TBTS Reviews: Fitz and the Tantrums, “Out of My League/Spark” 10” single (Record Store Day limited edition)
Fitz and the Tantrums’ first album, Pickin’ Up the Pieces, was one of my favorite albums of 2010, and I’ve continued to play it consistently over the last three years. I also love that they’re a smoking hot live band that can whip a crowd into a frenzy, as evidenced in numerous Youtube clips and especially the beautifully done Live at the Metro show that pops up occasionally on Palladia.
For a while now, I’ve been looking forward to the May 7 release of the band’s second album, More Than Just a Dream. In advance of the album, a 10” vinyl pressing of the first single, “Out of My League” (b/w “Spark”), dropped first as a Record Store Day exclusive and is now available in the band’s Elektra web store. I was at a local shop for Record Store Day this year and decided to add “Out of My League/Spark” to my haul.
The item looks fabulous. Black front cover featuring only the pink neon heart graphic that seems to be a design motif for the new album and its marketing. Pink back cover with black and white text. Clear vinyl and the same pink/white/black color scheme on the label. It’s very nicely done in terms of design.
Unfortunately, I’m struggling to come up with many positive things to say about the two songs themselves. From the opening seconds of “Out of My League,” I hear a band that seems to have lost the warmth, groove, and swagger that made Pickin’ Up the Pieces an instant classic. The sound is now heavily synthetic and compressed to the extent that no single instrument is discernible. Forget about the delightful horn, flute, and organ work that once sizzled in every Fitz song. Perhaps worst of all, second vocalist Noelle Scaggs, such an integral presence on the first album, is inaudible except for a few “ooh-oohs” that just as easily could be coming from a manipulated version of lead singer Michael Fitzpatrick’s voice.
If anything, “Spark” is even worse because in a few spots, especially in the verses and the bridge, it feints at a bit of gritty soulfulness and tricks me into thinking that maybe not all is lost. But then that chorus and those “whoa-whoa-whoas” kick in, surely the most obnoxious things that Fitz and the Tantrums have yet committed to tape (or a hard drive), and it’s all I can do not to break my lovely clear vinyl single in half. That chorus and those whoas are such a lousy, pandering play to our particular Top 40 moment’s notion of catchiness, and both songs are a clear grab at some pop radio airplay and greater attention from general audiences.
The Tantrums do this compressed, pseudo-80s, pop-radio sound well enough, and it just might work and catapult the band to stardom. But unless some of the other tracks on More Than Just a Dream are better than this drivel, I’d say the Tantrums’ potential success will come at the cost of replacing a great soul band with a slightly better version of fun. or Neon Trees. It gnaws at me to group Fitz and the Tantrums with two of my least favorite bands in the world, but that’s clearly where they seem to be aiming with “Out of My League” and “Spark.”
And lest you dismiss this curmudgeonly review as just another knee-jerk reaction from a one-dimensional neo-soul fan who hates all things synthy and 80s, that’s not the case with me. As I’ve written in previous reviews of bands such as the Horrors, Violens, and the Mary Onettes, I love not only the great post-punk and synth-pop that emerged from the 1980s, but also many of our best modern bands who mine the same rich terrain for artistic expression. My ears don’t burn when I hear synths and drum machines and glossy 80s production; in fact, I love ‘em when they’re used for chasing genuine inspiration.
But in the case of Fitz and the Tantrums, at least on “Out of My League” and “Spark,” all I hear is the chasing of 2013 pop radio demographics and the loss of all the threads that used to connect the band to its soulful heritage. And from a band I’ve loved until now, one that stood credibly among some legendary company, that stings. I’m still holding out hope that the rest of More Than Just a Dream will be better, but now I’m more than a little skeptical.