Fat Freddy’s Drop are a musical national treasure that deserve wider recognition but do not generally receive it. They tour Europe every year, sell out every gig and have a massive cult following overseas. Here, in New Zealand they are popular, don’t get me wrong, but it seems they should be more popular than they are. Is it because of the style of music they play? Reggae/dub/roots music seems to be snubbed by the mainstream even though it has a massive legacy in New Zealand going back to the Herbs and other similar artists. Is it because they tend to stay out of the media spotlight? Or, is it because they tend to take long breaks between releasing new material? Who really knows.
The thing that makes the Freddy’s so good, is that they are master musicians, whether it is Toby, Joe and Scott on horns or DJ Fitchie on the decks. They also do things on their terms, they release their music independently, they book their own gigs, they do their own promotion and they release music when they want to. This is hard to do in a music scene the size of New Zealand, but the Freddy’s have made a career out of it and a successful career at that. Musically, they are also a great example of a modern-day fusion act. People call their music roots music, a term I hate. And, yeah there is some roots/reggae in their no doubt, but there is also dub, funk, jazz, soul and techno influences, and it is these influences that have been brought out especially on their previous album “Blackbird”, as well as their latest release “Bays”.
“Bays”, named after the groups studio in Wellington is Fat Freddy’s fouth studio album and second in three years, a record of sorts for a band who take long breaks between albums. Their previous album “Blackbird” was arguably their best, meaning “Bays” had a lot to live up to. However, I can safely say afte a few listens it achieves this, continuing on with the fusion sound that “Blackbird” explored and doing it very, very well.
The album kicks off with the funk blues of “Wairunga Blues”. This track is driven by a real funky guitar riff and has a bit of a Stevie wonder and Meters feel to it. A great start to the album and a good sign of things to come. Next up is “Slings And Arrows”, this is classic Freddy’s with reggae coming to the fore with loud horns and a driving reggae beat. This track is the most roots-sounding track on the album and is bound to be a crowd pleaser. “10 Feet Tall” has a laid-back summer feel to it and harks back to the bands first album, combining elements of techno, dub and reggae. To my mind this track also has a 70’s soul feel to it in places. “Wheels” for mine is the weakest track on the album and is a bit of an experimental techno piece which doesn’t really go anywhere. The Freddy’s are at their best when their songs are a bit like musical journeys which go off in different directions and take unexpected turns, something this track doesn’t really do. Thankfully, the next track “Razor” brings the level up again with its sick groove in a style that I would describe as dark industrial techno. This track allows DJ Fitchie to showcase his skills as a beatmatcher and selector and is one of the album centrepieces. I am pretty sure if remixed this would be well-received on the club circuit.
The second half of the album kicks off with the soulful “Makkan”. This one starts with a very nice jazzy sax riff and some quite delicate guitar licks that just shimmer down through the speakers. It then continues on with some interesting percussive beats that hold down the track aided by some very soulful vocals from Joe Dukie. All in all, a nice laid-back alt-jazz track. This is followed by “Fish in the Sea”, another one of the centrepieces of the album. This track builds and builds in the first half before reaching a massive climax in the middle of the song in the form of an all out funky jam of quite epic proportions, before descending again. For me one of the songs of the year. And, then if that wasn’t enough, the next track “Cortina Motors” continues in the same vain. This is a real dance floor banger that kicks off with some booming beats from Fitchie before transitioning into a sort of techno funk track with a massive horn sound and some fantastic rhythms. Another album highlight for sure. Finally, the album ends with ‘Novak” and after the previous two tracks is a bit like a come down after a massive high, but a good come down at that. This track has a slow funky blues quality to it with some very bluesy guitar licks, a thumping backbeat and some New Orleans-style horns. A nice way for the album to end on.
So in conclusion, “Bays” for me reinforces how the Freddy’s are masters of fusing different styles of music together and in the process allowing them to showcase their collective talents as musicians. The production on this album is fantastic, the horns sound so fresh and clean, while the beats and rhythms give a great foundation to all of the tracks, allowing the vocals, guitar and horns to sit on top and at times jam out as seen on the longer tracks. I see “Bays” as being the second part of a two part trilogy that began with “Blackbird”. Music critics have spoken of how The Beatles “Rubber Soul” and “Revolver” were a bit like part one and two because of their musical similarities, well to me, “Blackbird” and “Bays” are Fat Freddy’s “Rubber Soul” and “Revolver” and help secure their legacy as one of the great New Zealand bands of all time. “Bays” has to be one of the albums of the year and is a must listen. If you can get to a Freddy’s show this summer I highly recommend you do, because they are an excellent live band and I reckon these tracks will go down a treat live.