I first heard Foster the People when I was up in Portland in June, doing orientation for grad school, interviewing for a job (not bragging, but I totally got it), and looking for places to live. One day, I was borrowing me ma’s car and listening to good ol’ 94.7 KNRK when I heard a song called “Pumped Up Kicks.” I wasn’t blown away on the initial listen (I don’t think “blown away” describes how I feel about the song now, but I do like the hell out of it), but it damn sure got stuck in my head. After a few more times hearing it (KNRK is a great radio station, but even they are not entirely immune to the pressure to repeat popular stuff infinity times a day), I found that I liked it a lot, although I consistently recalled the lyric as “all the other kids with the scuffed up kicks/ better run, better run/ faster than my bullets,” and I wondered why a dude would wanna shoot people with dirty shoes.
As far as I know, “Pumped Up Kicks” is the lead single from Foster the People’s debut album, Torches. I say “as far as I know” because the way singles work in my head and the way they work in the real world are drastically different. In the real world, you release a single and someone puts it on the radio somewhere and at some point, if all goes according to plan, you are playing Coachella and spending each night up to your neck in the sex parts of whichever gender you prefer to enjoy your naked romps with. In my head, any song I like and want to listen to a lot becomes a “single” and nothing much happens after that except maybe my wife gets sick of hearing it.
I think that it’s both a great strength and a great weakness of Torches that, between its beginning (“Helena Beat”) and its end (“Warrant”), you can hear basically every halfway decent indie-dance/pop song of the last ten or fifteen years. On the one hand, it’s instantly familiar, even if you haven’t heard any of their songs before. For folks who feel less musically adventurous in the summertime and just want to throw something on and commence the booty-shaking, Torches has your back. But there are moments when it apes MGMT’s Oracular Spectacular so hard that it would feel monumentally pathetic if you weren’t so busy enjoying the head-bopping beats and indelible melodies. There’s even one track (“I Would Do Anything for You,” which is dangerously close in title and theme to one of the worst songs I have ever heard) that deftly steals a bit of the melody from a Kylie Minogue song (I don’t know the name of it. I know it only as “the only Kylie Minogue song I know”). So that familiarity is a double-edged sword, especially if you’re the holder of the copyright to certain songs.
But for all its petty thievery, I have to admit that I find Torches almost bafflingly enjoyable. I found it using my newly fired-up Spotify account, so I’ve invested absolutely zero dollars in the record. For music that I’ve spent no money (and very little effort) on, Foster the People (presumably named for singer Mark Foster. Pitchfork thinks he sounds like Jamiroquai and the dude from Mercury Rev, but I think they’re deliberately dancing around the fact that Foster sometimes sounds a whole lot like Maroon 5’s Adam Levine, especially on the verse to “Houdini”) have crafted something pretty decent, if not mind-blowing, life-changing, or even slightly original.
The case for the defense is that old chestnut that “all music is derivative of something” and I don’t disagree. But my concern isn’t the fact that Torches is derivative, it’s the degree to which it’s derivative. Some of these songs give me the feeling that Foster the People should be sending out royalty checks. Plenty of bands that I adore are blatantly derivative but most of them stop short of the wholesale (unattributed) assimilation of other songs that I already own.
I know I sound like I’m bagging on Torches pretty hard, but the album is fine, musically speaking, although “Don’t Stop” feels longer than it is, largely because the chorus is way too repetitive for my taste. “Pumped Up Kicks” is still my favorite song (by a long shot) and the rest of the album is okay but not amazing and I’ve made that distinction twice now because it bears repeating. Why? I’ll tell you: I have this sinking feeling that someone is going to come up to me at a party sometime in the next six months and tell me I just have to listen to this new band, Foster the People, because they’ve made the best album of the year and it’s just so great and I’ve never heard anything like them and so on and so forth and blah blah blah barf. I’m trying to preempt that uncomfortable conversation while still giving Torches exactly the amount of praise that I think it deserves (it’s a great summer pop album and I’m sure that many of your parties and barbecues will be enhanced by throwing it in your mix) because it is deserving of some praise. Just not as much as I suspect it will get.
As I listen to Torches for the ninth or tenth time now, I can’t help thinking of the Dandy Warhols’ 13 Tales From Urban Bohemia, an album that was, in terms of originality, utter hackwork (it goes well beyond a mere pastiche of the Velvet Underground and early Rolling Stones). But it’s also, by a landslide, the best Dandy Warhols album and it’s a really entertaining listen that I still like to throw on every once in a while. I happen to believe, perhaps because I’m an optimist, that Foster the People are more talented than the Dandy Warhols so it’s my hope that Torches will be followed up by something that borrows a little less liberally from its contemporaries. As it is, I can listen to it to my heart’s content for free on Spotify and by the time we disconnect our internet for the move to Portland, my wife will be goddamn tired of hearing “Pumped Up Kicks.”