Monday, April 1, 2013

Foxygen - We Are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace & Magic

Jagjaguwar, 2013

The first time I pushed play on We Are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace & Magic--the second full-length record from California duo Foxygen--and opening cut “In the Darkness” came cascading out of my speakers, I had to double check my iTunes to make sure I was listening to the right album. The sounds I was hearing--a wonky piano, a booming bass, a softly shimmering electric guitar, a chorus of distant back-up vocals, Sam France’s Lennon-esque croon, and some kind of vaudevillian trumpet roll--all of them told through a layer of 1960s vinyl distortion, instantly coalesced like some long-lost Beatles b-side. I felt like I’d just thrown on an alternate universe’s version of Sgt. Pepper (or maybe Magical Mystery Tour...), and it almost baffled me how perfectly France, band partner Jonathan Rado, and producer Richard Smith were able to capture that late-era, experimental Beatles sound. Indeed, “In the Darkness” is a thing to behold as an opener, a timeless slice of psychedelic rock, perfectly balanced between meticulous studio arrangement and tripped-out spontaneity, between avant-garde textures and pop sensibilities. I thought I was in for an album full of throwback Beatles imitation, and I could hardly have been more pleased.

But if there’s one thing Foxygen teach listeners throughout We Are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace & Magic, it’s that we shouldn’t make ourselves comfortable with one specific sonic niche. As early as “No Destruction,” the record’s second track, things shift. France drops Lennon, opting instead for the disorienting drawl Lou Reed showed off so memorably on 1967’s The Velvet Underground & Nico. And before the song is even over, things shift again: France’s Reed impression morphs into rambunctious Bob Dylan gravel, the song traveling with him. Once a steady bass/piano/organ groover, “No Destruction” doubles down on its percussion elements and charges forward, France’s voice sliding and straining between spoken word and melody like he’s ready to bust into a well-timed cover of “Like a Rolling Stone.”

And those two songs are, quite literally, just the tip of the iceberg of musical reference that Foxygen scales throughout We Are. There’s the Elvis tribute of “On Blue Mountain,” where France directly quotes the melodic refrain from “Suspicious Minds” a numerous junctures; there’s the hazy California pop of “San Francisco,” which references a signature Tony Bennett song (you know, the one where he leaves his heart there), even while grounding itself more in classic, A.M. radio doo-wop or modern indie pop than with love-struck jazz standards; and the riotous title track sounds like it should have been on Exile on Main St., its scratchy production values and France’s unhinged vocal style perfectly distilling the spirit of rock music’s glory days for a new generation.

Somehow though, Foxygen manage to make their blatantly obvious references sound innovative and fresh within their wider musical context. A big reason for that--though certainly not the only one--is the way France and Rado are able to construct unusual, shape-shifting song structures with astounding ease. Revisit “On Blue Mountain,” which begins in organ-drenched Rolling Stones territory (think “Shine a Light”), accelerates towards Elvis appropriation, and then alternately pumps the brakes and slams the on the gas throughout the rest of its nearly six-minute running time. When the song finally reaches its climax--a smooth Clapton-esque guitar solo, surrounded by a cloud of noise and accented by France’s Jagger-like snarls--lsteners will almost have forgotten where they started. No less loose in construction is album stand-out “Shuggie,” a power-pop gem whose late-song funk-breakdown is legitimately impossible to resist.

A lot of artists write their own stories by the light of their record collections, and why not? We all love making playlists and mixtapes, soundtracking our day-to-day lives while hoping to project our musical preferences onto friends, family, and significant others. What Foxygen have done here is ultimately just an extension of that tendency. And they aren’t the first artists to do so, by any means: The Gaslight Anthem, for example, have saw a meteoric rise within this very scene, largely because of their ability to appropriate pieces of Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty, Pearl Jam, and old soul records into their own distinct sound. Albums like We Are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace & Magic, however, are a rarer manifestation of this influence-collecting phenomenon. France and Rado show as much care for reference and tribute here, for capturing a distinct 60s and 70s mood, as they do for more conventional aspects of songwriting, to the point where We Are essentially becomes a treasure hunt for musical familiarities.

In lesser hands, such an intense focus on homage might have come across as a gimmick, or turned the finished product into little more than a glorified cover album. Foxygen pull it off though, and most of the credit for that triumph has to be pointed towards France’s chameleonic vocal ability. But if Jagger, Dylan, Reed, and Lennon are the singer’s main points of reference, they are hardly where the musical palette leaves off. Shades of Bowie’s trademark glam-rock, The Band’s rootsy Americana, The Kinks’ punked-up Brit-pop, and even the legendary L.A. “Mellow Mafia” sound, creep in around the fringes, while other listeners will catch everything from Creedence Clearwater Revival to the Byrds to Jimi Hendrix. And as France adopts a faux-Sinatra croon over the album’s final moments, things are at last brought back around to this century, his vocal quiver and articulation recalling hues of Brandon Flowers. All of this may or may not have been explicitly intended when Foxygen sat down to write We Are, but the impact is the same: the record is a jukebox boiled down to its greatest hits, a playground romp through the back-pages of pop music history, and in this case, the journey is well worth taking. The album title may call them the “ambassadors of peace and magic,” but the music inside tells a different tale: these guys are the 21st century ambassadors of classic rock ‘n’ roll, and it's damn nice having them around.

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