Thursday, December 15, 2016

A Pentatonix Christmas Show (NBC, December 14, 2016)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I kept the TV on NBC for A Pentatonix Christmas Show, an hour-long romp through carols familiar and not-so-familiar. Pentatonix is a modern-day a cappella group that I would like considerably better than I do if they’d abandon one really annoying affectation: the drum machine sounds they use on every medium- and uptempo song. I had first seen Pentatonix on a Grammy Awards show (I think; it could have been some other omnibus music special) and criticized them for using a drum machine instead of singing pure a cappella as advertised. On this show there was a brief segment on how they arrange songs that revealed that the “drum machine” is actually being simulated through vocal sounds from the two lowest-voiced Pentatonixers, Scott Hoying and Kevin Olusola (the total membership is five people, including one white woman, Kirstin Maldonado; three white men, Avi Kaplan, Scott Hoying and Mitch Grassi; and one Black man, Kevin Olusola), so the effect is legitimate a cappella — but I still don’t like it. The show had some of the typical trappings of the hour-long musical Christmas special, including guests Reba McIntire (who joined Pentatonix on “Winter Wonderland” and did a good job with it, landing somewhere between a “straight” version and the weird one the young Aretha Franklin did for Columbia in the early 1960’s), Dolly Parton (who joined them on “Silent Night”) and Kelly Clarkson (on “I’ll Be Home for Christmas”). 

Pentatonix (whose Wikipedia page reveals they have released three Christmas-themed CD’s) opened with what appeared to be an original song called “Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays” (thereby putting themselves on both sides of the so-called “War on Christmas”) and then did “Winter Wonderland” with McIntire and a clever animated sequence to the song “Up on the Housetop” (which they arranged quite creatively — they actually funked it up — except for those damned drum-machine effects), following which they did their best singing of the night on a song called “Mary, Don’t You Know.” It’s a traditionally themed song but one I didn’t know before, and the Pentatonixers sang it slowly and “straight,” sans drum machines and human beat-boxes, and for one of only two times in the evening sounded like they were bringing real emotion and soul to the music instead of just showing off how cleverly (a word that keeps coming back to me when thinking of them) they can arrange and deploy their voices. Then they ran through some of the familiar carols, “Joy to the World,” “Silent Night” (with Parton, who now that she’s getting on in years seems to be photographed mostly in long-shots that show how short she is and make her look decidedly gnome-like), “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,” and “O Come, All Ye Faithful.” Then, after their turn on “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” with Clarkson (a pop Christmas song suited to Clarkson’s pop voice), they threw in a few surprises: a non-verbal vocal arrangement of the “Dance of the Sugar-Plum Fairy” from Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker and, of all things, Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” which despite (or maybe because of) its dark imagery worked well both as a sacred song and a tribute to Cohen’s memory — even though, while they began it in an appropriate gospel-quartette (in their case it would be a quintette!) style, they gradually sped it up and started doing those damned drum-machine effects again. After that was another song I presume is an original, “That’s Christmas to Me,” and an instrumental outro of “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” to take out the show and lead into another NBC presentation I had no intention of watching, A Saturday Night Live Christmas, preceded by a disclaimer that there might be naughty bits on the show because the content was originally created to be aired considerably later at night.