Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Foster The People: Torches & Supermodel

"I have tried so hard not to be like them. I have found they don't ever say what they mean. There is a truth. There is a light, if you'd follow me there. I've been searching for the directions and I'm convinced the world doesn't know what it needs. There is a hope for the hopeless, I can promise you that."
-The Truth, Foster The People (possibly my favorite song on Supermodel)-

It's not always exactly what is sung by the burgeoning Mark Foster but how the track is delivered through voice modulation. Foster is proving a master behind the microphone as much as the studio as the front man behind trio Foster The People.

I understand why people write reviews for recordings immediately upon release for the sheer fact they need to be timely with these things. Their respective publications or web sites require up-to-the-minute coverage in all of the latest and greatest music releases. But one thing I'll never understand is how these writers can offer a fair assessment on a product after just a few simple spins. Perhaps the verdict is based upon just one listen. I don't know. I do know this - a proper assessment of any recording, while entirely subjective anyway, takes a little more time to appreciate. The music has to simmer upon the ears like a fine Italian gravy on the palette.

Another aspect of the music critic that never sits well with me is how they write about a new act like some kind of hot property that only they know about. These new faces are hoisted high atop pedestals. Within the span of just a few short years and just one additional album release later, the sophomore effort, and suddenly the once hot act is relegated to banishment with the pedestal kicked out from under. The music is quickly written off as some kind of sophomore slump or the work of newly anointed has beens. The writers almost seem eager to usher in the new wave of hot new properties at the expense of legitimate talent. When it comes to music and the music industry, it sucks being old. It's too bad that's the perception created too. But, like science fiction, the reality is much different. Fans of science fiction are more than happy to give genre pictures a fair shake where critics are quick to write them off, discard them or simply write about them in almost unfounded fashion with no basis or real appreciation or understanding for the genre. The same holds true for music fans who know a good thing when they hear it and are more than happy to remain loyal to an artist's journey when critics have quickly marched on.

Foster The People is one of those bands for this music listener that will hopefully stick around. Of Monsters And Men is another.

When Foster The People arrived with the studio trickery of Torches (2011) it was something of a revelation for me. Upon hearing Pumped Up Kicks and ignorantly downloading the Free Download of the Week on iTunes, Helena Beat, I was quickly turned on to this new band I was about to carry a torch for myself. iTunes has introduced me to a few bands this way.

With Torches, the trio of genre mix-master/vocalist Mark Foster, bassist Cubbie Fink and drummer Mark Pontius had meticulously crafted an album of sparkling alternative pop so refined and so unique it was painful to listen to - in a good way. Foster admitted he spent excessive effort and time getting Torches just perfect and, truth be told, it was, in my opinion, one of the five best recordings of 2011. Acts certainly have the chance to do that with the first one.

Without wasting another moment I downloaded the entirety of Torches and quickly discovered the recording was a flawless masterpiece of alternative pop that seemed to take its cues from the glory days of masters of the 1980s as much as it was infused with Foster's ingenous ear for a melody and crossing genre lines within music. It was a sonic experience.

Call It What You Want, Houdini, Waste, Life On The Nickel, Don't Stop (Color On The Walls), Miss You, Warrant, I Would Do Anything For You, Broken Jaw and of course Helena Beat and Pumped Up Kicks were simply flawless. It became required iPod listening on my summer runs.

I became so obsessed with all things Foster The People that I purchased the bonus track edition of the CD.  Yes, another CD clutters my basement. Not good. But I had to have those songs. The Best Buy (and it pains me to mention the name of a company that has no understanding of customer service) exclusive included Love and Chin Music For The Unsuspecting Hero. And you guessed it, those latter two songs were amazing too. Foster The People had adopted this listener and my foster days were over.

Since that arrival I waited with baited breath for the next release to come from Foster The People like a giddy school girl. That day arrived with Supermodel (2014). And, to be expected, once again the critics were quick to jump and pounce on their once heralded new band as nothing more than yesterday's news. How fleeting fame.

Alternative Press gave it one star and called it "All flash and no substance."  Spin answered with "the songs suck." Rolling Stone countered with two stars.  I never did care for Rolling Stone, but I bet Bob Dylan gets five stars. Others were notably more fair. Q Magazine called it an "album of transition." That's arguably a better posture toward the record, but better yet, it's really not.  Supermodel is simply not the same as Torches and that should be celebrated. I'm not delusional. Supermodel doesn't quite rival the flawless pop gems of Torches, but it still has some killer moves and grooves and it takes a little acclimation passed the super star gloss on the surface of those songs. Case in point, my son, the Boy Wonder, also was not a fan of the Supermodel recording and initially had a strong negative, knee-jerk reaction, but one week later and he's had a change of heart.  Nevertheless, he still ranks it below Torches and that is certainly understandable. Artists have a long time to work on those debuts, but Supermodel is more than outward, surface appearances.

