Fat Freddy’s Drop has never been a group to rush anything. The New Zealand seven-piece formed as a jam band in the late nineties and provided its members a space to hash out ideas and grooves in a free, improvisational environment. Over time they developed their own brand of dub, soul and electronica, and before long the jam band became the main event. With great success on the international stage the group have pushed their music forward but with a degree of maturity and tact that can only come from a group that are less indebted to self-promotion than to ease, both of style and of mind.
With Blackbird, the group show no signs of stopping this tradition. With four years between this album and the last you immediately have a sense that these songs have been lived in, shaped and reshaped on stage shows hundreds of times until they found their full constitution here. The band are known for their improvisational performances, and the material here flows with that same air of free expression. Does this mean that the album is messy? Anything but.
From the heavy dub openings of the title track, the upbeat soul of “Clean the House” and the Detroit techno of “Never Moving” we find that in their absence Fat Freddy’s Drop have consolidated their sound, finding a balance that might have previously eluded them. Dr Boondigga and the Big W had its moments, but at times it felt a little too loose, its ideas easily becoming stretched and tiresome. Blackbird is a much more confident, cohesive affair.
Take tracks like “Russia“, “Soldier“, or the aforementioned “Clean the House” and “Never Moving“. “Russia” has got to be one of the highlights here as a powerful dub reggae number, its triumphant horn section and booming low-end perfect for dances everywhere. “Soldier” has Dallas’ typically smooth vocals working beautifully against a steady, atmospheric backing track with subtle yet potent guitar arrangements. By contrast, “Clean the House” is a perfectly appealing slice of pop soul whereas “Never Moving” uses club synths and harsher percussion to sound more at home in the club than in the dancehall or on the radio.
Even so, while the quality of the music is assured it is nonetheless somewhat unadventurous. It would seem that Fat Freddy’s Drop have directed a great deal of their energy into honing their sound which is of course good, but it is markedly unfortunate that they didn’t also divest such energy into taking it in different directions and riskier territory. Take the album’s final two tracks for instance. There are some great aspects to these songs (be they the clapped percussion of “Mother Mother” or the heady stomp of “Bohannon“) but they are ultimately quite underwhelming and find the record petering away, certainly well composed but still lacking any real distinction.
Blackbird is a worthy addition to the band’s catalogue, albeit a restrained one. There is plenty here to hook newcomers and plenty more to satisfy old followers. It’s easygoing music, sent from easygoing souls, and while Fat Freddy’s Drop’s evolution may be gradual, there can be no doubt that this bird has wings enough to fly.