The term “French pop” can be a tricky thing. Really the reason why music is labeled as such is because it’s basically synth pop by an artist from France. There’s less an outright distinctive quality to French pop compared to a host of other musical genres, yet so many artists with diverse sounds get lumped into this arena because of where they’re from. The most popular French pop band these days has to be Phoenix, and as a result they are the unofficial standard bearers for the genre. We’re supposed to actively root for other French pop bands to sound like Phoenix or at the very least find some other way to equal their level of success.
Officially though, not every band, French pop or other, strives to sound like some other, more popular version of themselves. Some artists are happy just being on the fringe where they’re free to do their own thing and not be under pressure to live up to lofty expectations. Unlike Oasis, who seemed to want to become the new Beatles in the worst way, Animal Collective has never tried to out-Beach the Beach Boys. Would they love to be mentioned in the same breath, or regarded with the same praise and passion? Surely, but that’s clearly not their intent as they’ve crafted oddball soundscape after oddball soundscape. But in returning to the topic of French pop, the band Tahiti 80 isn’t straining to become the next Phoenix. First of all, they’ve been around longer than Phoenix, and secondly by this point they seem pretty content doing their own thing rather than having a couple singles strike huge and playing to sold out arenas. Would they mind if those things fell into their laps? Probably not, and with any stroke of luck, someday they will find grand success. They’re still working on it with their brand new album “The Past, the Present and the Possible”, which is yet another example of how delightful these guys might be, even if they don’t smash through the brick wall of popularity.
Tahiti 80’s real shot at the “Big Time” came in the form of their 2002 album “Wallpaper for the Soul”. At the time, their U.S. label was Chicago’s Minty Fresh, home to notables like Liz Phair, Veruca Salt, Ezra Furman and the Harpoons, and The Cardigans. While Minty Fresh’s profile isn’t exactly stellar these days, the label was doing a whole lot of good back when Tahiti 80 was signed to it. Not only that, but the band chose to go a little more experimental route for that second album, bringing in more atmospherics and genres than their relatively straightforward pop debut. Those changes actually brought the band more attention, turning their music from what was ultimately “wallpaper” into something deeper and more intimate – you could say soulful. In addition to those innovations, there were also plenty of catchy moments along with some 60s throwback melodies. What’s a genuine shame is that they didn’t keep that same momentum going for their last two records, 2005’s “Fosbury” and 2008’s “Activity Center”. Both were pleasant enough, but were more regressive in style and substance than innovative like they should have been. With a title like “The Past, the Present and the Possible”, you’d hope it might be exactly as described, a blending together of the band’s earlier styles with some more progressive and different. Instead, the band is kind of on autopilot.
The thing about autopilot is that it’s not always such a bad thing if you’ve got a lot going for you. Tahiti 80 may not have momentum exactly, but what they do have is likeability. Their music always seems so earnest and well-intentioned, kind of like a teenager from a remote Southern community venturing out in the big city for the very first time. Sure, the city will eat him alive, but depite this you still want to root for him and the kinder,gentler Southern hospitality he brings. Think Kenneth from “30 Rock” and you’ll have a firm grasp on how this band seems to function in the world. Still, they do have the occasion to surprise, as the sharper guitar lines on album opener “Defender” bring to the forefront. It adds a slight edge to the band that their very smooth and often synth-dominated song structures don’t typically have. Things are back to your more “normal” version of Tahiti 80 on first single “Darlin'”, but the track excels with a strong hook and excellent tempo, resulting in one of the band’s strongest tracks in a very long time. If these guys are going to have a hit song, this is their best bet, even if it’s not quite the powehouse anthem they need to carry them there. “Solitary Bizness”, carried over from last year’s EP of the same title, provides a funky respite from the two bland tracks that surround it known as “Gate 33” and “Want Some?”.
A track like “Easy” seems like it would be exactly that to create for Tahiti 80, yet it moderately succeeds despite being fairly standard for the band. An upbeat acoustic number, it’s so damn charming that you’re kind of a bad person if you put it down. Despite being divided into two distinct halves while maintaining a singular running time, the title track does very little with such an attempt to experiment. The first half is more upbeat and poppy, while the second half is a slow ballad and neither is memorable in any way. In fact, the only really notable song on the entire second half of the album is “Crack Up (Extended)”, and that plays out pretty much as a twice-as-long remix of the same song on the “Solitary Bizness” EP. It’s not radio-worthy, but if some inventive club DJ likes the track enough to spin it, there’s the possibility of an underground rave hit. That option is probably better than the alternative, which is simply ignoring it.
Poor Tahiti 80. They’ve pretty much become the vanilla ice cream of the French music world. Vanilla is a fine flavor, and nice every now and then, but something with berries or other flavors mixed in typically is more exciting and better. While digging through the relative plainness of their songs, you’ll occasionally encounter a nut or other flavorful bit show up, adding just a hint of thrilling variety, otherwise known as bits of what could be. It’s these moments that give you reason to pause, and to hope that there will be more just like them to come. The disappointment is that more often than not they never do. Tahiti 80 may be content to continue making the same sort of shapeless indie pop for the rest of their careers, aiming less for massive success and more to satisfy a niche group of fans, but you also kind of want to slap them around and demand that they go off the deep end with some experiment. Make a concept record. Play around with Krautrock or chillwave. Maybe test the waters with an oddball EP. Whatever it takes to break them out of this pattern of normalcy they’ve reached. “The Past, the Present and the Possible” undoubtedly has a lovely few moments that tingle with the excitement of what might be, but they are far too few to make it an album worth recommending. You’re a really nice band Tahiti 80, and I’m happy we’re friends, but I just don’t see it going any farther than that.