Music

Fitz & the Tantrums: More Than Just a Dream

The Motown revivalists find themselves up contending with a standard sophomore struggle: a bigger recording budget.


Fitz & the Tantrums

More Than Just a Dream

Label: Elektra
US Release Date: 2013-05-07
UK Release Date: 2013-05-07
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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.

6

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Music

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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