Think outside the boom box: Taking in Foxygen

Music Columnist Patrick McKenna discusses the California duo’s newest album

By Patrick McKenna | Oct. 7, 2014

Tags: Music Reviews

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I’m going to go out on a limb and say I’m a fan of challenging music.

Something that takes a few listens to get into is one thing, but something that takes a few listens to even decipher what could possibly be going on (or wrong) in the musician’s brain is another. I’m not proclaiming every seemingly “complex” record to be a hidden masterpiece because of its “deep take on the deepness of being deep.” But I am saying that if you put your noggin to it, giving a strange and exciting album a listen can be a rewarding task.

A prime example of this is the latest from psychedelic duo Foxygen, “…And Star Power.”

After bursting onto the Pitchfork-approved indie scene in 2013 with “We Are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace and Magic,” lead singer Sam France and multi-instrumentalist Jonathan Rado went from opening for fellow experimental pop troupe of Montreal to being one of the most-talked-about artists from 2013’s Pitchfork Music Festival.

The boys’ fame, as always in the music world, did not come without burden. There were rumors of near implosions of Foxygen before beginning to record “…And Star Power.” The almost always frantic-looking stage presence of France led to questions on how the duo could continue their leap into new creative depths in the studio.

Foxygen has met doubters with the 82-minute double album, described by their label Jagjaguwar as 24 tracks of “soft-rock indulgences, D&D doomrock and paranoid bathroom rompers,” that includes collaborations with the likes of the Flaming Lips’ Wayne Coyne and of Montreal’s Kevin Barnes.

“Star Power” is something of a double-album for double-albums’ sake, as if the band is proclaiming, “We’ve been fairly busy since the last release — here’s everything we came up with.”

Indulgence is key to this record, as France and Rado expand their diversification in musical styles and instrument usage even further, while providing an album that definitely has some fat that wasn’t cut off the meat.

From a band that’s gone on record to say it isn’t very interested in newer bands, “Star Power” works best at solidifying Foxygen’s range of classic influences while still presenting something of a new kind of sound. The entire sequence between “Star Power I” and “Star Power IV” hold spacey nods to psych-kings Pink Floyd and The 13th Floor Elevators, while sounds of an ominous Lou Reed coat France’s vocals on “You and I.”

France’s vocals bring the most energy and color to an album overflowing with intricate instrumentals that paint a picture of lost children of the ‘60s and mind games France may be subjected to. “How Can You Really” works as the most accessible song on the record, but it’s more beautiful than anything, as France croons his frustration over a silky and sad piano line and a droopy, luscious guitar.

Songs of despair and lovesickness haunt “Star Power” with brooding ballads that incorporate “White Album” weirdness like “Cosmic Vibrations” and “I Don’t Have Anything/The Gate,” while choruses in “Star Power III: What Are We Good For” and “Freedom II” sound like whacked-out geniuses letting the madness pour out.

The album comes to a delicate close with the ‘70s Lennon era-sounding “Everyone Needs Someone,” which offers the delicacy of France’s vocals at its highest, into “Hang,” which has the aura of a proper send-off, as the gentle melodies float off into the distance.

Now, the downfall of “Star Power” is not the sort of “I don’t think they’re challenging themselves enough” qualm bands hear after receiving acclaim for albums with a distinct sound (like “21st Century Ambassadors”). On the contrary, it’s “I think you may be challenging your listeners a bit too much.”

Certain songs, like “Cold Winter/Freedom” and “Talk,” could definitely function as bonus tracks, as they overstuff the album as sludgy goofed tracks that show the challenging nature of Foxygen.

Despite any excessive experimentation, the music is overall fantastic. The complex structures and explosive choruses of the first half of the album make “Star Power” one of Foxygen’s finest productions. This record represents a challenge, and overcoming it was extremely satisfying.

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