Album Review: Foster the People, ‘Supermodel’

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You think you know Foster the People? You have no idea.

Vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Mark Foster formed Foster the People following a middling career as a jingle writer. The band’s 2011 debut Torches reinforced his knack for commercial material through a score of undeniable hits including “Helena Beat,” “Call it What You Want,” “Don’t Stop (Color on the Walls)” and the quintuple-Platinum smash “Pumped Up Kicks.” Torches was a solid release that suffered from a common pitfall of debut albums: the latter tracks relied too heavily on the same sounds of the singles.

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Now the indie pop darlings are back three years later and very much jaded from the strain of stardom. Supermodel continues the band’s signature juxtaposition of cheery tunes with grim lyricism but the similarities to their previous album end there. This is a collaborative effort through and through—the chopped-up electronic leanings of Torches are toned down in favor of natural bass grooves, propulsive drumming, percussive guitar textures and beautiful vocal harmonies. For all its catchiness, the distant lethargy of “Pumped Up Kicks” nearly drowned under its spacious arrangement. This time the band taps into newfound muscle to power through even the most elaborate of production tricks.

The album kicks off on a high note with “Are You What You Want to Be?”, an immediately catchy stomper anchored by a repetitive, rapid-fire “na na na na” vocal line. That quirky, almost annoying hook brings to mind the nagging feeling you get when everything in life feels wrong. It’s an immediate indicator of the world-weary lyrical stance Foster the People choose to adopt on this record. Just as the band settles into a powerful stomp, they switch gears for a Vampire Weekend-aping world beat. Such a dramatic shift perfectly encapsulates the musical approach to Supermodel: Foster the People forgo the obvious for the adventurous, and the gesture pays off in spades.

Supermodel is the sound of a band seizing full control of their artistry. Take the production credits, for example. Torches featured contributions from industry hotshots like: Paul Epworth, Greg Kurstin, Rich Costey and Tony Hoffer. This time, the band chose to work with Epworth exclusively, and the result is an album that’s ambitious and focused. Foster the People sound like a real band now.

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The closest the group gets to that “Pumped Up Kicks” sound is on the first single, “Coming of Age”, only this time the writing is less immediate and more ambitious. Foster contemplates life in the wake of success while a bed of soaring synthesizers and plucky guitars surround his exhausted vocals until the song explodes with a refreshing chorus. “Feels like, feels like a coming of age”, the band repeats, before launching into an infections, wordless singalong that’s totally Beach Boys by way of Coldplay’s “Viva la Vida.”

Mark Foster’s vocals are at once plaintive and chipper, an incongruous effect multiplied by Supermodel’s dense, octave-spanning vocal harmonies. Foster especially shines on “The Truth” and “Nevermind,” as the contemplative atmosphere of both songs take full advantage of his rich lower range. “The Truth” is a piano-heavy ballad spiced up with frenetic hip-hop drum beats, while “Nevermind” coasts along on the strength of a gorgeous chord progression that resembles “Paranoid Android” filtered through a vaguely Latin sound. Foster croons simple reassurances of devotion in one of the record’s few tender moments, before breaking for another round of self-reflection:

“And I’m scared to say your name
I’ve cried wolf so many times, ‘cause I’m afraid of what you’d want from me
And will you find me through the grey?
My mind’s a minefield of the wretched
It’s honestly deceptive”

If there’s any complaint to make about Supermodel it’s that Foster’s tense pontificating grows a bit tiresome over time, but ultimately that minor quibble is more than balanced out by the record’s brilliant pacing. All sorts of dynamic and sonic shifts disguise the substantial length of each track. There are no three-minute radio singles to be found on this album; instead, the band indulges in the lusciousness of arrangements they have every right to celebrate.

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Supermodel’s most exciting song is unquestionably “A Beginner’s Guide to Destroying the Moon.” This multi-faceted epic transforms the excellent Clams Casino beat from A$AP Rocky’s “LVL” into a crushing grunge groove. The track expands and contracts through dizzying shifts of syncopation, alternating between dense waves of guitar distortion and serene falsetto singing before hitting a snotty, swirling climax that’s positively thrilling. It’s quite possibly the most ambitious composition of their young career.

“Pseudologica Fantastica,” a smoldering track with sweet vocals from Foster and bursts of shoegazing guitar that would make My Bloody Valentine proud, closes with an apt couplet: “You’ve got to get back up and face your demons / Don’t ever be afraid of starting over.” Supermodel is full of fearless catharses for a band suddenly thrust into the unnerving hustle and bustle of superstardom. The album practically demands a replay upon completion, and that about says it all.

Rating: 4/5 stars

Band Photo Courtesy of Band’s Publicity – Sacks Co.

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