I’m a sucker for good arrangements. Well-placed strings or a clever combination of instruments other than the standard guitar-bass-drums can elevate what might otherwise be a mediocre song into something spectacular.
Which, of course, is why I’m thrilled by The Fogcutters new album, “Flotsam,” a collection of all-original songs from the Portland-based 19-piece contemporary big band. It’s all about the arrangements. There’s 13 horns in the band, for pete’s sake. It’s a beautifully orchestrated group trip through a number of genres and stylistic approaches, and it’s the first time on record the Fogcutters — known primarily in Maine for their yearly Big Bang Syndrome concert, featuring their big band arrangements of local bands and songwriters — really step out on their own, apart from their many collaborators.
The first two tracks, “Liar, Lion” and “Flotsam,” are the album’s strongest tracks, and are both highly exciting — the first, imbued with a sexy swagger and off-kilter rhythm backing a sweaty, soulful vocal performance, and the second, a dreamy but driving jazz piece that brings to mind both groovy 1960s Serge Gainsbourg and mid-period Radiohead (that 60s vibe comes back around a few tracks later, on the delightful “Sergio 66”).
From there, r&b, soul and more conventional jazz generally takes center stage, with the wildly talented vocalist Megan Jo Wilson shining brightly on the fun, hip-hop inflected “You Think You Know Me?” and the joyfully funky “Away” showcasing singer Chas Lester. The highly traditional “Cloverleaf” might be a retro throwback, but it does show off the Fogcutters’ strength, which is numbers — every section gets a turn and a chance to show off its stuff. Do I wish there was a little more of the funky, more unconventional stuff on the album? Yes, but that’s just me; The Fogcutters don’t hit a wrong note on any of these tracks, whether they’re hanging left of center, or they’re embracing a more traditional big band sound. “Flotsam” is the definition of a group effort, that manages to remain cohesive and enjoyable throughout ten diverse songs. By virtue of size and skill alone, there’s nothing else like it in Maine.
The Fogcutters will play a CD release party for “Flotsam” at 8 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 20 at Portland House of Music and Events, with opener Sorcha and the Clearing.