If you were listening to pop music in the late ’70s and early ’80s — or are just a fan of the era — you probably recall a group called The Manhattan Transfer, most famous for their song “The Boy from New York City.” Their sound was a blend of doo-wop and jazz, adult contemporary and a cappella vocal melding. No one else on the record scene was quite doing what they did then; they were followed by groups like Boyz II Men and Wilson Phillips (also known for their close harmonies and reliance on more vocals then backing tracks), but genuine human-only music-making? Well, that died with the advent of Janet Jackson… or at least it went on life-support. You’d have to find a barbershop quartet for that kind of music.
But now we have Pentatonix, the Arlington-based quintet of vocal magicians, to scat and bebop their way through deeply-layered vocal arrangements on the road to creating a happy, sometimes ear-defying musical sound all their own.
Pentatonix’s first commercial release was a 2012 EP of Christmas songs; they go full-bore on the holiday with their latest album, A Pentatonix Christmas, in which they revel in bringing up the holiday spirit in 11 tracks.
Despite the uniqueness of their sound, they start off with some fairly traditional selections. “O, Come All Ye Faithful” launches with a guttural back-beat that calls to mind a Caribbean flavor; that’s followed by “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” which goes upbeat with a double-time tempo and ends with a flourish that could come from a Russian folk dance. Deeper in, you get to relax not just in the harmonies, but in the strong vocal clarity of individual voices. “White Christmas” could have come off a World War II-era album from a crooner in a cardigan, but there’s something modern and refreshing about it as well — they aren’t just rehashing Bing Crosby, they’re trying to lay their own groundwork. By the time they get to “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” the album begins to closely resemble the delightful Ally McBeal Xmas CD that came out nearly 20 years ago.
Not all the songs are straight-up carols. Track 8, a beautiful version of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” captures the song’s darkness, but the title is the only knee-bend to anything in the sacred canon of a holiday carols. “Goodbye My Friend” refers to winter, but otherwise doesn’t seem all that Christmas-y; “Feels So Good to Be Bad” stakes more of a claim to the season, but it’s really just a chance for some fun and entertaining musical numbers
Some of the songs try too hard. “Up on the Housetop” aims for a hip-hop version of what Christmastime is, but does so with one of the most annoyingly trite of all secular carols. But this retro CD — part Carpenters, part family-around-the-yule-log cornpone —really hits the right chords. — Arnold Wayne Jones
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition December 16, 2016.