The state of popular music today could never have been predicted, and it can barely be explained. Though hip-hop has risen as a dominant pop form, the truth is that no one pop style is truly popular any more. With iPods, the downloading of individual tracks, and the fragmentation of the audience to a thousand sub-categories, it seems that nothing is universally popular, yet everything and anything—particularly styles grounded in various niches from pop’s past—can grab a cult audience.
In that light, perhaps Tahiti 80 is a perfectly representative pop group of this decade. Formed in Paris, the group sings in English, recycling an amalgamation of US / British pop styles that lean heavily on the softly melodic grooves of the 1970s. The band is both riotously creative in its arrangements (strings, computers, vocal harmonies, vintage keyboards, a guest R&B singer) and singularly derivative—a group that “samples” in real time and produces a product that nods to so many original sources that, ironically, it may just have a Mulligan stew kind of signature sound.
Fosbury (out in Europe for a year and a half, but recently released in the US, including a “bonus disc” of three covers and a remix) is the band’s most aggressive push toward something bigger. It somewhat succeeds, though it’s a fey, contrived kind of pleasure that pleases you even as you’re deadly aware that its pretty much empty musical calories.
Tahiti 80’s last record, 2002’s Wallpaper for the Soul, played as well-crafted indie-pop—falling in, perhaps, with the likes of the Flaming Lips, Apples in Stereo, or some of the other Elephant 6 bands. If you’d been catching on to the Shins or the Decemberists at the time, Tahiti 80 could have seemed like a similar pleasure, the kind of gentle new pop that was both listenable and fresh, neither too James Taylor-ish nor the kind of thing you’d be embarrassed to still enjoy at 38 or 45. And, goodness knows, in an era of bands with numbers in their names, Tahiti 80 seemed preferable to Blink 182 or Maroon 5.
But while the Flaming Lips and Decemberists were works in progress, morphing with every incarnation into something more and more original, Tahiti 80 seems to be on a collision course with the obsolescence of its influences. Fosbury moves the band’s music from coy to cute. On Wallpaper, Xavier Boyer’s quiet singing slipped mysteriously into falsetto without much notice, coming off with some of the gentle sincerity of a folk singer. The music was lush—too lush, sure, with the kind of synth-y sheen that is just emphasized by the string arrangements—but the pastel tones were offset with gently jangling guitars—a marriage with Abbey Road echoes.
The vocals on Fosbury quaver in falsetto from the start—boyish, cutesy, thin. The stronger beat that arrives on many of these tunes may be part of the problem. On “Matter of Time”, for example, the thumping ‘60s groove (and aggressive “bah-bah-baaaah” background vocals that remind you of groups like the Association) dwarfs Boyer’s lead. And too often, as on “Big Day” and “Changes”, the jumpier beat is really just disco—the kind of music that historically carried either huge voices (Donna Summer) or voices processed up to sonic size (Madonna). While this style plainly suits Tahiti 80’s larger interests—in creating layered, lush pop music from the American past—it creates a problem for Boyer as a singer.
And it would seem that he knows it. On “Your Love Shines”, the band imports ‘70s soul singer Linda Lewis to go toe-to-toe with the nostalgic production. Idiosyncratic and strong, Lewis’s vocals give the whole production a shot in the arm and, oddly, a sense of contemporary relevance, sounding a bit more like the kind of contemporary soul/hip-hop where artful producers bring in a guest voice for a single track. But the seeming muscle of “Your Love Shines” merely sheds light on the paper-thin sound of the majority of the singing.
The new US release of Fosbury has its weaknesses and influences further exposed with four bonus cuts on a limited edition bonus disc. “Give It Away” was a 1969 hit by the Chi-Lites, a soul vocal quartet. Again: Boyer’s vocals are almost unequivocally skimpy by comparison. Next up, the Turtles’ 1967 signature hit, “Happy Together”. Tahiti 80’s cover isn’t weaker than the original—it’s very nearly identical. So, why did they record it? The cover of “Fallen Down” by Epic Soundtracks is another disco tune, then there’s a remix of “Changes”. The issue is simply this—these tracks, which are the derivative ones, sound just like the originals. The whole menu, main courses and desserts alike, tastes like appetizers.
From the start, Tahiti 80 has had to contend with the notion that its music was lightweight. With Wallpaper, the objection seemed not so much denied as solved, as the indie-pop craftsmanship around the songs. Here the band’s true nature is bared more honestly. They’re not the Shins, and they’re not a band that is likely to discover itself in more experimentation or dalliances with imported soul singers. This is a Euro-soul semi-cover band with a jones for an era that is 30-40 years past. That they get close to their musical models using programming and synths doesn’t make them up-to-date as much as it makes them more sterile or artificial than their influences.
Tahiti 80 is a good idea, but maybe not a great band. I’ve read, interestingly, that they’ve produced a terrific video for a cover song, “A Love from Outer Space”, in which Legos come alive the starring roles. Cool! you’re tempted to say when you hear about the idea. But when you really see it … um, Legos?
That’s how I feel about Fosbury, a record of peculiar disappointment.