Over the last five years, The Fogcutters have established themselves as a must-see live act thanks, in no small part, to the Big Band Syndrome: a showcase for the band as well as a handful of regional acts who are given the chance to have their work rearranged to fit The Fogcutters sound. The artists selected for these nights have been all over the genre map – from the grooves of Jaw Gems to the quiet intensity of Lady Lamb to the unapologetic rock of Fred Dodge – but what stays consistent is the group’s ability to find the places these songs could/should go.
In fact, an issue I’ve had, year after year, is that these exclusive arrangements have been so well executed that when, in between featured artists, the band has reverted to playing standards, it always seemed to kill the energy established by the fresh version of a given performer’s original song. And while I understood why The Fogcutters were making these decisions, being a big band and all, it wasn’t necessarily something I enjoyed.
That was until this last one.
I didn’t realize why until about halfway through the show when it was explained that the “in-between” songs were actually original compositions off their debut original release, Flotsam. The entire night had been so consistent due to the fact that the same people who had been so expertly reworking the music of Jeff Beam, Micromasse and Sontiago were also offering up material of their own.
Flotsam,the album, begins with that same sense of The Fogcutters putting their foot down and saying, “While we may be a big band, we don’t act like a big band.” Opening track, “Lion, Liar,” features slightly distorted vocals courtesy of male lead singer Chas Lester and more than a few dashes of Grace Potter musically. The song is extremely funky and hard-hitting, not a polite toe-tapper but something you unwittingly nod your head to. The title track follows with an intro that nods to Miles Davis and a groove that points to Radiohead once it kicks in.
“You Think You Know Me” changes gears and offers an homage to early ’90s R&B complete with Lester beatboxing. Lead female vocalist Megan Jo Wilson brings the necessary attitude and pipes for the song to transcend its jazzy instrumentation and work on a pop level. The Maxwell-meets-Steely-Dan “Away” is probably the most immediate track here due to the top-notch, in-the-pocket work of Dave Henault (drums) and Adam Frederick (bass). These four tracks are aggressive and aggressively individual in regards to the format of the group. They are modern, relevant songs that essentially scream, “This is not your father’s/grandfather’s/great-grandfather’s big band!”
But then Flotsam goes and does that thing that The Fogcutters used to do during the Big Band Syndrome shows – act like a big band. It’s not a matter of performance or composition, both of which are uniformly superb, but that of identity. They’ve offered a strong sense of self that doesn’t care about the rules but then decide to color within the lines. Aside from the rhythmic “Ain’t That A Shame,” which brings back the barrier-breaking attitude of the opening quartet, the remaining tracks feel safe, like requirements that need to be met.
There is a magnificent amount of skill put into the making of this record, though. Horns are not the most forgiving instruments but there is nothing here that sounds out of place. Recorded and mixed by Steve Drown, you can hear each piece involved and every element has been given room to breathe.
So I suppose the issue is that the group, currently led by trombonist John Maclaine, made a record so damn good that you can hear the problems with it. Notice that there is nothing here that suggests that any member is a weak link. It’s more a matter of commitment as a group. I’m not sure if decisions are made more democratically or if the band is following Maclaine’s lead, but at the moment there seem to be contradictions, only made more apparent by Flotsam’s sequencing.
But there’s no denying that what The Fogcutters have been doing is admirable, even if only viewed from an operational standpoint. Corralling almost 20 people together on a regular basis to play physically exhausting music is not easy, and to add writing and arranging into the mix is nothing if not commendable. Even more impressive, if the yearly crowds at the State Theatre and the sold-out album release show they just had at Portland House of Music are any indication, is that people are reacting to what The Fogcutters are doing and are interested and willing to follow whatever the band currently has to offer.
I would just love to see them hit the nail on the head, which I know they’re capable of. Flotsam is a little over halfway there.