Eight years ago, my teenage self, portly and with much longer, gingerer hair (due to an inexcusable attempt to change from brunette to blonde) is compulsively listening to Based on a True Story, Fat Freddys Drop debut album. Admittedly, I’m two years late to the party with the album coming out in 2005, but to me it sounds like nothing I’d heard before – fresh and completely addictive. Joe Dukie’s voice is enchanting, DJ Fitchie’s beats intriguing and the brass and woodwind elating.
I took much enjoyment from that album, and the 2009 follow up Dr Boondigga and the Big BW. Yet it’d be much later, with the benefit of hindsight and a better appreciation of musical definitions, that I’d come to appreciate the profound impact of these albums. A seven-piece, improvisational band hailing from Wellington were not just enthralling me with their compositions and playing, but also exposing me to jazz, reggae, house and techno elements for the very first time. Subtle hybridization of the bands diverse sonic palette eased me along the path of acceptance for these unfamiliar elements, and reflecting now it’s impossible to not credit them as pivotal during my formative musical years.
Naturally then, the chance to review their latest offering, Bays, was jumped upon. Though in an entirely different headspace from teenage years, their 2013 album Blackbird thoroughly impressed and showed their allure hadn’t waned whatsoever, so I was curious and keen to dig my teeth into new material. Thankfully, that appeal remains emphatically throughout Bays.
Historically, FFD albums have been largely unplanned affairs, piecing together improvised sessions on the road into coherent narrative with notable skill. By contrast, Bays, named after their studio in Wellington, was written and recorded in the workshop. A novel approach, the initial worry was that the energy imperative to their sound would be nullified by a more conventional artistic process. ‘Wairunga Blues’, the first track of the LP, immediately allays such concerns, drawing you in with an array of vocal dubbing and filtration over a techno beat. Its crowning jewel is the closing two minutes, where things break down over Dukie’s relationship musings.
‘Slings & Arrows’, already released as a single a year ago, is next up. It’s trademark FFD, blending reggae and electronica with a tough horns section. You can really feel Bays’ studio conception, not just in the tracks themselves but the way the album transitions. It’s clean and effective, usually underpinned by Fitchie’s penchant for dub techno beats. This partiality really comes to the fore at the LP’s midway point with ‘Wheels’ and ‘Razor’, both tracks heavily reliant on Fitchie’s skilful manipulation of a 4/4 beat.
‘Makkan’ then slows proceedings down. Dukie’s crooning is reminiscent of some of the bands most soulful work; ‘Hope’ from their first album being the one that immediately springs to mind. It’s a welcome and well-placed break, maintaining its allure with percussive elements and a beautiful guitar riff that come forward in the mix as the track progresses. ‘Fish in the Sea’ continues down a similar vein but ups the tempo, complimented by lyrical introspection on everyday struggles before claps and funky brass lifts the mood.
The album has reggae and dub moments which will please loyalists, but conversely it’s nice to see FFD try and explore different soundscapes rather than resting on their laurels. Subsequently they haven’t unconvincingly rehashed old ideas, and the new direction, aided and abated by a fresh authoring process, sees them tackle electronic music through their unique perspective. That’s not to say previous material didn’t do this, but it feels as though there’s a more concerted effort here to drive that home; a sense you really get with ‘Cortina Motors’, which opens with two minutes of techno that would fit as convincingly in clubland as it does on Bays. For some highbrowed connoisseurs, their take on electronica may be ineffective and watered down but I think it’s another feather in their cap, and shows they haven’t lost the ability to blend divergent sounds into adhesion.
Besides, doubters should bear in mind my own experiences with the band. For every person doubting the effectiveness of Bays, there’ll be a youngster who reaches the end of the album (which on an aside with ‘Novak’ is a fantastic ode to funk) and compulsively hits the replay button, wondering what on earth this music is. It might be a while till they come to appreciate the different forces at play here, but it’ll certainly be a terrific introduction to new musical horizons. That on its own marks FFD’s importance. That they’ve once again produced a cracking album is mere reinforcement of this.
Bays is released on 23rd October via FFD’s own The Drop imprint. Pre-order at iTunes.