Fat Freddy's Drop Live at Roundhouse coverFat Freddy’s Drop, Live at Roundhouse [The Drop, 2010]

Not strictly a reggae band, New Zealanders Fat Freddy’s Drop also know their way around funk, soul, dub, Afrobeat, downtempo chill and several levels of jazz. Nonetheless, reggae fans and music lovers of all stripes have taken to this low key collective. Perhaps it’s something to do with how unpretentiously cool their music sounds.

Their formula is anything but formulaic: Start with dry lead vocals and surreal lyrics, surround them with rhythms that are part organic and part processed (there’s a live drummer on board here but an MPC doing bass and effects), add guitar that chops reggae-style or picks as needed, give keyboards their fair share, and top it all off with a great horn section that’s as noteworthy for how they play as for the mystical space they leave when they don’t. If you’ve heard Fat Freddy’s Drop, then you know how sonically close they come to defying description. If you haven’t, this first live album of theirs is a good place to start.

It’s a long ride – all of the six tracks top the ten minute mark and the whole thing clocks in at more than an hour and a quarter – but not for one second is it dull. These guys know how to pull listeners in and they do it with whispers more than screams, moving seamlessly from reggae pulses to jazzy shuffles to unhurried passages that are crackling with energy one minute and half past laid back the next. Unpredictability and improvisation are big factors (check the lyrics from the Congos’ “Fisherman” tossed in at the end of “Pull the Catch”) and the sound is clean and bright throughout, letting in just enough crowd reaction to add to the good time and sonic highs and lows being tossed about nimbly onstage. Some of Fat Freddy’s online videos include a pair of female backup singers and they would have been a nice addition to the album, but that’s okay. No matter what this band’s name may suggest, they’re in top shape here.