A friend of mine and I have a dynamic when it comes to new music. He tells me about a certain album...and I resist. Such as when he tried to introduce me to a band called Passion Pit via their album Manners. I called it "just noise." Of course, a week later I had not only purchased the album, but I was unable to remove it from iPod rotation without a restraining order. It isn't that I don't trust his musical taste. In fact, I find it to be somewhat impeccable. I guess I just want to discover things for myself, and when someone hears about something before me I get... defensive.
About two months ago, we were hanging out on one of our hallowed Thursday nights. He fired up Fitz and the Tantrums' "MoneyGrabber" on YouTube. I listened to it for a little bit. It was OK. I might have even turned it off before it was done in favor of something by Radiohead or M.I.A. or whomever. Fast-forward about 45 days. He hands me the new Strokes album, which he was nice enough to burn for me (sorry, Julian Casablancas; if we should ever meet, I will buy you a beer). At the same time, he gives me the Fitz disc "just in case." I saw it as an afterthought. It took me a while to even burn it over to the iPod.
The Strokes who?
Yes, this album really is as good as my good old pal advertised (and it helps that the Strokes album, Angles, is mediocre). The San Diego-based band, led by singer Michael Fitzpatrick, has produced an album that mixes the bombast of 70s-era Elton John and the instant appeal of all those R&B/soul jams that you would have found topping the "black charts" in the early 1960s. The only shame about listening to the album at this point? There is no way it can make my best albums of 2011 year-end list since it was released in August 2010. Yeah, I really slept on this one.
What have I been missing? A cavalcade of songs with infectious choruses, air-drum-worthy beats, and instrumental sections that serve to take even the catchiest songs to the next level. Tops on the list is "Rich Girls," a mid-tempo jam about getting taken by the ladies whether they are broke or heavy in the bank account. Anyway, the chorus is terrific, but the Hammond organ is even better. "Tighter," a lovelorn ballad that closes the album, features more organ, more memorable lyrical structure (the guy tells a great story), and a string arrangement that ends the song on a high note to say the least. If you ever wanted to hear some really awesome flute on an album (I don't see any hands?), you need to check out the title track. The instrument, plus some stirring vocals by singer Noelle Scaggs, help set the track apart on an album filled with winners. And of course there is "MoneyGrabber," the song I first shrugged off when it was played for me. Um, I'm not shrugging anymore unless it is part of some sort of intricate dance maneuver I have planned. A slightly distant, hollowed-out drum/piano combo, an electric horn section, and yes, another titanic chorus have assured that.
Are there duds on the album? Probably not, although of course there are songs that don't live up to the best material. "Dear Mr. President" is definitely a fine track, but the content of the protest song veers the piece close to satirical "white guy playing soul music" territory. "News 4 U" stops the flow of the album a little bit as well, but maybe I am just partial to the faster paced workouts, or maybe I just think Prince is the only guy who should be able to spell a song title like a high school text fiend. Was "News For You" copywritten or something? Of course, by the time you get to the addictive "Ooooo Ooooo" backing vocals of "Winds of Change," you will have forgotten about these small roadbumps.
The temptation to want to buy new stuff is always powerful, but if you are in the mood for some good music, take the trip in the way-back machine all the way to the eighth month of last year and pick up this semi-obscure gem of a neo-soul album. Semi-obscure? That's what I call it when I don't hear of it first.