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Sadly, it seems that Pentatonix are not long for this world.
Among the freshest voices in recent pop history, the Texan quintet breathed new life and legitimacy into the subgenre of a cappella with their endless charisma and the finest blend this side of an espresso macchiato. The mighty Pentatonix earned their place within a prestigious tier, a tier whose members remind us that there is still room in the music industry for people who can really sing.
But all good things must come to an end.
Four of the fivesome have already released new material. Kirstie Maldonado the pint-sized mezzo has rebranded as kırstın, forging her way into the realm of slinky, orthographically pretentious electro-pop. Avi Kaplan is veering northwards into hushed coniferous forests, his solo project Avriel and the Sequoias drifting through the same indie-folk taiga as Bon Iver and Iron and Wine.
Introspection can wait for another day. Today is for mason jars of candied zest, and improbably huge tufts of bright pink fairy floss.
Today is for Superfruit.
Scott Hoying and Mitch Grassi are sugar and spice; coffee and cream; Thelma and Louise. One, a towering, swaggering blonde; the other, a camp, diminutive brunette. Where Pentatonix repertoire took the time to spotlight each of the five, when whittled down to two the tightened focus allows Scott and Mitch to shine, individually and together. The pristine production of Pentatonix has slipped on new and different colours, and the raw chemistry here sizzles. Unfusable names have not deterred their enthusiastic fans, nor the boys themselves — search your preferred social network for #scömìche. And without wishing to ratchet up the already crushing pressure of their tremendous pedigree, Superfruit represents the simultaneous second and third comings of Michael Jackson.
A far cry from the king’s ascetic minimalism, though nonetheless possessed of a healthy appreciation for negative space, the two are endowed with similarly, astonishingly acrobatic voices: Mitch approximates an insouciant alto, while Scott’s extensive range encompasses both husky baritone and clarion-clear tenor.
(Salt the rims of these assessment margaritas generously. No, the Geneva Convention does not cover torturing metaphors. Vocabulary pertaining to voice classification in non-classical music remains vague and imprecise, neither corresponding to nor correlating with its own implied definitions. Any lexicon worth its pixels should reflect this, but of course any lexicon takes time to gather acceptance; longer for widespread use, longer still for consensus.)
Future Friends is the duo’s first full-length album, concatenated from their two EPs released earlier in the year. (I’m covering the album, but the first EP features the most eye-grabbing artwork. Sue me, it’s my blog and I’ll do what I want with it.) Of the several spinoffs, it’s these guys who helm closest to the Pentatonix trajectory: bright and bubbly pop music. And it is really damn good.
Two parts funk-pop to one part strawberry daiquiri, Future Friends ably and joyfully balances a diversity of flavours with a common palate. Here it’s frothier, there it’s fizzier, everywhere it’s appealingly light on its feet. Superfruit have found themselves an eminently flattering pastel sweetness, and goodness do they ride it. Scott and Mitch share their own inspired spins on oft-covered topics of pop music.
They swoon over teenage idols on ‘Heartthrob’:
“I’m so over James Dean /
I’m more of a three names queen /
Freddie Prinze Junior /
John Taylor Thomas /
Want you to be my nineties heartthrob”
They turn ‘Sexy Ladies’ into an arm-candy proposition:
“All my independent ladies /
All my independent fellas /
I’m just here to make your ex-man jealous”
They drop nuggets of wonderfully blunt honesty:
“Where all the boys at with emotional stability?”
That last one is from the pithily titled ‘guy.exe’. There's plenty more where that came from.
And this is all to say nothing of the indulgent design flourishes that drop a cherry on top of the icing on the Superfruit cake: the rumbly bassline of ‘Worth It’, the tropical splash of ‘Hurry Up’, and most pleasantly the bubblings of the very first track, whereon the two sassy motor-mouths nimbly navigate a fanciful invitation to an imaginary party in a make-believe Ferrari.
Such rich varieties of effervescence are clamouring to be explored, and Scott and Mitch are plunging straight in. Superfruit chronicles their campaign to tease apart every shade of pastel — mint greens, baby blues, canary yellows, pale pinks and purples — and it is clear that their discography will serve as a travelogue, a paint swatch, a geographical cross-section wherein coils of colour are nested fractally. There is no end, no bottom; just ever more granular divisions and deviations and divergences that continue well past the level at which any individual could distinguish them all.
There is a lot of colourful stuff happening on the pop periphery. Carly Rae Jepsen’s criminally underrated E·MO·TION album and B-side EP barely scratch the surface of the tip of the iceberg. One breadcrumb trail leads to Selena Gomez, who continues to drop plush zeitgeisty banger after plush zeitgeisty banger. Perhaps the coarser pumpernickel stylings of Charli XCX or Tove Lo will appeal to you. Currently smashing her way to glory with the sledgehammer of eighties pop maximalism is the magnificent Betty Who, whose recent sophomore album features a cameo from the Superfruit boys. Troye Sivan, who himself snagged a guest spot from Betty Who, specialises in convulsive electronica that throws into sharp relief his moodier ruminations.
A great deal of triple-A releases can’t help but collapse under their own weight: recursively focus-tested, hung lopsidedly with heavy expectations, thrown further off-balance by sanded-smooth corners. This is not to say that every eccentricity in modern pop has been entirely snuffed or suffocated. But the fact remains that for every Lemonade or Melodrama, there are dozens of Witnesses.
It can’t be easy to strike out beyond the gaping shadow of a hugely popular group (see my earlier comparison to Michael Jackson), especially when that group was thrice anointed at the Grammys. But when liberated from the obligation to shift millions of copies, when freed of the responsibility to appeal as broadly and as blandly as possible, when unburdened of such potential liabilities, excellent music can, has and does flourish.
Scott and Mitch have much to be proud of. Superfruit’s debut is an unqualified success.