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Tuesday, 21 May 2013 08:00

Album review: Fitz and the Tantrums still make soul that's 'More Than Just a Dream'

Album review: Fitz and the Tantrums still make soul that's 'More Than Just a Dream'
Written by Erin Frank
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Fitz and the Tantrums
"More Than Just a Dream"

Recently, a cab driver asked me what I'd been listening to lately, and when I told him that I'd started playing Fitz and the Tantrums' new release "More Than Just a Dream" he replied that the band had been very popular lately, and his tone was not without a hint of derision.

I get where this is coming from, not only for Fitz and the Tantrums but also for the bands that take part in the same cycle of retro revival (swing begets rockabilly begets R&B begets funk begets psych and so on until somehow we end up with some version of the New Kids on the Block again, I think). Still, what I like about Fitz and the Tantrums is that it seems like they can't help but exist within their specific genre.

The LA-based neo-soul ensemble is helmed by Fitz -- that is, lead vocalist Michael Fitzpatrick -- and backed by vocalist Noelle Scaggs, bassist Joseph Karnes, drummer John Wicks, keyboardist Jeremy Ruzumna, and...uh, wind-ist? Whatever the word is for a person who plays horns and harmonica and isn't in the E Street Band? Anyway, James King. That's his name.

Their debut album, 2010's "Pickin' Up the Pieces" was immediately sampled in automative and iPhone ads, and free single download codes appeared in Starbucks just as quickly. So while I understand that cab driver's concerns about the band's authenticity, I think it's awfully difficult to pass such a judgement on less than three whole years of really solid music, including "More Than Just a Dream."

Released on Elektra on May 7, the new album contains Fitz and the Tantrums' signature brand of brassy, sassy soul and waylays it into a smattering of electro-pop. The keys are punchy, the horns are robust, and the vocals -- especially Noelle Scaggs' lustrous contribution to just about every harmony -- are hearty and fun. But there's one thing about "More Than Just a Dream" that confused me, or at least caused me to pause while listening, not only because I was trying to find something specific, but I was concerned about if it even mattered.

The lyrics and melodies on "More Than Just a Dream" are so joyfully ambiguous that I kept scanning the track list again and coming up with the same question: Is this album about Jesus?

I guess it doesn't really matter, although it would be nice to know for sure, especially since I never had any inclination that Fitz and the Tantrums were a Christian-themed band, and just as I like to imagine what sort of bespectacled music director is going to put next summer's darlings on the soundtrack to yet another '80s teen movie reboot a whole year before almost anyone knows who they are, it's interesting to imagine superdomes of faithful teens really giving it up (ironically, not in the biblical sense) to a song like "Break the Walls."

And again, I guess it doesn't really matter, at least not to me since about three years ago when Raphael Bob-Waksberg posted the below on his music Tumblr, ilovesongsaboutjesusforsomereaso (the "n" wouldn't fit):

"...I'm pretty sure about ninety percent of all great music is about Jesus, heroin, or love-sick teenagers."

Populist or not, Christian or not, LA-revival-gone-obsolete-in-five-years-or-not, it's mostly the rapid rise of Fitz and the Tantrums that has most shaped "More Than Just a Dream." The past three years have worn smooth some of the grit of 2010's "Pickin' Up the Pieces," and this album isn't as audaciously funky, either, but it's a respectable second release for a band that became Very It Very Quick, and who shouldn't have that held against them.

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