The word “awesome” must be used with great caution, when you’re a man in my position. Middle-aged, balding, father of pre-teens… the word on my lips can sound out-of-touch and anachronistic. I do well to use the word “awesome” only when something is genuinely awe-inspiring, or if I’m trying to be retro (which is a risky move, at my age).
That being said, I want to go on record saying the new Christmas album by Pentatonix is awesome.
You may have seen some of their viral videos or heard them in the televised coverage of Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. The group does all their music a cappella — and wow, they do it well. There’s always been something about a cappella music that’s thrilled me, even when I was younger and cooler. It’s a geeky guilty pleasure, but sincere, and this pleasure finds full expression in this new Christmas album. The quintet’s arrangements are creative. Their harmonies are super-tight. Their vocal “instrumentation” is impressive. My favorite tracks up to this point have been “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing!”, “That’s Christmas to Me,” and “Mary, Did You Know?” — but really, every track is great. I find myself regularly listening to Pentatonix on my way driving my kids to school or doing chores around the house.
Working this awesome music into my life has become so normal I didn’t even think about it when I went to pick up Elliot from his basketball practice yesterday evening. The evening was dark and dreary, with an icy mist filling the middle space between the streets and the skies. The Pentatonix Christmas album, however, kept me bright and cheery. I had the volume on my mini-van’s (surprisingly-robust) sound system cranked to a 22, and I was feeling good. Then I saw Elliot, huddled at the end of the sidewalk, heavy trombone case in hand, back turned against the wind and the mist. Without even thinking about it, I jumped out of the mini-van, opened up the back hatch, and grabbed the trombone case to help get Elliot into the mini-van and out of the weather…
All while the awesome a cappella stylings of Pentatonix, singing Tchaikovsky’s “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy,” blasted out every orifice of the mini-van into the cool night air.
This particular song just so happens to be one of the album’s most experimental: no words, an almost-operatic affect at times, heavy vibrato on the sustained notes. Probably not the best choice of music for the moment, if I would have been thinking about it. When Elliot and I settled back into the car, he looked over at me with a roll of his eyes and an embarrassed look that was half-grin, half-grimmace. “What was that?” he asked.
The whole combination of circumstances suddenly occurred to me: boys ages twelve to fourteen, basketball sweat steaming from their bodies into the winter mist, hormones and self-consciousness swirling in the mix — and an a cappella version of “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy” crashing through it all like an axe. I answered my son’s question: “The Pentatonix Christmas album. Remember? I suppose that was pretty embarrassing, wasn’t it?” I smiled but also dropped my gaze for a moment. “I’m sorry.”
“Shyeah, it was embarrassing.” He exhaled. “How many other guys were right there, walking out at the same time?” He craned his neck to look at the extent of the damages.
“Hey, that’s my weird — not your weird.” I tried to make a teachable moment of the experience. I wanted him to know that this wasn’t going to be the last time I embarrassed him, but he could still embrace his identity as a part of our family without feeling unnecessarily burdened by all our individual idiosyncrasies. Even in that moment of dispensing fatherly wisdom, however, my ears couldn’t help but pick up the most awesome part of the track coming through a muzzled version of the Pentatonix Christmas album on the mini-van’s sound system. “Hold on a second though, Elliot.” I turned up the volume, back to a solid-but-comfortable 18. “You gotta hear this part of this song. It’s crazy-awesome.”
Around the 1:35 minute mark of “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy,” the bass singer drops from a trilling operatic holding pattern into a choral nosedive — descending a whole octave to land a solid “Bah!” at a seemingly-impossible depth. It feels like a freaking deep-sea diver, hitting a new record descent into the Mariana Trench. It’s genuinely awesome.
Upon hearing the musical moment, Elliot looked up at me with genuine joy in his face. “Wow,” he said. “Nailed it.”