Review: Foster the People’s torch fades a bit with sophomore effort

It took them a while, but on Sept. 10, 2011, after nine weeks in the Billboard Hot 100’s top ten, Maroon 5’s “Moves Like Jagger” finally hit No. 1. It didn’t sit there long – Adele’s “Someone Like You” took over the next week – but for people surrounded by pop radio that summer, Adam Levine and Co.’s hit is still one of the most definitive of the time period, along with songs by artists like Katy Perry, Lady Gaga, and OneRepublic.

The song most obviously missing from that list is “Pumped Up Kicks,” the sugary but morbid single that revealed Foster the People’s mass appeal to a country in need of a true “song of the summer.” Unlike the rest of those artists, though, Mark Foster’s LA trio wasn’t already well-known for its pop prowess. And while Perry, Gaga, et al have maintained their respective hitmaking streaks, Foster the People have been near silent since the buzz surrounding their debut Torches died down. So it’s symbolic of the group’s changed status within the pop world that their sophomore album Supermodel has arrived without much fanfare – and that none of its songs have charted in the Hot 100.

Supermodel‘s relatively slow start isn’t through lack of trying by Foster and his merry band. The album’s front half is loaded with the same breed of slick, groove-set alt-pop that abounded on Torches; Foster’s voice still hovers at a near-unintelligible high in the verses and drops for the choruses, and the band’s reverence for pop through the ages still glints through a prism of 21st century electronics, as in the crunchy guitar-and-drum breaks in “Are You What You Want to Be?” and the glossed-over 80s AM rock riff of “Coming of Age.” The problem is that the hooks here consistently fall flat: whenever Foster shoots for the kind of hyper-energetic catchiness that Torches excelled at, he can’t stick the landing. The result is a collection of hooks that seem like they should be memorable but only stick around for a few minutes after the song ends and songs that feel cheap and derivative. “Nevermind” is the worst offender; its name would suggests a 90s influence, but it’s sunny Britpop, not grunge, that creates an irritation of over-familiarity.

Conversely, it’s when Foster the People step outside their established comfort zone that they succeed the most on Supermodel. After almost 20 minutes of handclaps and radio grabs, the album makes a tonal shift bordering on psychedelic with “Pseudologia Fantastica,” whose outro of shimmering synths and feedback is one of the band’s best moments to date. The back half of Supermodel is dominated by similar-minded tracks, chain store brands of the indie-psych of Animal Collective and early MGMT. It’s a solid take on the genre, at best, but it’s also mostly an improvement over the stale leftovers offered by the rest of the album, and it suits Foster’s lyrical sensibilities, which alternate between bombast and darkness.

“I’ve seen the dreamers find their legs, and I’ve seen the ones who come get reduced to bones and rags,” Foster recollects on album closer “Fire Escape,” his conflicted, resilient letter to Los Angeles. He’s made it through the hard part: Torches’ success has already ensured that he and his bandmates won’t fall victim to the latter part of that statement. The line that ends the album is more pertinent to the group’s situation: “save yourself.” Supermodel does lean slightly more toward “acceptable branching out” than it does “bland disappointment,” but in what boils down to a transitional period, Foster should heed his own advice; his long-term success as a songwriter could depend on it.

Rating: 5.5/10