Wednesday, March 19, 2014

album review: 'supermodel' by foster the people

If you were around me talking about music in 2011, you probably heard me drop into a rant at some point about Foster The People and their big hit single 'Pumped Up Kicks'. Hell, I even reviewed their debut album back when I wrote my reviews on Facebook, and while I'm not proud of that review by any stretch, I remember the seething hatred I had for this band and everything for which they stood.

Looking back two-and-a-half years later and after a relisten to Torches, I can say this: there are worse albums. Honestly, while I still don't like 'Pumped Up Kicks' for its terrible framing, its insincere posturing, and Mark Foster's awful falsetto, it's not worth the #3 spot I gave it on my list of the Top Ten Worst Hit Songs of 2011. Hell, looking back on Torches as an album, it's very much of its time: a perfectly primed dose of indie pop-rock that could have only gotten airplay in 2011 thanks to the wispy production, the whistling, and the growing acceptance of that brand of indie music.

Now that's not saying Torches is a good album - it's really so painfully mediocre it hurts, mostly due to an overstuffed upper range and synth line, a lack of good guitar melody when you could hear it at all, an over-reliance on percussion and not interesting percussion at that, Mark Foster's godawful vocals, and lyrics that were trying way too hard to be self-aware and wink at the camera. I've heard people make the argument that Torches was parodying and criticizing the would-be hipsters that embraced it, but I don't buy that, half because the insincerity was way too smug, half because the lyrics weren't nearly smart or well-framed enough to justify it, and half because unlike acts like The Beastie Boys or Ke$ha, they forgot to make the music actually 'fun' for those who didn't get the joke. Instead of working on multiple levels, Torches by Foster The People didn't work at all, only leaving us 'Helena Beats' as the best song of the album.

But what proved a lot more disturbing for me was how successful and influential Foster The People were, especially in the commercially viable indie pop/rock scene. I can trace the musical and popular lineage of bands like The Neighbourhood, Bastille, Young The Giant, and even acts like Imagine Dragons - a band I actually like - to Foster The People. They ended up sparking a mainstream explosion of percussion-driven, reverb-swollen, mix-overstuffed indie electronic rock records - which is kind of hilariously ironic, because it meant that if Foster The People really were going for parody intent, nobody got the joke. And thus, I shouldn't be surprised that Foster The People were back with a new album titled Supermodel, this time with a bigger target in mind, that being consumer capitalism? I prepared myself for the worst - what did I get?

Ugh, this is going to be frustrating - and not because this album is bad. Indeed, Supermodel by Foster The People is markedly better than Torches - but man, it's a mess that certainly isn't much worth defending. Indeed, I have a really hard time calling this album good, especially considering the huge, gaping issues I have with them - but at the exact same time, there are enough moments on this record that make me feel I should like them more than I do.

So where are those feelings coming from? Well, for one, even though this album is a mess, it wears its influences proudly and the band does have a knack for a catchy hook. Hell, 'Coming Of Age' feels distressingly like a Day & Age-era song from The Killers and the opening track 'Are You What You Want To Be?' feels like it was lifted from Contra-era Vampire Weekend. And across the back half of this record, it opts for a venture into psychedelia that reminds more than a little of a poor man's The Flaming Lips, or maybe MGMT. And that's not considering 'Best Friend', which feels like a modernized version of the most grating elements of disco-inspired late-70s pop, with only the solid bass line making up for the obnoxious vocals and transparently phony upbeat tone. Now there are moments where the instrumentation does work for me - 'A Beginner's Guide To Destroying The Moon' has some explosive sizzle balanced well by a good piano chorus, 'The Truth' approaches an operatic scope against a pseudo-James Blake post-dubstep undercurrent, and while white-guy-with-acoustic-guitar songs always tend to irk me, 'Fire Escape' offers a bit of stripped down minimalism that's a great contrast for the rest of the album. But I don't think that it makes for the over-stuffed mixes, the bizarre choices in vocal effects and backing choruses, the sludgy formless nature of the songs, and moments of grandiosity that just fall flat every time. What's immediately apparent is that none of this is remotely cohesive, which makes all of the experimentation feel more than a little unfocused, and not exactly original or striking, or coming close to giving Foster The People a distinctive instrumental identity.

So okay, maybe the cohesion is in the lyrics - and Mark Foster wasn't lying, as the album does work to explore the transparent phoniness that tends to crop up in modern consumer culture. And indeed, we get all manner of pointed yet thuddingly obvious criticism on songs like 'Ask Yourself' and 'Tabloid Super Junky' and the 'Are You What You Want To Be?', which seems to be trying to play the role of both introspective questioning and an inquiry of the audience. Unfortunately, despite some admittedly clever wordplay, this album really isn't that focused on the social commentary so much as airing out some bitterness in existing relationships, whether it be with friends on 'Best Friend' or exes on 'Pseudologia Fantastica' or 'Nevermind'. And what's more telling is that Foster The People's more negative focus never really creates much of an alternative beyond vague platitudes of 'losing control' in 'A Beginner's Guide To Destroying The Moon' or just finding love in 'The Truth'. I'll repeat what I said back when I reviewed Pure Heroine by Lorde, that the sort of criticism holds a little less weight without a larger, potential replacement behind it - and with Foster The People, it's even worse.

And this actually comes down to a problem that I've had with Foster The People since the beginning - I rarely ever buy their sincerity or their framing. The first is mostly an issue with Mark Foster's falsetto, which I've never liked and reaches all new levels of screechy annoyance on this record - and the infuriating thing is that he actually sounds pretty damn good in his lower range, so why does he feel the need to jump into a falsetto that only seems to convey the emotion of smug, mocking condescension? And that leads to the framing issue: whenever Foster The People are criticizing consumerism, it's framed as though they are outsiders, not a part of the system or of the movements battling against it. Now to be fair, I get the feeling they're aware of this - the opening track has the lyric 'I'm afraid of saying too much and ending up a martyr / But even more so I'm afraid to face God and say I was a coward'. And taking things a step further, the album has 'Fire Escape', the one track that actually does sound sincere as Foster The People reflects that just watching and being disaffected isn't going to inspire change, which shows a degree of nuance that easily makes it my favourite song on the album. But that doesn't change the tracks where it feels like Foster The People is making that sort of sly commentary from the sidelines and never putting some skin in the game - and when they do this, they kill any sense of populism they might have. And thus, as much as I agree with some of the broad sentiments they're discussing, I don't get sucked into it like I do with other acts looking to make social commentary. On top of that, the winking insincerity is a really sour fit for psychedelic rock, which is too flabby and overstuffed to really resonate with me - even when MGMT co-opted psychedelia for their darker themes, they were at least convincing.

So as I said, I'm frustrated with this record, because I can't objectively call it bad. It's definitely messy, sour, more than a little derivative, and not all that compelling on an emotional or intellectual level - but at the same time, you can tell there was effort and experimentation here and at least designs on making a more ambitious album. And on that note, I don't really consider this record a failure - sure, the points being made are broad and presented poorly, but they do manage to shakily stick the landing and there are attempts at nuance I respect. So I'm giving this record a 5/10 and a cautious recommendation. I can't say Supermodel by Foster The People works even halfway, but it's worth a listen all the same, even if you're left a little underwhelmed at the end.

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