Print Edition: April 2, 2014
Never in my wildest dreams did I ever think I’d have an opportunity to listen to a song called “Goats in Trees.”
Honestly, I didn’t see it coming.
Following the meteoric commercial success of their 2011 release Torches (propelled into the realms of indie-pop superstardom almost entirely by single “Pumped Up Kicks”), California-based band Foster the People have released their sophomore album Supermodel. Because Torches was something of a rarity (it conceived a box, then thought outside it), Foster the People set the bar high for this release.
Supermodel doesn’t meet the bar. Nor does it miss it. Or overshoot it. Supermodel kind of creates its own bar, because it has the cojones to change the formula. In that way, it’s memorable.
It’s also remarkable, but for an unusual (and rare) reason. Not for musical proficiency, although there’s certainly something to be said for Supermodel’s glam-rock infusions, its psychedelicates, and its gloomed-up lyrics (and are those flamenco influences I’m hearing?).
Not for its fantastic album artwork, which looks like something Maurice Sendak might’ve drawn if he was tripping on acid in a roller rink.
Not even for its self-contained multiplicity, which is apparent within the first few songs. Say what you will about Torches; groovy and entertaining though it was, its overall dynamics were pretty stagnant.
What makes Supermodel remarkable is that it shows song-writer/lead singer Mark Foster doing something that virtually no musicians nowadays are doing: using fewer synthesizers.
Before the postmodernists lynch me or the hipsters make me their god, let me explain why that’s remarkable. The use of synthesizers and computer-generated sounds was a staple of Torches, and effects took the instrumental lead in almost every song. Supermodel, though, orchestrates an uprising of digital pads as texture as opposed to digital leads. And although FtP hasn’t eschewed electronic sound entirely, they’ve managed to drag it into the backseat of their shiny new vehicle in order to bring vocals and prototypical rock-band instruments to the forefront.
For the most part, it totally works.
Standout tracks “Are You What You Want to Be?” and “Nevermind” are opulent arrangements that show a big step in the right direction. The former is outrageously energetic, boasting a weirdly functional West African-style shuffle to transition between thudding refrains. The latter unspools in throbbing undercurrents that build into a towering crescendo, featuring guitars that quietly sing flamenco while the accompanying drums scream OK Computer-era Radiohead. Also indicative of FtP’s newfound musical fruition is the aforementioned “Goats in Trees,” a surprisingly spooky dirge, soaked in halftone darkness and more lyrical poignancy than I would’ve thought the brand was capable of (“But no one can tell me they’re not afraid / of the freedom of deliverance… / I buried all the guilt here with my youth”).
None of this is to say that FtP has let go of their old, drum-crushing sound. “Coming of Age” and “Best Friend” reflect all that was good about Torches without succumbing to self-plagiarism. Both songs dabble in glam guitar hooks (like something you might hear in a song by The 1975), but the more reverberant “Coming of Age” has a chord progression that lends itself to feelings of visceral nostalgia, whereas “Best Friend” dips irreverently into the world of Jamiroquai-esque funk, complete with smooth bass grooves and a trumpet section.
Next to all this good stuff, though, the lousy stuff tends to stand out, and unfortunately, a few tracks are tonally (if not musically) uncertain. “Ask Yourself” deserves at least a modicum of recognition for dragging the band into the waters of rhythmic complexity and modern ambience, but in this particular case they’re waters best left unexplored. The end result is under-amalgamated and lacks cohesion. “A Beginner’s Guide to Destroying the Moon” experiments too brashly with the raunchy metal-core sounds of bands like Project 86 and is ultimately unsuitable for Foster’s upper-register vocal style. And “The Truth,” though it showcases some strong vocal and rhythm work, is borne along by an overly fast-paced, Hoobastank vibe that makes it altogether too easy to skip.
Supermodel sees Foster the People change their formula without drastically altering the final product. Though this new box is not quite as fun as the one they made for Torches, it shows evidence of curiosity, moodiness, and diverging musical approaches. It has my semi-enthusiastic approval, but if you’re a die-hard fan of Torches, Supermodel might not have much to offer you.