Friday, July 10, 2020
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No Real Flame in These “Torches”

The first time I heard Foster the People, I was flipping through mainstream radio stations to see if STAR and KROQ had finally given up on playing the same two Foo Fighters songs. I’d completely abandoned faith in stations like KIIS and AMP, which churn out Rihanna songs hourly, but I figured that since STAR had previously adopted some MGMT and The Temper Trap’s “Sweet Disposition,” there might be hope. Foster the People’s upbeat hit song, “Pumped Up Kicks” filled my lowly Toyota Corolla and I found myself swaying to the sunny tune.  An overplayed Incubus song followed, but hearing Foster the People on the radio was refreshing.

The indie pop trio from Los Angeles is headed by vocalist Mark Foster, who plays guitar, keyboards and synthesizer, while Mark Pontius is the drummer and Cubbie Fink provides the group with bass riffs and backup vocals. They first performed in fall of 2009 and had instant success on the music blog database The Hype Machine. They released a self-titled EP in January of this year, which garnered them a great deal of attention and paved the way for their full-length album “Torches,” which was released on May 23.

“Torches” is a bouncy, relaxed album, and while Foster the People has an overall pleasing sound, the album is a bit repetitive. Many of the songs blend into each other — not in a cohesive, see-the-whole-album-as-one-piece-of-art kind of way, but in the way where you end up asking yourself: What was the chorus of that last song again? I thought that was this song?

If there are standout tracks on “Torches,” they are the three that were included in the EP, “Helena Beat,” “Houdini,” and of course, “Pumped Up Kicks.” In addition, “I Would Do Anything For You” has become a popular jingle, perhaps because it sounds like it wandered off an old Phoenix album.

That is the biggest problem with Foster the People’s work thus far — it sounds like a conglomeration of the work of so many other artists. In some of the less dancey (and less successful) tracks, like “Waste” or “Life on the Nickel,” the calming vocals sound reminiscent of Angus Stone. The vocal-packed choruses of many of the songs are redolent of MGMT, as well as the maniacal laughing featured in “Don’t Stop (Color On the Walls),” which reminds me of the boisterous squawking in the MGMT song “Kids” or even the diabolical laughter in the Gorillaz’s “Feel Good Inc.” Foster the People’s use of carefree whistling also adds a touch of Peter, Bjorn and John into the mix.

Not only is their sound borrowed, but Foster the People doesn’t seem to have a lot of ingenuity lyric-wise. Many of the songs contain “oooh”s, “yeah”s, “alright”s and “okay”s. Nor do they adjust their sound to the lyrical content of their songs — “Pumped Up Kicks” speaks of homicide, but the subject matter is masked behind a catchy ditty. Perhaps this can be seen as a strength of the group; are they trying to be ironic and does that make them – gasp! – hip? Or maybe they are just boys who like a cool beat and think singing about guns is a good time.

As “Pumped Up Kicks” popped up again in my life, I realized that I wasn’t really sure how I felt about it. It gets your toes a-tapping’, but something about it falls flat.

I asked my roommate the other day if she’d heard of Foster the People. You know, the song about the shoes and the guns. “Oh yeah!” she responded, and before I could ask her opinion, she continued with “I can’t decide if I actually like that song or not, you know?” I know. The same could be said for the entire album.

“Torches” doesn’t touch on anything new, but it is fun, it is summery and if it’s going mainstream, at least it’s better than a lot of the crap out there. It’s a great album for a road trip, barbeque or any sort of mixed company setting. If you’re stuck sharing an iPod with your sister, a diehard fan of the Biebs, I’m sure she’ll accept the repetition and unspectacular lyrics of “Torches.” And if you’ve invited some music snobs over for gourmet vegan burgers, I think the unique instrumentals, bubbly synth beats and sexy vocals of Foster will tide them over for a while.

Foster the People has potential — hopefully, they’ll find their own voice and show us something a little more original come their second album. Until then, I’d rather hear “Pumped Up Kicks” on the airwaves than suffer through “Rocketeer” by Far East Movement any day.