3.5 out of 5
Grab/Stream This At:
April 10, 2018
By Jeremy Gruen
Ever since legendary bass and fifth member of Pentatonix, Avi Kaplan, announced his departure from the group in May of 2017, there have been mixed emotions voiced by the aca-community - a lot of crying, some anger and a whole bunch of worry. Pretty much everyone was upset about the news but there was a healthy split between those in support of Avi’s leaving to take time for himself and his family, and those who were concerned about the effect his absence would have on the group’s sound.  However, intrigue and excitement rose in October later that year when Pentatonix had announced [through Scott’s twitter] that a new member would be added to the group, a bass named Matthew Salle.

The first track on the album, “Attention” OPB:Charlie Puth, features the new bass right away. Matthew shies away from the driving bass, notorious from the original track, instead allowing Kevin to provide a more “walk along and groove” vibe. While the arrangement features an awkwardly empty transition into the second verse, the arpeggiation into Scott’s riff-tastic verse quickly erases any second guesses. At around 2:12, the arrangement leaps into a step-clap chorus with a chromatic bass walk that carries the listener straight into a breakdown we were waiting for. The track ends with Mitch on the third scale degree, keeping the listeners attention as one waits for some sort of closure that never comes.

An introductory beatboxing pickup gets us back into the swing of things with “Finesse” by Bruno Mars. While it is hard to arrange a song better than its original Grammy composition, the piece features some nice bass lines from Matthew and half-time rhythm on the bridge and last chorus. These allow for some moments of distinction in an otherwise repetitive arrangement, with a song that is difficult to emulate in a capella style.

Where the issue of pop repetition finds itself most prominent are on the next two tracks of this album.  Pentatonix uses Dua Lipa’s hit single “New Rules” as the base for the arrangement and adds elements from Aaliyah’s “Are You that Somebody” into the background of the chorus and for the bridge of the piece. While I definitely tip my hat to Pentatonix for their tribute to the 2000’s R&B female star, the mashup only works due to the oh-so-repetitive chord progression that remains throughout the entire piece. And speaking of repetitiveness, “Havana” lacks any form of variation and the sluggish tempo highlights the lackadaisical arrangement. The silver lining in these two pieces sits heavily on Kevin’s ability to create incredibly creative and individualistic percussion. Oh and of course, the brass instrument imitation slipped in at the end of the piece around the 2:15 mark.

Conveniently enough, what took my ears out of the musical slump of the last two tracks was another orchestral instrument and a throwback to the Pre-Pentatonix days. The first moments of “Perfect” begin with a cello harmonization from Kevin [God - what can’t this man do?!] which eventually takes on its own countermelody on the second verse that continues throughout the track. The nostalgia combined with Scott’s tone and riffs throughout tug at your emotional strings and will have you tearing the same way that first listen to Ed’s rendition did (and we all definitely had that moment, perhaps a multitude of times)

The album then switches gears to Zedd’s 2018 pop anthem, “Stay”, where Matthew’s falsetto make its first appearance on the phrase “Cuz I know you and you got to”... and man is that falsetto CLEAN. In perfect contrast is the blasted low Bb before 2nd verse, showing off the new bass’s enormous range. Mitch pushes out a freakishly strong wail on “I don’t want to spend the night alone.. Cuz I need you” that contrasts nicely with Scott’s mid-range pre-chorus [where he sings a nice harmonically raised 7th on “drinking rum and Co-la”]. Despite the lack of a powerfully driving chorus well associated with Stay, the musicality of the arrangement highlights some great aspects of a capella, most notably the percussion-less jazzy chorus near the end of the track.

Comparatively, “Feel it Still” falls further into the repetitive trap, with only a few moments to highlight such as when Matt and Scott double “But I feel it still” into a pleasing s’forzando on “Ah” at around 1:10 and a sexy pentatonic bass line at the 2:15 mark. It probably wasn’t the greatest idea to juxtapose that track with the mashup of “Despacito/Shape of You”, as this only highlights the problem with pop music even more so. If you want to overlook the fact that the repetitive 4-chord progression isn’t even the same between the two songs, it’s hard to see passed the poor attempt to cross the Fonsi spanish reggaeton with Americanized dancehall number (dancehall is the Jamaican pop genre derived from reggaeton).

While “Issues” shares the same unvarying chordal problem, there are some harmonic flourishes in the background voices that breathe life into the piece. While the pre-chorus starting at the 1:15 mark has prominent stepwise trills on the syllables “You” and “Oh”; and Matthew’s bass line walks are quite gripping [with aesthetic octave jumps placed all around], it’s hard to overlook Kristin’s particularly nasal tone on the solo.

Thankfully, the impassioned vocals of “Praying” comes next on the album, well executed by Scott and Mitch. Scott begins the song in his lower register and creates an amazingly passionate contrast on the second chorus, which is emphasized well with Kevin’s triplet percussion, and continues quite strongly to the bridge. Those who are familiar with the original song know to expect an extremely high note from Kesha leading into the final chorus...And I was both surprised and impressed upon hearing Mitch blast an unwavering high A for 4 seconds! The track ends in 4-part harmony with a warm bass, reminiscent of the Avi Kaplan days.

Pentatonix chose to finish the album with the unapologetic “Sorry Not Sorry”. Though it lacks the ever-so important booming 808 bass associated with the song (the struggles of a capella and pop fascination with the 808), the self-empowerment anthem is given its original bop with Kevin’s clean cut beatboxing. The crowd-infusing “Talk that talk” section allows for pristine time for the audience (both streaming or live) to get involved and sing along, just until Mitch rips out another obnoxious high G# before the last chorus.

Pentatonix is known for their distinct approach towards creating their arrangements -  The five members sit in a circle and sing basic ideas from the song, adding in whatever comes naturally or “feels right”.  Though this method of improvisation may not be the best for avoiding the repetitive structure of the pop genre, Pentatonix does an incredible job of providing a familiar outline of the well-known songs while adding their own aca-twists. Kevin Olusa gives each song on the album life with indescribable vocal percussion that seasonally changes to ensure that the listener never gets too comfortable with one groove before a sudden change that demands rhythmically distinct movements. While it may not be the best in Pentatonix history, Top Pop, Vol. 1 is only the first chapter of an evolving story; A new member, and more specifically a new bass, can only mean a new and evolving sound for the multi-platinum, Grammy-winning a capella group.
Jeremy is a concert and live music enthusiast. In addition to writing for musiqtone, he works in Digital Marketing at Atlantic Records. Catch Jeremy at your local music venue scoping out the most innovative and unknown artists!
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