Sometimes I can’t help but think that lo-fi or noise artists are taking the path of least resistance. As an aesthetic or stylistic choice, a greater level of distortion or feedback can make for some compelling or glorious music, but it also allows for a bit more anonymity or emotional distance. That’s not a bad thing, by any means, but when a band comes around with crisp production, big melodies, elaborate arrangements and an earnest and emotional vocal delivery, they’re opening themselves up to more scrutiny, and often harsher scrutiny at that. Earnest can be seen as affected, ambitious can be viewed as pretentious, and any band that takes one step too far in polishing their productions runs the risk of sounding sterile or inorganic.
Foreign Born is the kind of band that deals in widescreen, dramatic rock productions, eschewing humble lo-fi sounds for a more grandiose, Anglophilic majesty. Making the leap to Secretly Canadian after releasing 2007’s On the Wing Now on Dim Mak, Foreign Born haven’t toned down their sonic acrobatics at all on new album Person to Person. This, however, isn’t a problem, as the Los Angeles foursome knows the difference between too much and just enough. Singer Matt Popieluch doesn’t aspire for the nasal histrionics of Chris Martin or the heroic presence of Bono. Rather, he comes much closer to the less overblown but no less affecting baritone of Richard Ashcroft. And the band’s arrangements, while certainly bright and powerful, never become too indulgent, instead balancing on a perfect tightrope that separates too much from not enough.
“Blood Oranges,” the stunning opener, layers a ringing crash of piano over arpeggiated dream-pop guitars and dense percussion strata for an anthem that’s nigh impossible to top. It’s so big and so powerful a song, however, that the group merely lets it stand as the monolith it is, segueing into more playful rock songs with a bit more swagger and smirk as the album progresses. “That Old Sun” finds the group delving into psychedelic pop melodies while drummer Garrett Ray beefs up the track with his cowbell-heavy stomp. “Winter Games,” in spite of its name, burns bright with rock `n’ roll swagger, a perfect fuzz-rock anthem for summer sunset barbecues and road trips. Meanwhile, the urgent indie pop rush of “Can’t Keep Time” could have fit in well alongside any of the singles from Arcade Fire’s Neon Bible. And there’s a bit of teary eyed resignation in “Lion’s Share,” as Popieluch sings “please move along” over a gorgeous three-chord chorus.
Person to Person is an album of songs with just the right amount of sparkle and sheen, and a spotlight shone brightly on all of its most glamorous qualities. It’s a rock album without excessive noise or drama, and the rare album in which every song is catchy and emotionally affecting, though highlighting one as a single would almost prove futile. This is dreamy alt-rock done right, big on arrangements, but even bigger in heart.
MP3: “Vacationing People”
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.