“I’m not afraid to say, ‘I love you, baby,’” Miles Gannett sings on the first song of Fractal Cat’s latest set, “Lovingkind.” No, he’s not. No, he’s really not. In fact, he’s so not afraid to say “I love you,” that it kind of feels like “Lovingkind” should come with a teddy bear and box of chocolates. Or, perhaps more accurately, a truckload of sunflowers and a few old pairs of bell-bottoms.
Why? Because from the beginning sounds of those acoustic guitar chords featured on that opening title track, it’s clear how tripped out Fractal Cat can be. Which, for the record, is a lot. A glorious amount of a lot, in fact, which translates beautifully into a whirlwind trip through psychedelia that touches on echoes of everything from experimental Beatles to the ill-fated Chicago indie-rock outfit This Is Me Smiling. As fun as it is pleasant, as expansive as it is simple, “Lovingkind” makes no apologies for being what it is.
And what it is is a fantastic showcase for a fantastic band.
Actually, that title track is only the beginning. Figuratively and literally. Not only does it set a Brit-pop tone with its fuzzed-out bass and Gannett’s Lennon-ed out vocals, but it also eases the listener onto this Yellow Submarine with both authority and promise. What makes it work as well as it does is the clash between the school of old, the school of new, and the school of real new. Check out the acoustic “Wonderwall” influences that start its engine, only to wind up in a Radiohead-like fit of trip-hop by the time it all winds down. It’s gotta be a candidate for Song of the Year.
Fractal Cat use that willingness to diversify as good or better than their contemporaries. “Climb That Hill,” written by guitarist Keith Jones, is a race through tie-dyed time driven by a cut-time beat and a spastic B3 Hammond that accentuates the production with taste and precision. The final half of the song earns the band points, too, as it spreads out for a rambunctious instrumental section that allows all guitars to reach full-throttle. It’s ’80s-style metal shredding in the context of a Flower Power five-some.
Yet that’s not even the best it gets. Those awards go to the moments that the group allows its Motown influences to pierce through the fields of gold. Single “As You Fly” is contemporary R&B at its most retrofitted. With effect-laden drums and somewhat fascinating work on an electric harp (fascinating if for no other reason than an actual electric harp is actually being played), it combines dreamy pop that melts into Gannett’s sunny voice like a body would disappear into a bed of feathers.
“Energy” then calls on the best sides of Fitz & The Tantrums with its up-tempo drive and boogie-down bass, not to mention a dash of Eddie Willis clean-guitar greatness. Add in a trumpet and a saxophone, which they do, and the result is what Raphael Saadiq’s “Heart Attack” should have been. “Tryptide” takes those textures and offsets them with a blend of pop poignancy best heard on AM radio in the 1960s. Sure, it’s the sound of a roomful of smiles, but why wouldn’t it be? When you do what these guys do as well as they do it, there should be nary a frown within miles of the production anyway.
That precept is never more apparent than it is on “Caterpillars,” an ambitious six-minute acid trip that sees all of these influences come together seamlessly. With pop melodies and vocal harmonies that might even make Brian Wilson blush, the rock groove takes different shapes as drummer Jason Armstrong Baker bangs away in loops and crashes through cymbals that reverberate constantly into the smoke-filled fair. Guitar patterns repeat. Six-string solos commence. Keyboards fill in the blanks. And pretty much every other instrument known to mankind turns up in one form or another to turn chaos into musical beauty.
Which makes sense, considering how the goal of Fractal Cat’s “Lovingkind” is seemingly to obtain a penchant for pretty purity. Remarkably, these nine songs go far beyond succeeding in as much. So go on, Miles Gannett. Go on and fear nothing of love’s proclamation, sir. Because if John Lennon once suggested that love is all you need, Fractal Cat just proved it with this set of sunny strings, next-level song-crafting and an ambition large enough to fill three Inner Harbors.
And to borrow again from the Beatle himself, even if it’s a love that might last forever, it certainly couldn’t exist without a well-rounded and expertly dissected musical past.
*** 3 1/2 STARS OUT OF 4 ***