New Zealand soul band gracefully blends soul with elements as diverse as jazz, prog rock, Jamaican dub and even African hi-life.
Fat Freddy's Drop, a five-piece group hailing from New Zealand, boasts a wide range of influences. Their three-man horn section claims influences as diverse as hi-life, Portugeuse Top Forty charts and, most importantly, the music of black Americans during the golden age of soul in the 1970s and '80s. Lead singer Dallas Tamaira seems to be on a similar page, as much of his vocal work brings to mind the work of late-'90s soul revivalists like D'Angelo and Musiq Soulchild.
But it is perhaps the group's wild card, multi-instrumentalist Chris Faiumu, that provides them their most distinctive characteristic. While the rest of the group maintains a comfortable degree of soulful grooves and uplifting music, Faiumu (better known as Fitchie) provides an atmosphere through his samplers that easily recalls the hazy mood of King Tubby and Scientist dubs in Jamaica's early '80s. "Pull the Catch", the album's lead single, is a very impressive combination of neo-soul and dub reggae that is immediately convincing as a Jamaican product despite spawning thousands of miles away. The synthesis of these two styles is no clearer than on "The Raft", a track that takes as much influence from gospel-inflected soul as it does the freedom songs of Burning Spear. Working off of "Pull the Catch", they form a dynamic duo of serious and relaxed that first left me with an eagerness to hear the rest of the album.
Unfortunately, Fitchie appears to have had other ideas for his sequencing on the latter half of the album. "The Camel" is an interesting song, as it shifts the album's vibe in a more Led Zeppelin-oriented direction before reaching into techno and hi-life's bag of tricks for "The NOD" and "Shiverman". "Shiverman" in particular seems to be of some concern for the group. In Boondigga's local New Zealand release, the 10-minute epic was placed early in the tracklisting, surrounded by the songs with more of a soul feel. But for the American re-release, the track was pushed to the back with the more similar songs. I don't think the move did the album any favors.
As the album gradually shifts out of its soulful mood and begins to stretch out a little, incorporating elements of prog rock and jazz into the template, it seems to lose some of its focus and become somewhat less impressive. It's not that these songs aren't accomplished in their own right. Whenever I put this album on, again and again I'm impressed with what Fat Freddy's Drop are able to accomplish. Yet they make it sound like a completely different album than the first half, and I usually catch myself gradually losing interest. I appreciate the bluesy beginning to "The Camel", for example, but as the horns begin to creep in the track takes on a bit of a prog vibe that I can't fully get into. The hi-life excursion of "Shiverman" is even less interesting to me despite its good intentions. And the intentions are certainly good in the second half, with tracks like "The NOD" celebrating soul food around a refrain first introduced in "The Camel".
Tiny cohesive details like that definitely help keep the album interesting when the music doesn't totally jive with my personal hopes. Really, that section of Boondigga shouldn't be a problem for more academic music listeners, because the genre blends are exciting, I'm just personally a little disappointed that soul and dub was not the sole focus of this album. I also get a little miffed by random, so-called fun diversions like "The Nod"'s nod to New Orleans jazz and "When the Saints Come Marching In". I know quite a few people that swear by this as one of the most accomplished albums of the year, however, so I'd highly recommended it to anyone with an ear for dub, soul, jazz, or experimental blends of the three. It could be just the thing you need to close out 2009 on a high note.