Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings get all the attention, but Fitz and the Tantrums do the retro soul thing with more heart. That's not to take anything away from what Jones and her ace band of R&B stylists do. It's just that there's something more real running through the grooves made by Fitz and his five-member group. Jones and the Dap-Kings replicate '60s and '70s soul music; Fitz and the Tantrums live it.
The Los Angeles band is fronted by Michael Fitzpatrick, a 35-year-old blue-eyed soul singer who sounds an awful lot like Daryl Hall in his prime (think more "She's Gone" and less "Family Man"). Growing up, his parents' record collection consisted solely of classical music. "My one concession was turning on the oldies station on the way to school in the morning," he says. "That's where I fell in love with soul and Motown.
"I love that period of music — the sing-alongs, the harmony, the songwriting. When I became more of a studio nerd and learned how to make records, I got even deeper into soul and '70s AM radio. I just love the way those records sound."
But it took an old organ — a really old and really heavy organ — to kick Fitzpatrick's passion into a career. An ex-girlfriend's neighbor owned it, was moving, and needed to unload it. Fitzpatrick bought the instrument and immediately wrote "Breaking the Chains of Love," the opening song on both the band's debut EP — 2009's Songs for a Breakup, Vol. 1 — and last year's debut album, Pickin' Up the Pieces.
"It was one of those crazy, magical musical moments where I wrote the song from start to finish in five minutes," says Fitzpatrick. "And in that moment, I felt like I had finally found my true authentic way as a vocalist. It's one of my proudest moments as a songwriter, and it set the compass for what I wanted to try to achieve with the other guys in the band and the direction of the record. It's the backbone of the record."
Pickin' Up the Pieces was released in August. You might say it had a slow start, but it's starting to pick up some major buzz, thanks to a shout-out in a ubiquitous T-Mobile commercial, appearances in TV shows like Criminal Minds and Desperate Housewives, and the great single "MoneyGrabber," which is starting to receive airplay.
In October, Fitz and the Tantrums played a set with Daryl Hall on his popular monthly webcast, Live From Daryl's House. Fitzpatrick sports a huge grin during the entire episode — obviously jazzed to hear his idol singing his songs.
Collectively, the band may be new to the scene (they've been together for only two years). But its members have been around way longer. Saxophonist James King worked with De La Soul. Keyboardist Jeremy Ruzumna backed Macy Gray. And John Wicks was a prolific session drummer in L.A. for years.
The band's R&B background and influences certainly help shape Pickin' Up the Pieces' tight, soulful sound. But Fitzpatrick says his other musical faves also play into the band's music, though with more subtlety. "Like everybody in this day and age, my influences are pretty eclectic, with the shuffle mode on the iPod," he says. "I love Radiohead and MGMT. The cool thing is, nobody's locked into just one category anymore."
Still, Pickin' Up the Pieces sounds like a classic soul record. Jones and the Dap-Kings pile on the retro vibe on their records, and the Dap-Kings also helped make Amy Winehouse's Back to Black sound like it was recorded in 1972. But there are little things — from production tricks to digital humming — that give away that the music was made 30 to 40 years later.
Fitz and the Tantrums sound like they time-warped from the Nixon era — the way the horns bounce around, the way the drums crack, the way Fitzpatrick and backup singer Noelle Scaggs' voices slide into each other. "When we first started making the record, we didn't have any money, and we couldn't afford to go into a studio," says Fitzpatrick. "So we were making the record in my living room, and my living room isn't a great place to make a record. But rather than hide it, we embraced it and let another personality into the record."
"I became obsessed with making my own version of those old records," he says. "I wanted it to have as much vibe and personality as those old records."