The Motown revivalists find themselves up contending with a standard sophomore struggle: a bigger recording budget.
It’s perhaps expected that Fitz & the Tantrums would layer on the gloss for their second full-length. There’s certainly precedent in all the other times similarly hard-working up-and-comers have found themselves garnering attention and able to spend decent money on recording for once. And there’s nothing inherently wrong with a bit (or in the case of someone like Queen or Depeche Mode, a lot) of studio trickery, unless one holds to the absolutist purist notion that the only honest records are those slathered in bedroom-borne, done-in-one cassette tape-hiss.
But for some bands, a bigger budget is more a hindrance than a benefit. Fitz & the Tantrums’ throwback soul stylings (honed by endless touring) scream for a less-is-more touch when it comes to the control board. Their 2010 debut Pickin’ Up the Pieces built up a fanbase with such an approach, but those enamored by its lively '60s Motown facsimiles are liable to find the follow-up, More Than Just a Dream, a bit too 21st century for their tastes.
Compelled by a desire to spread their creative wings, Michael “Fitz” Fitzpatrick and his gang incorporate instruments they purposefully avoided when making Pickin’ Up the Pieces (namely guitar) and undertake a decidedly modern rock bent on More Than Just a Dream. If you are a fan of Imagine Dragons or M83, the treadmill grooves, '80s synths, and inexhaustible supply of “oh-ohhs” are pitched right at you (unsurprisingly, the album was produced by Tony Hoffer, who has worked with M83 Phoenix, and Beck). When before Fitzpatrick and co-lead vocalist Noelle Scaggs could compel audiences to sing along based on the gusto of their performances, now the cues for crowd participation are signposted by the excessively overdubbed choruses, as is the custom these days.
The secret to any good R&B act (and really, any band) is that one needs to know how to use space. That is, know when to play and when not to play. Yet today’s pop production has little use for such subtlety -- it’s generally cranked to full blast, slamming listeners with an impenetrable wall of beats and hooks aside from the occasional shameless beat drop. Suffice to say, that approach and Fitz and the Tantrums is a less-than-ideal marriage. This is a band beholden to an era where the musicians thrived off feeding off one another, where doggedly sticking to the gameplan was less important than getting people moving and hitting upon the right feel. The Tantrums have no problem composing hooks -- in fact, every song has at least one impressively catchy melody, be it those more traditionalist hip-shakin’ “Oh oh oh oh oh ohs” in “Spark” or the lock-step handclaps and harmonies of “Out of My League” -- but in many instances, the fancy window dressing doesn’t afford the musicians much wiggle room, nor allow the arrangements room to breathe. It’s a welcome relief on the ears when a retro horn interlude arrives to break up the straightforward momentum of “The Walker”.
Dissected on the basic level of melody and harmony, More Than Just a Dream is a killer of an album. All these songs are good, make no mistake -- many an artist would wish they had such a caliber of tunes handy when it came to their sophomore struggles. It is in regards to the presentation where the Tantrums fumble. The playtime in the studio results in songs that are overly fussy, monolithically mixed and seemingly aimed at a completely different audience than the sort previously drawn to the band. With every listen I am enticed by the judicious melodies, clever little turns, and mastery of the middle-eight section -- but that sensation I get whenever I see a television ad about some shiny new gadget desperate to grab my attention always returns in tandem. As the album progresses, the soul leanings reassert themselves, yet the interband chemistry remains a secondary concern to all the neat layering tricks that they are able to do now with a bigger bankroll.
Nevertheless, More Than Just a Dream is worth a spin for anyone with a weakness for neo-soul flourishes and hooks pitched above the ringtone fodder level, even if the old-school musicality and the modern rock-flavored production never make comfortable bedfellows. It’s an album that’s hard to love, yet easy to like.