Review: Foster the People expands its sound on ‘Supermodel’ with mixed results

After breaking through with”Torches”” hit “Pumped Up Kicks,” the  most uplifting infectious song ever about a serial killer, Foster the People returns  three years later with its second album, “Supermodel.”

“Supermodel” relies on synthesizers and electronics as “Torches” did, but also brings in other elements: lead singer and band namesake Mark Foster traveled to Morocco, as well as wrote an orchestral score for the film, “Bella,” and both of these experiences inform “Supermodel”: it is much more expansive in its musicality than “Torches.”  For example, an African flair flavors opening track “Are You What You Want To Be,” after it kicks off with a straight-ahead guitar rock riff. Foster the People aren”t veering into “Graceland” territory by any means (or even Vampire Weekend”s “Contra”), but it”s nice to hear the trio stretching a little.

Also added here are more acoustic elements: a lovely piano line runs through first single, the jaunty “Coming of Age,” while “Goats in Trees” is propelled by acoustic guitars (and features Foster dropping out of his falsetto into a much deeper, Nick Drake-like register).

Foster the People specializes in swirly, woozy alterna-rock that, when it works best, is a fun, accessible, hazy psychedelic trip, such as on “Coming of Age” and the Fitz & the Tantrums”-like dancey bounce of “Best Friend.” Other times, its pretensions sink it: do we really need a song called “Pseudologia Fantastica?” (It”s the clinical term for compulsive lying, and the song doesn”t rise above the lofty title). And the aforementioned “Goats in Tree,” dissolves into weirdness that feels like its only purpose is to be intentionally dislocating.

On “Torches,” Foster”s vocals often took a backseat to the sonic soundscape (hence, no one really understanding what “Pumped Up Kicks” was about until it was already a major hit).  This time out, Foster and co-producer Paul Epworth have turned the volume up on Foster”s voice: each lyric is very clearly decipherable and what comes through in almost every song is a questioning of where are we going?  In the heady “A Beginner”s Guide to Destroying the Moon,” which shows off their love for Brian Wilson”s layered beauties, Foster asks “are you ready to drink or are you waiting to drown?”  On the stripped-down, lovely and sad, “Fire Escape,” Foster repeats “Save yourself” over and again as he watches the world go by and compares himself to the titular element (“I am a fire escape/my spine is made of iron/my heart pumps out old red paint”).  If the listener decided to delve deeply enough (and that”s not necessary to enjoy the album), there is a dark journey to go on through the stories here, all centered on shaking up the status quo and are we content to simply follow or are we brave enough to find our own paths?

On “Supermodel, “Foster the People are trying not only to expand their sound and challenge themselves, they”re trying to start a meaningful conversation with their listeners about the world around us. The trio”s reach often exceeds its grasp, but it can”t be faulted for attempting to raise the level of its artistry.