Sunday, July 30, 2017

album review: 'sacred hearts club' by foster the people

I feel like I should like Foster The People more than I do.

And this is a feeling I've had for a long time now, probably ever since I first heard Torches and found myself severely underwhelmed. Part of it involves Mark Foster's falsetto and I don't see that factor changing much any time soon - it just grated on my nerves - or that much of the instrumentation and production felt painfully flimsy and derivative - but normally what could redeem that was the content, which was reportedly intended as a partial satire of hipster culture. And while I'm entirely for taking the piss out of an overused and increasingly gentrified stereotype, it wasn't like Foster The People convincingly held the high ground, as the satire wasn't all that sharp and the delivery felt about as smug, none of which helped the thin framing and insight. And sure, at the end of the day 'Helena Beat' is a good tune, but that doesn't save an album that's aged pretty badly.

So it was hopeful that Supermodel would be an improvement in 2014... and yeah, it was, but like with a lot of Torches it was also one of those records that built its appeal off the backs and sounds of better bands, the most obvious being Vampire Weekend and the Flaming Lips. And sure, overall there were more good songs, with 'Fire Escape' being the obvious standout, but at the same time the vocals still grated and the broader satire intended at commercial culture couldn't help but ring hollow. Again, it was an issue with the framing: Foster The People loved to present themselves as sly, winking outsiders to a broken system - immediately losing any real populism for having their own skin in the game... which has always struck me as false considering how derivative their sound is and that they've always been on a major label! 

But that review was back in 2014 and I'm assuming Patrons requesting this record didn't see it and wanted to see me take a crack at the group - now minus their bassist and promoting two touring members to the main lineup for more of a psychedelic synthpop direction on the new record. And I'm not going to say I wasn't intrigued - both The Wombats and Temples managed the pop pivot remarkably well, and maybe it might help the melodies stand out a little better or at least temper that falsetto, even if the influx of producers and songwriters didn't exactly seem promising. But hey, maybe third time's the charm, so what did we get from Sacred Hearts Club?

Well, not a lot, I can say that! I've given this album more listens than I probably should have, trying to get a firm handle on any sort of quality... and there isn't much. Worse yet it's the sort of pivot that I can assume a lot of Foster The People fans will dread: pushing back the band's own unique personality in favor of sounds and styles that are very much conventional in modern, mainstream-leaning indie music. So while I would not be surprised at all if this record sold okay, it's also an album that I've listened to many, many times... and I can barely feel like I remember it after listening.

Of course, identifying why that is can be a little more complicated, but I think part of it starts with Mark Foster's vocals - and I'll give him points for not relying on the grating range of his falsetto nearly as much as he has in the past. Instead, he's sticking more with his smoother, more restrained midrange... and I swear, I couldn't pick it out of a lineup. Part of this is a vocal mix that can feel overstuffed with chirpy effects and reverb, but as this record progresses we get a significant number of songs that plainly trying to imitate Beach Boys-esque harmonies and they just feel underweight and diminished, particularly in the low end. I will say that when actress Jena Malone shows up to contribute to 'Static Space Lover' she and Foster have some chemistry, but she also feels underutilized on the song as a whole - why she doesn't contribute anything to the second verse is utterly beyond me.

Granted, this odd feeling of anonymity is not helped by the production, which as I said made a pretty obvious pivot towards mainstream sounds and trends, from the choppy new wave-esque blur of guitar opposite a firmer bass that The 1975 deliver with more polish and tightness, to your standard bass-heavy trap beats complete with flimsy synths and hi-hats. And for the record, neither of these sounds are a good choice for pairing with Mark Foster's vocals, which have always been more languid and blurry to really match production that demands tightness and groove and intensity. Sure, 'Lotus Eater' is more forgiving of that thanks to the more prominent main guitar line, but that's because it's basically a mid-period Strokes song down to the composition, vocal arrangement, and main groove. And that is a glaring issue: I've been calling Foster The People a pretty derivative group for years now, but on Sacred Hearts Club it's blatant, down to the pseudo-R&B track that has no momentum that ends off the album just like Imagine Dragons' 'Evolve'. Now don't get me wrong, derivative isn't precisely bad, and a good chord structure or hook can redeem a lot: I might not be crazy about that massive bass on 'Doing It For The Money', but Ryan Tedder knows how to produce a good hook. And 'Static Space Lover' has enough spacey touches in the synth and composition overall to make it mostly work for me. That said, they've also carried over the blown-out Dave Fridmann-esque psychedelic compression that the songs are nowhere near weird or groove-driven enough to anchor, and that's before you get hooks that are just flat annoying, like the faded mess of 'I Love My Friends'. 

Of course, at some points the song's compositions are passable and then hurt by the increasingly sloppy writing, and it's actually a little alarming how often the rhyme scheme is dropped without warning or payoff. But for a more acute example go to a song like 'Sit Next To Me', which actually takes a pretty good new wave groove and uses it for a hookup song where the second verse has Mark Foster admitting he's got the current boyfriend of this girl 'outlined in chalk' - I know hip-hop artists who wouldn't go that far, and I refuse to buy that he's not 'trying to change her mind'. But then again thematically this record is in a weird place - it's not exactly easy to parse, but it seems to focus most on executing your own plans now, doing it all for your own reasons why acknowledging the pull of the universe on you... but the problem is that on the majority of these songs the status quo doesn't change! 'I Love My Friends' talks about Foster's reckless, hard-living peers in pretty frank details, but basically seems to end with a shrug. 'Static Space Lover' seems to highlight a relationship that's not going anywhere but almost seems to celebrate that inertia, something reflected in the main symbolism of 'Lotus Eater'. It's also why 'Loyal Like Sid & Nancy' is such a confused mess of a song, trying to capture the thrill and danger of the intense toxic relationship at the core of the song, but then it surrounds the verse with protest lines and evocative imagery that doesn't seem to have any direct context - unless he's trying to say it's with his relationship with the American ideal, which might make sense in the context of the song but not with the rest of the album. And even with that our protagonist feels like a secondary actor - he's waiting for the sound and the voice to speak, and it reflects no real control or momentum or even a desire to change the situation, which does nothing for any sort of dramatic tension.

But in truth, was anyone expecting dramatic tension or heavier insight from a Foster The People record, because for the most part this is flimsy, throwaway indie pop that I'd put money on even fewer people remembering compared to Torches or Supermodel. The writing is sloppier, the vocals might be better but they're not all that interesting or passionate, and the production feels by the numbers in a way that isn't all that excusable - even if your indie pop is backed by a major label, I expect a little more effort than this. As such, I'm thinking a light 5/10 and not really much of a recommendation - if you're a fan and you're curious, go right ahead, but there's not a lot of what would draw you to the band off their past work, and I can't say you'll love this. Everyone else... only if you're curious, and don't say I didn't warn you.

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