Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Foxygen: We Are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace & Magic (2013)


Hey, these California dudes have the same taste in music as me! Their '60s obsession runs rampant, like they're single-handedly carrying the torch of folk-rockers who try to play drums. On the first cut alone, you can spot every Anglo heavyweight of the relevant period you can likely recall without craning too hard: Zombie harmonies, Beatle guitar chimes, Stones riffs, and horns from across the pond at the Wrecking Crew's station. Why am I not therefore enamored? Lord knows liberal appropriation of things I love has never stopped me from falling for a band before, or else why bother with rock & roll at all?

The answer all comes down to passion, I think, and vitality. The duo of Jon Rado and Sam France is obviously playing on an audience's semi-familiarity with the lovingly recreated sound and approach of the Boomer-era titans they seek to reanimate. But when they play this music, it remains old music; to illustrate as carefully as I can what I mean, if I put a Kinks album on, suddenly that's new music. But We Are the 21st Century Blah Blah Blah Blah never escapes the trappings of an adorable retro throwback; it has no presence to speak of. It's like Turtles sans wit, so all you're left with is cotton candy barroom trills and a lot of ear-teasing compression.

Except in moments like the down-home piano-driven nod to the Band "No Destruction" and the simplistic garage-noise build "Bowling Trophies," Foxygen's songs are lengthy and meandering, and this is by and large deliberate, a product of their labored trickiness that calls to mind one of their few modern reference points, MGMT. I loved that band's Congratulations, which owed just as much to Love and the Zombies as this does (see "Shuggie" for an almost eerie suggestion of the former, only with self-conscious lyrics and a terrible melody), but they came to this sound with a sense of oblique restlessness that Foxygen's on-the-nose, painstaking costume play sorely lacks. There's something lazy about it, and not even just in the way suggested by the fact that the record contains songs called both "Oh Yeah" and "Oh No" (the former coincidentally being the most MGMT-like moment here, the latter being the big Jefferson Airplane drugged-up album closing ballad move).

Alert listeners will also detect more superficial connections to concurrent hip groups -- hipper, if anything -- Girls and Tame Impala: the latter because psychedelia looms so large in the foundation of both bands' sound, the former because of the overly affected vocals and a kind of reverence toward coked-up lethargy that I find sort of befuddling. Sure, you can aurally remake Get Back and Abbey Road in the theatrics of "On Blue Mountain," but the hooky yet obnoxious flamboyant drama that slowly unfolds is more strongly reminiscent of bad prog or, gulp, Red Rose Speedway. That down-your-throat good time sensibility comes with the territory of trying to file a new record in sneakily between Oar and Pet Sounds, and so it goes that the attempted "communal" peak "Shuggie" falls flat, that the imitation-garage gimmickry of the title cut is all too florid to fit snugly on Nuggets. Inescapable indeed that, in terms of both vocals and compositions, these valentines to an era are far more self-serving and hollow than the now-equally musty but remarkably alive work of a band like the La's, whose fixations came with genuine adoration and exuberance.

There is one moment that lands here, though, and it seems nearly accidental. "San Francisco" is so beyond-belief twee that its ridiculous charms become undeniable; you want to hate every note of its pandering, readymade-for-a-She-&-Him-cover cheeriness, but it parks itself halfway between Belle & Sebastain and the Lovin' Spoonful and, despite ludicrous lyrics like "that was many years from now" (ugh, and that's not even as bad as the horrors of "Shuggie"), you fall head over heels for its delightful pop structure and jaunt. You can almost hear the street set being constructed for a Wes Anderson film as you listen, and the reason that's actually tolerable is that something shines through: there is a knowing lilt in that chorus that you just can't get away from, and that's how you know there's intelligent life in here. Someday maybe it will be ready to present us with something a bit more truly inventive and felt.

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