I’m starting to get what Bryan Scary is doing.
Here’s a guy who made his name crafting huge, complex pop opera epics, with a sense of importance tempered nicely by an equal and opposite sense of goofiness. His last record, the mammoth Daffy’s Elixir, was a 70-minute monsterpiece, a Wild West-themed concept record full of so many melodic twists and turns that it should have come with a Google map. It was phenomenal, but if you wanted to absorb it all, it took several full and immersive listens.
So imagine my confusion when Scary unveiled his new project, Evil Arrows. Under this banner, Scary has released two (so far) short EPs of almost miniscule pop gems, most of which are remarkably straightforward affairs. The unassuming nature of this project is almost cute. But if Scary is trying to make his work more accessible, both by stripping back his proggy nature and by presenting his new material in easily digestible chunks, it’s definitely working. Where Daffy’s Elixir was daunting, the two Evil Arrows EPs are inviting.
The second, simply titled EP2, is another delight. Four of these songs star the other Arrows, Graham Norwood and Everet Almond, while the other two were completely performed by Scary. Once again, you’d probably be hard-pressed to tell which is which. These songs are tiny – the longest is 3:36, the shortest 1:44 – and they walk on stage, do their business, and leave. As a ‘60s-inspired pop wonder, “Last Living Doll” is perfection. “New Age Holiday” is similarly vintage-sounding, and deceptively hummable. “Shadow Lovers” brings us forward into ‘70s glam rock, and it’s loud and proud. Closer “Lady Brain” is a slower rocker, but an effective one.
And again, I’m left wanting more. The Evil Arrows project has so far yielded just more than 30 minutes of material, and it’s all superb. I hope Scary keeps these gleaming little joys coming, and he eventually collects them into one massive pop wonderama of an album. I’ll be first in line to buy a copy.
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Speaking of pop wonderama, here’s Foster the People.
I resisted the debut album from Mark Foster’s project for as long as I could, simply because I’m allergic to hype. But “Pumped Up Kicks” finally wormed its way in, and stayed there, and when I bought Torches, I found that it was positively bursting with similarly infectious electro-pop. None of it pushed the envelope as much as “Kicks,” possibly the catchiest song about school shootings ever penned, but tracks like “Helena Beat” and “Call It What You Want” made me smile like a Joker victim. Torches is a solid, danceable debut, and I enjoyed it immensely.
That sort of thing is really hard to sustain, though. Foster essentially had two choices for a follow-up: he could create a clone of Torches, churning out more move-your-feet frothiness, and hope that diminishing returns did not set in, or he could try to deepen his project and diversify his styles. He’s taken the latter tack on Supermodel, the second Foster the People album, and it works for the most part. Unfortunately, what he’s decided to diversify into is a fairly standard indie-rock band.
While Torches could have passed for a one-man project, Supermodel is defiantly the work of a band, and that’s the first major difference you’ll notice. It’s still suffused with electronic beats and studio goodness, but many of these songs sound here like they probably will when performed live. This is good and bad – the quirky electro-pop that formed the basis for a lot of Torches also gave it a unique sound, one that’s been jettisoned on this second album.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, particularly when the songs are as good as they were on that first record. The opening number, “Are You What You Want to Be,” is the best, recapturing the melodic thrills of Torches and building on them. It’s a danceable delight, with a new hook every few seconds. The next two songs, “Ask Yourself” and “Coming of Age,” are also pretty great, with memorable turns and choruses that stick. None of these songs sound like Foster the People, exactly, but they get the job done.
Sadly, they’re the last songs that do, with the exception of mid-record funk-a-thon “Best Friend.” Foster and his bandmates have clearly tried for a measure of artistic growth here, and they’ve made the same mistake that a lot of new artists do – they’ve mistaken dourness for seriousness. You can make charming, memorable pop music seriously. In fact, I’d argue that Foster the People did it on their first record. But Supermodel is choked with songs like “Nevermind” and “Pseudologica Fantastica,” which bring in that thick indie-rock sound, all big synths and murky guitars and meandering tunelessness.
And look, there’s nothing really wrong with a dramatic rock number like “A Beginner’s Guide to Destroying the Moon.” It’s fine. It even pulls in some clever chords by the end, to go with its soaring backing vocals and its pounding pianos. It’s just that it sounds like the work of a million other indie rock acts. Foster the People used to have their own sound, and they spend a lot of Supermodel giving that up. An acoustic shuffle like “Goats in Trees,” or a whispery lament like the closer “Fire Escape,” is much more typical than I expected from this band. And I really didn’t expect them to turn out a second record that I largely don’t remember.
I’m all for artistic growth. I want my favorite artists to change, to evolve, to develop beyond their origins. But I also want them to retain the qualities that make them interesting. Those qualities are usually not anything as prosaic as genre or instrumental makeup. They go deeper than that. Supermodel disappoints because it sacrifices those qualities. With rare exceptions, the songs on this album could have come from any of a hundred bands, and to hear them from Foster the People is a shame. Supermodel isn’t bad, but it does nothing to stand out from the crowd, something the debut did so easily. It’s a much easier album to forget, and I wouldn’t blame you for doing just that.
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Hey, look at that, it’s time for the First Quarter Report.
If you’re new to this column, I’ll explain. Some years ago, I decided to give readers a bit of a window on my process by essentially providing four top 10 lists a year. I publish one each quarter, showing the final list in progress, and ranking what I’ve heard thus far. Essentially, if I were forced at gunpoint to finalize the top 10 list right now, this is what it would look like. It’s a snapshot at an early part of the year, so you can see easily what I’m liking and not liking.
In a lot of ways, I don’t feel like 2014 has even started yet. We’re getting the Choir album in a couple of weeks, the Steve Taylor album shortly after that, and new things are on the horizon from Aimee Mann (with Ted Leo), Dan Wilson, the Eels, Bob Mould, and a whole host of others. Basically, the list that follows should bear no resemblance whatsoever to the list I publish in December, unless something goes tragically, horribly wrong.
I’ve also included three records that I have not yet reviewed, including one that has not been released. I decided that I can’t pretend I haven’t heard these records, and I’m not building my list around them. One of them, Andrea Dawn’s Doll, is out on Record Store Day, but since I know her, I’ve been listening to it for months. It’s positively amazing, and when you get to hear it, I expect you’ll agree. Check her out here.
OK, here we go. The First Quarter Report.
10. Lost in the Trees, Past Life.
9. The Farewell Drifters, Tomorrow Forever.
8. Neneh Cherry, Blank Project.
7. Broken Bells, After the Disco.
6. The War on Drugs, Lost in the Dream.
5. Jonatha Brooke, My Mother Has 4 Noses.
4. Andrea Dawn, Doll.
3. Nickel Creek, A Dotted Line.
2. Elbow, The Take Off and Landing of Everything.
1. Beck, Morning Phase.
And you know, looking at that list, it isn’t bad. That’s a solid first quarter. Keep up the good work, 2014.
See you in line Tuesday morning.