Foster The People has come a long way from its “Pumped Up Kicks” days. The group’s sunny, harmonious pop sounds have been evolving since its 2011 debut album Torches. By the time of 2017’s Sacred Hearts Club, the band’s signature brightness became more of an afterthought as its members explored a more conventional electronic and synth-focused sound.
On the band’s latest extended play, or EP, titled In The Darkest Of Nights, Let The Birds Sing, the group attempts to weld together an even wider range of influences over the course of six songs. Recorded separately in quarantine and released independently, the EP focuses on the subject of love between frontman Mark Foster and his wife. This time around, the birds are indeed singing. Unfortunately, most of the songs coming out are so vague, lame and forgettable that silence might’ve been the band’s preferred alternative.
Opener “Walk With A Big Stick” is Foster The People at its most recognizable, an upbeat track that muses about devotion and love while being full of surface-level confidence and radio-friendly energy. In the chorus, the song’s already thin feeling of bravado is melted away by disarmingly sweet harmonies as Foster sings, “Kiss me a little/ Kiss me before you roar/ I’m yours forever yours.” It’s like witnessing the boldest man in the room drop the persona and turn into sentimental mush in his lover’s arms before heading back out the door again. The track is a mostly successful, familiar moment on the record; the rest of the EP, however, struggles to continue delivering the goods.
“The Things We Do” is the closest the band comes to writing another memorable hook, as Foster lyrically champions the strange quirks and habits people develop in isolation, but the rest of the track feels confusingly unoriginal. The autotune on the song’s verses tries and fails to mix things up, and the groove is danceable, albeit middling. Here, Foster The People begins to resemble both MGMT and Daft Punk, yet the group pales in comparison, failing to convincingly commit in either direction. The arrangement on “Lamb’s Wool” occasionally begins to feel interstellar but is grounded by an overly bland chorus full of big piano chords and lines such as, “I’m so in love with loving you, that’s all I do.”
This trend of imitating — rather than innovating— the style of “musical betters” is the EP’s biggest flaw. In borrowing so much from the template of contemporary alternative and indie rock sounds, Foster The People sounds similar to but lesser than just about everyone, including itself. The moody romanticism attempted on “Under The Moon” can be found more convincingly in songs on any record by The Neighbourhood. And the stomping allure that the group tries to capture on “Cadillac” was done better by STRFKR way back in 2013. Where STRFKR’s track garnered intrigue with a hook made more interesting by a psychedelic-rock-infused atmosphere, “Cadillac” answers with predictable sparse guitar chords and handclaps. The track feels as if it has nowhere to go; its guitar solo is entirely unearned, and its greaser-esque swaggering energy comes across more like an impersonation rather than the real deal.
In The Darkest Of Nights, Let The Birds Sing ends with “Your Heart Is My Home,” the only track on the EP that fully justifies its existence. The song’s lyrics and mood, although obviously indebted to the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, capture a feeling of wonder and curiosity reminiscent of some of the best Foster The People tracks. Here, the electronic and the natural come together nicely — drum pads and fluttering wind instruments mesh, while bouncing low-end synthetic bass sounds compliment a flourishing string section. If anything, the final track is an indicator that though things are muddled by an excess of production, the core of Foster The People’s latest is filled with earnest intention. Sadly, everything else about the EP makes it more of a lame duck.