It’s hard to think it’s been nearly three years since Fractal Cat released “Lovingkind” into its own psychedelic universe. With it, Miles Gannett and his lovely band of musical troubadours announced their plans to keep the flower power dream alive, drawing heavy influences from the Beatles, among others, with a far-out flair anchored by subliminally modern touches. It’s one of the few times trip-hop married so well with Brit Pop in recent local music.
The curious question that haunted the 2014 set was simple: How could they follow it up? Would they (and could they) expand on their retrofitted sound, diving deeper into tie-dyed textures with more instruments, larger harmonies and weirder time-signatures? Or would they reinvent themselves with an updated palate and a broader soundboard, ready to tackle horizons unavailable to them on their debut effort?
Victoriously — and stunningly — “The Tower” does both. The bell-bottoms are still prevalent, but so is a smattering of florescent colors, which, when compared with three years ago, is an upgrade. Such is never more obvious than it is on perhaps the best one-two punch of local music in 2017 thus far: The title track going back to back with “Streets Are Burning.” Swelling their arsenal to authentic, dance-tastic funk, these two songs are unquestionably the coup de grace of Fractal Cat’s career.
Ending “Side A,” the title track beautifully fades into a groove that couples subtle guitar work with accented drums that take this band to an entirely new stratosphere. That the chorus morphs into the type of accessibility with which these guys initially made a name only ups the ante on how far they’ve come. Add in some Jehtro Tull-inspired flute work and the result is perfect pretentious pop.
Meanwhile, “Streets Are Burning” echoes James Brown, right down to the killer horn section that paints the track’s background with furious funk and a soulful surface. Jason Armstrong Baker’s drums step up in ways previously unfounded, his taste and time-keeping holding court at center stage. Plus, local singer Mary-eL’s harmonies provide an extra layer to a production that shines with her pretty contributions.
And then there are the rock tracks. “Be Careful What You Dream” is a bit of a new direction for the group as it recalls ‘80s college radio that a band like R.E.M. mastered some 30 years ago. It’s a different cane of sugar for these guys and it serves them well, proving they can write in more than one vein of pop. Taking that versatility a step further is “The Farthest Shore,” which finds Fractal Cat traveling south, donning a cowboy hat and getting their Nashville on. It’s a sharp turn away from everything else, but it works, right down to the sad piano that sees the track through to its country-western end.
All of it orbits around the record’s centerpiece, “Look At That Snake.” The 6:06 opus transports the listener back to the earliest days of twee, when the lads in Gabriel-era Genesis were still writing 18-minute songs. Beginning with spaced out instrumentation, it inevitably evolves into sounds that wouldn’t be out of place at a Celtic festival. All of that falls by the wayside as the track takes its final turn, the ensemble repeating the song’s namesake over and over with increasing ferocity and speed. It’s so out there, it almost makes more sense than it should.
Which, of course, is not a slight on neither Fractal Cat or “The Tower.” Why? Because the notion of making sense is moot when crafting a style, and this Baltimore sextet has assembled a formula as infectious as it is sugary, as undeniable as it is singular. These nine songs are sonic proof that evolution isn’t just readily obtainable for these guys; it’s consistently imperative. The only true question left to ponder is the same question that faced them some three years ago: What’s next?
Or, perhaps more accurately, how soon can we hear it?
*** 3 1/2 STARS OUT OF 4 ***