Foxygen – We Are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace & Magic (3/5)
Contemporary rock music has been decried as an anachronism in the world of hip hop and electronica, the sonic equivalent of literature’s “dead white men.” All the trendy blogs and publications (or wannabe trendy blogs and publications) have produced at least one article attacking modern rock music for being stuck in the past. But these same publications also happen to reward rock musicians who have an uncanny ability to ape past rock luminaries. I won’t go too far down the rabbit hole on the subject of “originality,” but I will suggest that if you make music using a computer instead of a guitar this doesn’t make you any less indebted to those who came before you. (I’m often surprised by how much electronic dance music sounds like it could have been made fifteen or twenty years ago). The problem with Foxygen’s album, We Are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace & Magic, isn’t that the band wears its influences on its sleeves. It’s that the musicians have yet to figure out how to smoothly integrate their influences into a satisfying sound.
Foxygen’s songs can be divided into two camps: one, contained pop songs and two, messy rock collages. I’ll start with their smart, bite sized tracks first, because they are the most immediately satisfying moments on the record. The album opener, “In the Darkness,” melds the melodies of the Kinks with the horn section borrowed from Sgt. Peppers. It’s a memorable and satisfying beginning, and it foreshadows the album’s fulcrum, “San Francisco.” (It seems as if a band like Foxygen is almost contractually obligated to name check San Francisco). With call and response lyrics like the following, “[boy:] I left my love in San Francisco / [girl] That’s okay, I was bored anyway,” Foxygen gets to showcase some humor and suggest that the band can fit both homage and caricature into the same song.
By contrast, Foxygen’s longer, more freewheeling songs are both more ambitious and messier. It doesn’t help that it’s on these tracks that vocalist, Sam France, tries his best to channel his rock and roll heroes. There’s a moment on “No Destruction” that sounds less like a shout out to Bob Dylan than it does a Saturday Night Live impression gone wrong. At their worse, these longer songs sound like snippets of ideas haphazardly strung together without thought to transitions or continuity. On the song, “Oh Yeah,” Foxygen splice a Jackson 5 song into the middle of a T. Rex number, a combo that should work, but here it sounds random, like they’re flipping back and forth between two radio stations.
Foxygen’s intense knowledge of rock and roll’s back catalogue is at times reminiscent of sampling in hip hop. But where the best hip hop DJs manage to take disparate sounds that have no business inhabiting the same song and yet somehow make them sound like perfect compliments, here Foxygen takes sounds that should work together and somehow manages to make them clash. The exception is perhaps “On Blue Mountain,” which moves from one idea to the next, taking unexpected detours when necessary, but all the while building towards something greater than its parts. This song represents the Platonic ideal of Foxygen in practice. Obviously, this band is talented, and they might even turn in a masterpiece if only they could harness their gifts for the greater good of rock and roll.