Late Night Tantrums

Wow.  There are a lot of musical artists on the internet.  While it’s easier than ever to access and sample music, it’s not always easy to identify which artists are worth clicking on to sample without a previous recommendation.

Enter the late night talk show.

Let’s back up a minute.  When I was a kid, I loved watching the bands that appeared on late night television shows.  Back before the internet, there were not many ways to discover bands outside of what you heard on the radio.  Granted, radio offered a little more creativity and variety back then, but it was still a narrow and competitive path to recognition for most artists.  But shows like Late Night with David Letterman and Saturday Night Live offered unknown  bands a venue to perform.  I remember seeing Squeeze on SNL and being mesmerized.  “Pulling Muscles From the Shell” was new to me and made me desperately want more of these guys (Confession: I was convinced they were singing “Pulling muscles for Michelle”.  Who was this Michelle?  And why did she have a voracious appetite for seafood?).  Watching R.E.M.,  who were still barely college radio darlings, perform “a new song” from their upcoming album The Reckoning on Letterman (“South Central Rain”), blew my 15-year-old ears away.  It was magical.  And Michael Stipe sitting down on the stage and letting the other guys in the band talk to Dave when he came over after their first song, made me that much more curious.

While accessibility to artists is easier today, there is still something magical about “discovering” somebody through a late night live television appearance.  The energy from a live performance communicates much differently than a digital 90 second music sample.

My show of choice these days in Conan (Team Coco unite!).  He regularly welcomes unique and relatively unknown artists to his stage, often showcasing someone I have not heard before.  The Kills and The Joy Formidable come to mind as artists I heard for the first time on Conan this year.  But since his move to basic cable, no artist appearing on Conan has left as much of an instant impression on me as the band I saw last February.   Ladies and gentleman, please welcome to your consciousness, Fitz and The Tantrums.

As I watched them perform “Money Grabber”, I felt my musical spidey senses tingle.  I froze.  I stared.  Natalie saw it all go down and, knowing me like she does, recognized I was having a geek-out moment.  It took about 90 seconds for me to stand up, fist raised, and start jumping up and down to the retro-tastic rhythms permeating through my soul.  I asked myself “Who are these shiny suit and tie clad lads pushing out some sweet soul sounds?  I must have more”!

The fear when being moved like this is that, after overreacting and instantly downloading everything they have to offer on iTunes, you will soon suffer from buyer’s remorse because you just heard them perform their only song of merit.  Not so, with Fitz.  And the Tantrums.  Their debut album, Pickin’ Up The Pieces, is spectacular.  Money Grabber teases in all the right ways, leading you to an album filled with sweet soul horns, 60’s Stax grooves, Motown-esque production, and a vibe that often combines elements of Otis Redding, The Four Tops, and The Supremes (just to name a few).  But make no mistake, this record is absolutely relevant today.

The chemistry between vocalists Michael Fitzpatrick and Noelle Scuggs is strong, giving more power to the material.  These are not fluff songs.  It’s easy to get swept up in the music and lose sight of what’s happening in the lyrics.  In fact, I was kind of knocked back a little when I realized what was taking place below the musical surface of this record.  Much of this material plays out with Fitz struggling his way through the end of a relationship.  His emotions fly all over the place.  It is often bitter.  In the opening track, “Breakin’ The Chains of Love”, 40 days have passed since the break-up, and while bitter, the singer is still “hoping that you won’t find a new love, cause I know, baby, you’re mine”.  On “Pickin’ Up the Pieces”, Fitzpatrick and Scuggs trade verses and we get to hear the woman’s perspective, which suggests an emotional disconnect by Fitz that ultimately drove her away.

Fitz continues to wrestle with mixes of bitterness and longing, before settling on self-examination and realization in the beautiful break-up ballad “Tighter”, as he sings “Why didn’t I hold you tighter and tighter?  And how could I be so wrong?  You can’t hold on to what is already gone”.  The emotional depth is what separates this album from another recent neo-soul artist that I like a lot, Mayer Hawthorne.  I loved Hawthorne’s first album.  And while I also enjoyed his 2011 release, it feels void of any connectable spirit.  It’s a surface level effort that, while musically enjoyable, leaves me wanting more.  Not so with Fitz.  He actually makes me want to reach through the record talk to him.  Sometimes I want to offer empathy, sometimes I want to slap him and tell him to get over it!

Let’s change gears and go back to “Tighter”.  The song contains a beautiful bridge where Fitz desperately croons “Why oh why won’t you believe in me”.  I point this out because I am a sucker for a strong bridge in popular music.  These are usually where the best hooks are, and my mouth is always agape for a good hook.  Fitz and The Tantrums know how to deliver a good hook.  “Don’t Gotta Work It Out”, Money Grabber”, and “News 4 U” all display this brilliantly (with “News 4 U going the extra step of offering hypnotic french spoken word over the bridge”), but my favorite bridge comes in “L.O.V.”.  This is one of my favorite songs on the album, and I swear it’s because of the bridge.  I will listen to this song just so I can hear that sweet 30 seconds when the band breaks it down and we hear the simple piano tinkling over the background harmonies before Fitz jumps in with the plea for his baby to come back home.  It’s in moments like this that my inner geek comes running out to show itself to the world.  It’s okay.  I’m not ashamed.

Strangely, what I love most about Pickin’ Up the Pieces is that it is not a happy record, but it often sounds like it is.  In that way, it’s bittersweet.  I haven’t gotten into my fascination with the bittersweet yet, just know that it’s coming.  And in a somewhat indirect way, Fitz and The Tantrums deliver it here.  I love the way it makes me feel like I am providing an empathetic ear for a friend trying to work through something difficult.  And I love the way the music makes me want to jump up and down.  This is one of my favorite albums of 2011 and one I know I will be listening to it for years to come.

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~ by themattmorrisshow on November 23, 2011.

3 Responses to “Late Night Tantrums”

  1. Can’t wait to see them with you in SF early next year! And can’t wait to hear you try to explain your penchant for the bittersweet. 🙂

  2. Cool you wrote about this band. I heard a song by them the other day and was absolutely taken by it – in a good way!

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