Autry Rene Fulbright is an Austin-based music lover who performs and writes with the bands Midnight Masses and …And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead.
Making records is tough, making a good record is tougher, making a successful record is highly improbable, repeating the success is damn near impossible, and being able to grow as a musician while holding on to your initial fervor and fanbase is the stuff of legend. With their new album More Than Just a Dream, Fitz & the Tantrums attempt to have it all and go for the gold in all senses of the term. But do our heroes succeed with their soul(s) intact?
First and foremost, Fitz & the Tantrums is a band that makes you want to believe in them. As the story goes, lead singer/songwriter Michael Fitzpatrick acquired a fifty-dollar church organ thanks to a heads-up from an old flame, and almost immediately wrote “Breakin’ the Chains of Love,” which would become a standout on Fitz’s 2010 debut album Pickin’ Up the Pieces. This inspired start and almost instant formation of the band quickly snowballed into quite a buzz around their LA home base and a golden early opportunity to open for Maroon 5 on a 2009 college tour, along with a nod from Daryl Hall and a performance on his Live from Daryl’s House web series. Fitz & the Tantrums were kicking, screaming, shouting, and singing their way near the top of the charts and into the hearts of a growing number of fans.
Sure, the band caught some lucky breaks, but probably wouldn’t have gotten far without the catchy hooks, great presence, and tasteful mining of classic influences they have to back up the hype. In a recent interview with Rolling Stone, Fitzpatrick explained that this record was “a chance for the band to grow and experiment” and to work with producer Tony Hoffer (Beck, Phoenix, M83) to combine “the organic with the synthetic.” With the goal of escaping the shadow of their soulful predecessors and transcending their own success in mind, they had their work cut out for them. “Out of My League” is the first song on the album and the lead single. It’s quite noticeable that the sextet opted to trade their ’60s soul vibe for concise retro-pop of a different decade (think more Reagan-Bush than Kennedy-Johnson).
“The Walker” is one song that appears to reinforce the band’s slight uneasiness with venturing out of their familiar terrain. The production is packed with lots of handclaps, synths, bells, and whistles, which makes it sound like the musical equivalent of someone wearing a deep-sea diving suit to a swimming pool; amusing but unnecessary for the party. They do find a nice middle ground with the standout “6AM,” a song that calls to mind a soul-inflected pop song as imagined by early ’90s SoCal hip-hop. The infectious, piano-driven “Keepin Our Eyes Out” definitely will satisfy older fans longing for more of the Motown magic of earlier recordings, but certain tracks like “Break the Walls” may have purists screaming “Adele no!” This change could alienate some fans, but on the other hand could add quite a few more to the fold, especially those who prefer their soul to have sheen rather than sweat.
It’s hard to be overly critical of a musician’s decision to evolve and experiment, to refuse to be trapped by their own past, to be chained to the retro style that won them acclaim. Last December, Fitz & the Tantrums opened for Jason Mraz at Madison Square Garden. Mraz is the guy who once sang that “the sophomore slump is an uphill battle.” From what I can tell, Fitzpatrick & Co. aim to fight it straight to the top, and they’re unafraid of the occasional misfire or casualty of war. It seems as if they’re reeling from their success and figuring out their next move, but having fun nonetheless, which makes More Than Just a Dream a creative success and, who knows, maybe a commercial one as well. Some fans may be left wanting more of the same ol’ song and dance, but something tells me that Fitz won’t be settling down anytime soon, and there’s sure to be more soul to come.