Part of the fun in falling for and following a band is watching them leapfrog from smaller stages to stadiums, and that’s exactly what fans of Fitz and the Tantrums are experiencing at this very moment. The first time I caught the Angeleno neo-soul pop brigade, they’d sold out Boston’s Brighton Music Hall: 400 people came out into the unforgivingly frigid New England air on a weeknight in the dead of winter to see them, a seemingly impossible feat for an out-of-town band playing their first show ever in the city. Since then, Fitz and the Tantrums have gone on to play for crowds of 700, and then 2,400, and ultimately graduated to Boston’s largest venue, the TD Garden, which is where they opened for Bruno Mars Wednesday night. Similar trajectories have taken place in every major touring spot they’ve hit, and when they arrive in New York this weekend, they’ll be playing two shows–one opening again for Bruno at the Barclays Center; one headlining bash of their own at Irving Plaza–that embrace the smaller, lankier club scenes from which they came and the roaring crowds that are devouring More Than Just A Dream one punchy riff at a time.
The only weird thing about this steady climb? This sophomore effort and the follow-up to 2010’s Picking Up The Pieces barely resembles the swinging, sultry sounds of the Fitz and the Tantrums we first met back when these high-profile supporting gigs were just a pipe dream. “Out of My League,” Dream‘s lead-off track and single, thrives on a bombastic, digital pulse tailor-made for tomorrow’s dance floor, where the vintage hooks and tarnished brass of Pieces‘ “Money Grabber”–the song that debatably launched their notoriety–banked on the best Motown revival associations the industry had to offer. Their laurels continue to rest on the vocal chemistry of Michael Fitz and Noelle Scaggs and a bass-ridden underbelly that sits right at home amidst the Spencer Davis Trios and Isley Brothers of jukeboxes past, but Dream on the whole delivers a new Fitz and the Tantrums by way of exceptional pop anthems (“Break the Walls,” “The Walker”) and brutally honest ballads (“Merry Go Round,” “6am”) fit for the modern love plights of 2013. And according to Fitz, that break was both intentional and organic.
“We just got a little tired of this one-label retro sort of thing that felt sort of dismissive at times,” says Fitz, calling in from his dressing room at TD. “For me, Pieces was always a cross-genre record, a mixture of a lot of different things. It would’ve been really easy for us to make Picking Up The Pieces Part II, and we just wanted to really challenge ourselves as artists and make a bolder record that really defined our career as a band and our ability to let all of our influences come through, so we went for it. When you have a fan base, you worry if they’re gonna love it or hate it. We just returned to the mantra that we needed to make a record that we love, that turned us on, and we just hoped in turn that our fans would be willing to follow us on that journey. Look, it’s still us–it’s still Noelle and I singing and everybody in the band playing; the soul element still has its traces within the songs. And you can hear how I love all things ’80s, too. For me, making this record was the ultimate cross-genre experience for us.”
Of the 35-40 songs they wrote over the course of a month, the resulting 12 tracks of Dream make for a veritable calling card in that they showcase Fitz and the Tantrums as a pop band that manipulates genre affiliation as a launching pad instead of a gilt cage. Unlike other bands before them banking on girl group sensibilities and Brill Building nostalgia trips, Fitz and the Tantrums aren’t trapped by the specification of period-specific genre: they explore the sounds they like, successfully merge them with unexpected instrumental pairings and don’t apologize when the subsequent record surprises those expecting yet another timeless, soulful deluge. It’s a risky move, breaking away from the flavors your fans have come to love, but it was a necessary one in the name of progress they were eager to make.
“At the end of the day, all of the broadening of the instrumentation and the influences that we let come in and the songwriting, that’s just us, you know?” he says. “I think everybody in the band has such diverse taste. We’re all in this society listening to music on shuffle mode. Everybody has the ability to do a radical shift from song to song on their playlist, and stylistically as musicians we all have so many different influences. The songs that didn’t make it on the album because they felt risky? Those were the songs that felt too safe.”