It used to be easier to pretend that an album was its own perfectly self-contained artifact. The great records certainly feel that way. But albums are more permeable than solid, their motivations, executions and inspirations informed by, and often stolen from, their peers and forbearers. It all sounds awfully formal, but it’s not. It’s the very nature of music — of art, even. The Six Degrees features examine the relationships between classic records and five other albums we’ve deemed related in some way. In some cases these connections are obvious, in others they are tenuous. But, most important to you, all of the records are highly, highly recommended.
Fitz and the Tantrums never pretended to be "above" their influences. In fact, part of what makes their music so fun is how it joyfully connects the dots between an array of instantly identifiable retro styles. The band's debut album, 2010's Pickin' Up the Pieces, wore Motown and Stax blatantly on its sleeve — that bone-dry Hitsville USA drum sound, the soulful sax and glistening keys, as well as frontman Michael "Fitz" Fitzpatrick's playful vocal sparring with duet partner Noelle Scaggs. But there was also a bubbly layer of '80s New Wave under the surface. As Fitzpatrick has noted in recent interviews, the Tantrums have reversed that formula on More Than Just A Dream, broadening their palette with glossy synthesizers and propulsive drum machines while pushing their classic soul touches more to the background.
Part of that sonic switch can be chalked up to fidelity: Where Pieces was created with an almost DIY aesthetic — it was written on Fitzpatrick's creaky upright piano and recorded in the living room of his L.A. apartment — More Than Just A Dream was envisioned as a slick, professional studio document. The sextet worked with Tony Hoffer, a producer and mixer (Beck, Air, Phoenix) known for highlighting a band's funky fringes even as he expands their sound. The result of this collaboration is a spastic, elastic album that feels fascinatingly out of time. Just take opener "Out of My League," which blends soulful piano chords with snaking drums and synths that blast like vacuum cleaners. On the infectious "Break the Walls," the organic mingles with the synthetic, Fitzpatrick and Scaggs harmonizing over a glorious wall of sound. (Is that a bass guitar or a synthesizer? Is that a drum machine or timpani? Does it matter?) More Than Just A Dream is a brilliant pop grab bag.
The Retro-Soul Peers
Along with Fitz and the Tantrums (not to mention Adele, Charles Bradley and Amy Winehouse), wildfire belter Sharon Jones remains at the forefront of pop music's vintage soul revival. Actually, that last word is a bit of a misnomer; Sharon Jones (along with the rest of her label-mates at Daptone Records) isn't so much "reviving" soul music as continuing its legacy. Dap Dippin' with Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, the singer's studio debut, isn't a "throwback"; it's a classic soul album that just happened to come out in 2002. Like The Tantrums, The Dap-Kings are fiercely funky (check the bass-driven stand-out "Got a Thing on My Mind"), their relentless grooves captured on crackling analogue tape. But, like Fitzpatrick, Jones has too much star power to be overshadowed, strutting through each and every deep-pocket groove like a queen mistress of sass.
The Blue-Eyed Soul Influence
For white male soul singers, certain comparisons are unavoidable. Fitzpatrick has been labeled a Daryl Hall disciple from the very beginning, but he's never shied away from the influence — noting his love for Hall's expressive tenor in various interviews, even performing as a guest on his music webcast, Live from Daryl's House. On More than Just a Dream, that connection feels more pronounced than ever. With its various '80s instrumental tones (the kitschy hand-claps, the drum machine blasts, the candy-coated synthesizers), it harkens back to the New Wave soul of H20, Hall & Oates's 1982 smash. As pure vocalists, Fitzpatrick and Hall share a similar timbre: soothing, subtly smoky and just a bit theatrical. Few frontmen can sell a pop anthem as campy as Hall & Oates's "Maneater," and even fewer can do so artfully. As he demonstrates throughout his new album (the outlandishly hooky synth-funk of "6am," the triumphant stomp of "Fools Gold"), Fitzpatrick boasts an awfully similar skill set.
The Modern Camp-Pop Heartthrobs
More than Just a Dream is brimming with soulful, kaleidoscopic pop: Its songs are densely produced and intimately crafted, clearly the work of a tight-knit band aiming to expand its sonic identity. But for all its studio magic, this is also an album stuffed to the brim with capital-H hooks. This kind of mega-pop LP — one that could easily produce five or six huge singles — is a dying breed; a similar exception is fun.'s 2012 break-out, Some Nights. If you were conscious in 2012, you probably heard all three of the album's massive singles ("Some Nights," "We Are Young" and "Carry On") in almost-clockwork rotation. And, odds are, you loved them: Like Just a Dream, Some Nights is almost impossible to dislike. Bold production, instantly memorable choruses, rich instrumental performances — this is music that transcends pop boundaries, appealing equally to indie-rockers, soccer moms, and Gleeks.
The Funky Producer
As a producer, mixer and engineer, Tony Hoffer is a master at juggling eclectic, funky sounds. It's an approach he's applied masterfully to most of his projects — including the caffeinated head-rush of More than Just a Dream — but his most iconic studio work is found on Beck's 1999 masterpiece, the incredibly groovy and insanely goofy Midnite Vultures. If there's one album in pop history that would have proved a nightmare to mix, it's this left-field clusterfuck ("Sexx Laws," for example, is a horn-driven soul revue work-out with unexpected banjo and hip-hop percussion). Hoffer didn't face quite that level of insanity with Just a Dream, but it's easy to see why Fitz and the Tantrums chose him as producer: Songs like "6am" (with its sci-fi synth-bass) and "The Walker" (with its overblown organs, beatboxing, and sax breakdown) are the work of a giddier, crazier band.
The Sexual Tension
Fitzpatrick is a natural pop star all on his own, but he's also smart enough to surround himself with incredibly talented musicians. Co-vocalist Noelle Scaggs is the Tantrums' not-so-secret weapon — singing with Fitz in radiant harmonies, balancing his quirkiness with palpable sass and sensuality. This boy-girl dynamic is one of the band's old-school charms — and an essential element of their live show — harkening back to the glory days of Ike & Tina Turner. Though Tina was the star singer (with Ike regarded primarily as a producer and bandleader), there was still an undeniable tension between the Turners that charged every one of their songs. The duo's most iconic album is 1971's Workin' Together — mostly due to "Proud Mary," their show-stopping re-interpretation of the CCR anthem. With Tina's raspy attack anchored by Ike's guttural croon, it's one of the greatest vocal duets of all-time.