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Songbook Report

Foxygen’s …And Star Power

Back in the before times (in the long, long ago) I wrote an article about Foxygen’s second album, which was audaciously (and a bit pretentiously) titled We Are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace and Magic.

The basic idea there was that Foxygen was channeling the Ghosts of 60’s-Music Past, through an extremely self-aware present-day filter. The songs on that album sounded less like the legions of bands that have only mimicked that sound in the past 50 years and more like a band that had somehow discovered a crate of unused A-sides from 1969, covered them, and basically begged you to ask: “Doesn’t this guy sound a lot like Mick Jagger?”

Part of that effect had to do with how Foxygen seemingly refused to discriminate when it came to sounding like any particular band from that era. They’d shift from the Beatles to Dylan to the Stones to Bowie to the Velvet Underground in a way that at least suggested that they weren’t just looking for a paint-by-numbers template to follow, but that they were curating modern-day interpretations of sounds that have become ubiquitous, almost as a challenge to prove their ability to transcend generations and circumstances.

It was a gambit that worked (though there is certainly room for disagreement on that point) because it so clearly flew in the face of the conventional trending wisdom regarding which era’s music to ape and to what degree. In the last few years, many bands had seemingly shied away from “classic” or “psychedelic” pop and rock (feeling that perhaps those influences had become a bit worn in the past decade) in favor of pretty much any prevailing sound from 1980 forward.

Foxygen responded to that trend not only by ignoring it, but by reveling in its antithesis. Each track was an unabashed tribute to your parents’ record collection and the songwriting and ideas were generally so strong (and counter-intuitively fresh-sounding) that it was easy to forgive in the same way as the Guardians of the Galaxy soundtrack. (“I know I’ve heard this song before, but I’ve never heard it in space! This is fun!”)

It did beg the question, however, as to what Foxygen might sound like on their next album. Anyone that had already heard their first album, the seven-song Take the Kids Off Broadway, might have had a little more context in attempting to answer that question.

Broadway still owed its debts to a bygone era, but often to the more progressive sexier and spacier sounds of the 70’s. The band also had a tendency to cram in as many musical ideas as possible per song. Opening track, “Abandon My Toys,” contains around 10 different pieces of music in a No-Series-of-Chord-Changes-Left Behind approach that gives it a dramatic and schizophrenic feel as if that band is constantly running away from itself.

That song is exemplary of the rest of the album, which is nervous and weird and showed that Sam France and Jonathan Rado are not at all lacking in their ability to churn out bite-sized pieces of catchy-as-hell psych-pop.

In that sense, Foxygen’s new album, …And Star Power, really shouldn’t be that much of a surprise to anyone. (Though I expect, critically, it will be.) Like Take the Kids Off Broadway, the signature sound is something more beholden to Todd Rundgren than Tommy James and often seems less like a coherent collection of completed songs and more like a bored stoner constantly turning the dial to his radio (frustratingly, often just when something really interesting seems to be happening). It’s a personality disorder of an album that takes the numerous musical ideas scattered across Broadway and multiplies them by about ten.

Thematically, however, …And Star Power also recalls 21st Century’s psych-rock-on-its-sleeve earnestness in that it seems determined to constantly remind you that you are listening to music. And you are not just listening to music, you are listening to music made by people who also very much enjoy listening to music. They’ve listened to a lot of it. They are music historians. And they have picked out their favorite notes and moods and tones and chords and mixed them all up and Frankenstein’d them back together again and now they are shooting it back into your ear holes (as pure, unadulterated “star power!”)

I expect some people might not overly care for that approach as the results are… “varied,” to say the least. Even when it isn’t exactly working, however, the most you can say for Foxygen is that it’s, at least, deliberate.

The promo materials for the album supplied by Jagjaguar describe “Star Power” as an all-inclusive “punk band” that Foxygen has joined and also as “a radio station that you can only hear if you believe.” They also describe the album as having been recorded in a “Secret Haunted House with UFOs flying around in the sky” (a not inaccurate description of the images the album conjures) and as embracing “Roman-numeraled musical suites,” “songs that morph into each other,” and “paranoid bathroom rompers.” They also plainly state: “process is the point.”

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If nothing else, this album knows what it is. A paean to musical over-indulgence that celebrates excess and oddity with little regard for what might be expected or even appreciated. That’s not to say, however, that anyone else will know what this album is.

Often when I’m writing about music, I’ll go track-by-track and try to interpret how the lyrics of the songs and the pacing of an album adds up to some sort of thematic whole. I think that this is, largely, not very necessary here. If there’s any sort of message to be divined from ...And Star Power, I expect it’s in the sound and the presentation. (Also, I have a day job, but if anyone wants to comb through the lyrics of these 24 songs and decipher any kind of “story” being told here, by all means.)

In broader strokes though, …And Star Power is broken up into four different sections. The first is “I. The Hits and Star Power Suite,” which is easily the most approachable. It starts off with the excellent lead single “How Can You Really” (insert the aforementioned Todd Rundgren influence here) and eases into a few slower-paced numbers, each of which contains at least one truly memorable piece of music. The “Star Power Suite,” similarly features many great and listenable ideas, though none of which really cohere into what might traditionally be called a “song.”

The album then gradually starts to lose its grip a little in the second and third sections, titled “II. The Paranoid Side” and “III. Scream: Journey Through Hell.” (If you had any lingering doubts about whether Foxygen knew what they were doing here, you can probably cast them aside at this point.) While there are still some smart moments through these 13 songs (an album’s worth unto themselves), it’s easy to become distracted through the various shifts and turns where several tracks can pass by if you’re not paying close enough attention (though whether this is by design, who can even say?)

The album ends with “IV. Hang on To Love,” featuring only two songs: “Everyone Needs Love” and “Hang,” which seem as if they would have been a logical appendage to the first section of the album, making the “Paranoid Side” and the “Journey Through Hell” seem all that much more like an intentional detour meant to simulate an out-of-body experience or a drug trip; the final two songs servings as cushion for a crash landing back to Earth.

Ultimately, the most interesting thing about …And Star Power might be how it mostly only works as an “album.” Any one song (other than the lead single conspicuously shoved to the front of the track list) would probably have a difficult time holding its own out of context. This is definitely a more than the sum of its parts situation where, as a whole, it’s easy to imagine (and at many points appreciate) the “cinematic auditory adventure” Foxygen has created.

I find this interesting  because the “album” itself is a concept, which should have an increasingly difficult time retaining its traditional meaning in a world where there really are no longer any physical requirements as to how artists should distribute their music. Given that, Foxygen might spend a lot of time digging around in the past, but voluntarily releasing 82-minutes of the random gems (and some stones) they managed to find is a move that carries a little more significance  in 2014 than it did in 1974.

Whether that makes this listenable, worthwhile, the best use of their considerable musical acumen: you can debate about that with the UFOs flying around their secret haunted recording studio.

Written by Scott Mancuso

Written by Scott Mancuso

www.scottmancuso.com