I've been listening to Supermodel. I've been absorbing it every day since its release one week ago. It's easy to submit to you that Supermodel isn't nearly as precious and perfect as Torches in its production. But even Mark Foster admitted he was in a different place while making the project and was less concerned with studio perfection, and rather embracing of the imperfections. Supermodel is indeed imperfect and when compared against Torches it may not seem quite as sparkly. There is an edge to it. It's a little more raw and guitar driven in spots, even spare, but as the recording begins to work its way into your mind you can't help falling in love with this beauty too.

Immersing myself into the sounds of Supermodel has been an experience and there is no shortage of good songs here either. A new band would be proud to sport this Supermodel on its arm if it was their first date. But as second albums go, the verdict is in, Foster The People continues to amaze and grow artistically. That's a tough line to walk, but Mark Foster and company pull it off even slowing things down demonstrating the act's less synthetic and more vulnerable side.

The problem is Supermodel isn't as instantly catchy or hook-laden as Torches. The melodies are there, but they take a little more work down that runway. Are You What You Want To Be?, Ask Yourself and Coming Of Age grow on you and are lead off winners to the recording. Pseudologia Fantastica is another grower. This song and others ask you to throw out some of your preconceived notions of the band and expand the horizons a bit more. Best Friend is quite possibly the one song that is accessible in the context of Torches and oddly the least interesting.

And just when you think the remainder of the album is going to go down hill like the Supermodel image of the album cover with a female purging, the production keeps growing stronger to its inevitable end of the iTunes bonus track Tabloid Super Junkie. Yes, I pre-ordered to get that one. It's gone now.

The album finishes on a glorious high with The Truth. Things get delicate, unexpected and even moving with Goats In Trees and Fire Escape, the recording's natural conclusion.

Like the trigger word Supermodel, there's a lot going on here and the effort will likely force different reactions in different listeners. But it is a stick of audio dynamite. Like Foster's penchant for mixing styles, he has a way of introducing his new sounds with echoes of the past. Hints of New Order, Supertramp and The Fixx - I swear I hear their influence whether through vocal play or musicianship.

So, if you're looking for smart, good-looking pop sounds look no further than Foster The People's latest Supermodel. Like the white, blazing hot sounds of Torches, Supermodel is shining down another catwalk with retro style and shimmering new sounds. There's nothing not to like about this girl. It may not be as meticulous as their debut but their's nothing unpolished about this diamond. With this girl another classic face is born in music.

It's a delight to witness the evolution of a band happening before your very ears. Depeche Mode had an interesting arc from those early synthetic glory days. But despite any of the electronic wonder of Foster's sound there is indeed much blood pulsing through every beat of the band's first two recordings. *// There are some artists you enjoy so much you wish they had an instant discography as big as those amassed by The Beatles or Duran Duran. In time. So of course following my appeasement for all things Foster The People my next thought was, what's next and when?


El Vox said...

I like to allow time to temper whether I enjoy something or not too. Generally I can hear something and judge whether or not I might be interested in pursuing it further or I want to invest more time in listening to it. But I think that "time" measurement is sort of the key to whether or not art is worthwhile, be it a movie, book, music, or whatever. I say that because if art is disposable what good is it? (Actually I think it would still have some value.)

Some of the music that I enjoy a lot has had that growth pattern or trajectory to them--something that's seemingly accessible, yet complex enough to return to later and later again ie. In The Court Of/ King Crimson album, for example.

Oddly I thought of another aspect, and that's albums that sound good on first hearing, and remain that way over time throughout the years ie. CSN, some of Joni Mitchell's albums, Dylan, whoever.

I know music is very subjective and each listener has a different reason for their enjoyment of it. Some might just want something instantly accessible, sort of instant gratification, others want to hear growth in musicians, and so on. Either way, I'm a big fan of music as well.

The Sci-Fi Fanatic said...

Great point about the time measurement. It definitely applies.

These things are also tough to predict.

Some albums can hit you quickly and remain great. Others can fizzle. Some can grow on you after initially sounding poor. These are interesting dynamics with a listener.

But, you're right, it's all very subjective along with films and television series.