By Catherine Bonke
With the holiday season approaching fast, your radio is likely playing a non-stop stream of classic, yet brain-numbing holiday music. But last month, a cappella quintet Pentataonix came out with their new album “That’s Christmas to Me,” which takes the classics into bold new directions and makes every new song a fresh of breath air.
All 11 tracks on the album start off sounding similar to their classic performances, but then take interesting turns as the song progresses. “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” starts off the album with a classic choral sound. But after the first few verses the song becomes an upbeat gospel ballad, complete with claps on the off-beat, riffing and call and response style singing.
“White Water Hymnal” follows its classic layering, a cappella sound. But Kirstie Maldonado’s mezzo-soprano leading voice adds an indie tone to the song. The music video features the ensemble members using their hands to snap their fingers and tap on their thighs, shoulders and each other’s hands to create the percussion, staying true to the instrument-less nature of a cappella.
Pentatonix doesn’t completely shed the classic sound of their album songs. “Sleigh Ride,” “That’s Christmas To Me” and “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” all stick to more classic sounds with the same upbeat a cappella enthusiasm that the other songs use. Yet, talent and beauty is not sacrificed.
The hit of the album is “Winter Wonderland/Don’t Worry, Be Happy,” which features Tori Kelly, an independent singer-songwriter who got her start on YouTube. This Christmas classic takes a very carefree, summertime tone, rather than the brassy baritone sound of the original song sung by Felix Bernard. After the lyrics to “Winter Wonderland” end, Kelly picks right up with the reggae sound of Bobby McFerrin’s “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.” Kelly’s light and loose riff on top of Pentatonix’s signature vocal percussion makes the song hard to skip.
Scott Hoying, the baritone of the group, starts off “Mary, Did You Know?” which is nothing short of the powerhouse ballad of the album. Every voice is featured in a full and soulful sound. The group plays with dynamics to create drama and increase the audience’s emotional investment in the song.
Tchaikovsky’s classic “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy” takes on a comedic air on the album. Using only syllables to sing, Pentatonix uses over exaggerated operatic sounds over a pulsing rock beat. It’s a similar effect to the operatic passage in Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody.”
“Santa Claus is Coming to Town” takes on the pop sound of Hoying, backed up by the soulful background vocals of the rest of the group. One of the most impressive parts of this song is the vocal percussion underneath, performed primarily by the bass and the cello’s voices, which sound like actual percussion instruments, using the beat-boxing style to create the cymbal and drum sound. “Silent Night” closes off the standard version of the album with a simple, clear and gorgeous sound.
If you’re looking to avoid overplayed radio Christmas songs, the bonus track “Let It Go” from Disney’s Frozen should be skipped. It is beautifully sung and also very impressive that five people’s voices can replace the full orchestra used for the Disney version. However, the song sounds very similar to Idina Menzel’s gusty belting and isn’t as edgy as the rest of the album.