Fitz and the Tantrums: Fitz and the Tantrums
Fitz and the Tantrums find contentment in the soft, sleek, and simple on their infectious but frivolous third album.
The slight revisions in sound between Fitz and the Tantrums’ first two albums (especially their 2013 commercial breakthrough More Than Just a Dream) and their new self-titled third record are almost intangible, so much so that any criticism one could levy at their latest effort could also easily be a condemnation of its subtly superior predecessors. The songs on Fitz and the Tantrums adhere to the cold designs of musical formula, for example, but the band has always relied on conventional songwriting structure to better channel their energies elsewhere; their lyrics boil down to generic pop platitudes, but the Tantrums have always stuck to bizarre imitations of classic soul lyrics and that has never been their appeal anyway. The music is soft, sleek, and simple, infectious but ultimately frivolous, and yet that perfectly describes their solidly pleasurable 2010 debut Pickin’ Up the Pieces. What exactly makes Fitz and the Tantrums’ third album a decidedly weaker collection is difficult to identify because the record hits most of the same notes that we’re used to from the band.
Most of it seems to come down to the neo-soul that had always characterized the band’s style but has now apparently evaporated. On their latest album, lead singer Michael Fitzpatrick mostly abandons his signature soulful wailing for precise, monotonous pop vocals while the band’s funky core is straightened out into static rhythms and wimpy melodic phrases. Without that merciful dose of charming soul and personality we’ve come to expect, all of Fitz and the Tantrums’ once forgivable flaws come viciously into the foreground, and all we’re left with are those high watermarks in this now dried-up pool.
Fitz and the Tantrums was of course preceded by the band’s abrupt thrust into the dominion of mainstream rock consciousness after More Than Just a Dream, and it’s hard not to blame the sudden dip in quality on this move. It seems to have had the most profound effect on the album’s vanilla lead single “HandClap”, an inauthentic song that any odd mainstream pop act could have recorded with the same lukewarm result. All the distinctive marks of the band are smoothed out in the service of a robotic mass appeal that cages Fitz and the Tantrums into the unchallenging realm of timid pop universality, a move which grants them a nameless, bland familiarity and hammers out any of their charismatic irregularities. Fitzpatrick’s vague and meaningless refrain of “I can make your hands clap” is almost patronizing coming from a band that has so many genuinely catchy (and not insultingly simplistic) tunes in their catalog.
Luckily, “HandClap” is the most generic song of the set; yet unfortunately, it also indicates the general direction of Fitz and the Tantrums as a whole. “Complicated” takes the straightforward sonics and rigid beats of “HandClap” and actually improves on them for one of the album’s infectious highlights. “Run It” is a passable attempt at a radio-ready pop ballad, and despite a laughably lazy, completely unnecessary call-and-response hook, “A Place for Us” is actually a rather sunny close to the album that finally injects some mood and style into the record. If you spend long enough, you could pick out redeeming qualities of every song (“If you’re patient, I’ll be worth your time,” Fitzpatrick cries on “Tricky”). Yes, the hooks are still incredibly addictive, the instrumentation is still lively, and every once in awhile we still get that energized neo-soul flair, but what once streamed through every moment of the Tantrums’ records is now only a shadow slowly disappearing in the blazing light of mainstream pop convention.
The fact that Fitz and the Tantrums have decided to self-title this record in particular -- a collection of half-hearted, nondescript, throwaway bubblegum -- tells us that either they want to lend credence to a calculated, clearly corporate-influenced effort by giving it their name (as if this was the band they were all along), or perhaps the music is so flavorless, even the band thinks it doesn’t deserve its own moniker. EIther way, this is not the band you thought you knew, the band that could once craft authentic and warm pop music at the drop of a hat. It’s the residue of that band making a cynical attempt to polish the gloss off their music to a dull matte to the benefit of the lowest common denominator of pop listeners. On that score, it certainly worked.