By Skwerl at 9:01 AM Saturday, May 18th 2013
Fitz & The Tantrums debut album was the show-er, and their second album, More Than Just A Dream, is the grow-er. My first listen couldn’t have been more awkward, sitting in a car in Santa Monica after a dinner with the band’s manager as he watched me not really react at all to any of the songs save one or two. It took the full duration of that first listen to just get my head around what the band was trying to do, before I could start to judge how effectively they’d done it.
The angle with this album was to take Pickin’ Up The Pieces’ structure of pop wrapped up in soul, and turn it inside-out, wrapping their Motown grooves in sticky, sweet bubblegum. For the most part, More Than Just A Dream is a pop album. Listening through, I might be more inclined to draw comparisons to the likes of Gwen Stefani and Katy Perry than the folks whose names I dropped in our review of the band’s debut, like Mark Ronson, and Elton John. That’s not to say, however, that Katy Perry fans are going to love it, and Antiquiet readers are going to hate it. It’s not that simple.
It’s dessert first with the opening track Out Of My League, one of the most radio-friendly tracks on the album, with ooh-oohs and synthesized hand claps for days. It gets to the big sweeping chorus early and often; four lines (ending with the album’s title), with one chord ringing out through each:
Break The Walls doubles down on the pop, straight up opening with the chorus, Aerosmith style. At times in the verses, the more soulful Fitz vibe shines through, but this track, The Walker, and The End all fall into a special category in my musical filing system, which started with a song by the Zombies. It was a non-single released in 1968, but sometime in the 80s or 90s (probably thanks to the movie 1969), the song Time Of The Season resurged as a quintessential 60s soul rock jam. And it’s almost one of the best songs ever recorded. Keyboardist Rod Argent, the song’s writer, laces in this beautifully catchy and extraterrestrially unique lead, like a spiritual ancestor of John Frusciante, over a Stand By Me ripoff bassline that’s forgivable underneath Colin Blunstone’s syrupy, haunting vocals. The pre-chorus is a perfectly building, staggered groove… and then the chorus is just all wrong. It’s this super cheesy ‘age of aquarius’ type thing, offensive like birthday cake icing on a dry aged ribeye.
Damn, have I digressed. But I’m still bitter about that Zombies song, and just like it, these songs on More Than Just A Dream are just almost so good. Break The Walls’ problem really just comes down to a chorus that’s a little too simple to be repeated so often, while The Walker is an impeccable song structure that just gets a little too Nickelodeon in the chorus, after pushing plenty of luck with a whistled melody for the lead riff. The End comes the closest to surviving, to the point where many may completely disagree with my call. I just can’t keep a foothold with the sudden shift from the smooth, brooding verses to the flamboyant chorus.
Past the first three songs, the album really starts to work things out, getting better and much better through the second half. Spark is a perfect execution of the band’s new formula, with the cocky soul swagger keeping the pop from ever getting too schmaltzy, even through the same big kind of chorus that didn’t quite work out in The Walker.
The first half of the album culminates with Fools’ Gold, a steady pitch right across the center of the plate, with Top 40 radio written all over it. The band scored a victory this year when KROQ picked up the debut single, but that’s nothing like the career-changing success this song could bring them if it found its way onto Ryan Seacrest’s playlist, or the soundtrack of the next cheesy ensemble movie. Unlike the album’s openers, Fools’ Gold doesn’t falter in between genres. It’s a perfectly written pop song that finds the band playing to its strengths and never drifting away from its target audience.
There’s one other song on this album that achieves this feat, which is Get Away. The aggressive vocals might be just a little too adult for Top 40, but musically, it’s like The Black Keys called up Danger Mouse and set out to beat Katy Perry at her own game. And they kill it. Last Raindrop is a little less immediately lovable, but has to get credit for being equally flawless mixtape fodder.
For those that loved Pickin’ Up The Pieces, know that More Than Just A Dream is a much different album. There’s really just one song that might have fit on the debut, which is House On Fire. That one, admittedly my personal favorite, if not objectively “the best,” is a soul song in a sea of pop, kind of the way that L.O.V. was a flashy pop song in a sea of soul on the first album.
Structurally and technically, More Than Just A Dream is a well-crafted album with killer pop songs that hopefully will bring this band the career stability they so rightfully deserve. Words like ‘pop’ and ‘mainstream’ tend not to be too welcome around these parts, and they’re unavoidable when describing Fitz & The Tantrums’ sophomore effort. And the brass tacks is that if you’re looking for something as “cool” as Pickin’ Up The Pieces, you may be a little disappointed. But there are some really great tracks to be found by those who are open minded, and willing to give the album a few listens before passing judgment.
And with that said, if you actually like pop music? If you know how to dance, and can do it without shame? Well, then I have absolutely no qualms recommending this album to you.