Foxygen landed in the middle of last year with the homemade-artworked Take The Kids Off Broadway on Jagjaguwar. The EP’s laser-accurate mixture of classic rock royalty acts like The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Kinks, David Bowie–the type of groups almost too ingrained with rock mythos and general temporal re-appropriation to even bother acknowledging–with an elastic and irreverent sense of songwriting that might’ve, under pressure, qualified as outright weirdness was attention-grabbing to be sure, but the young duo of Sam France and Johnathan Rado had crafted (or at least alluded to) something more genuine and exciting than even they seemed to know how to vocalize.
‘Outsider’ and ‘weirdo’ are terms often hidden behind–sometimes stapled to the nebulousness of “pop”–as a means to cloak amateurishness and basic songcraft shortcomings. Take The Kids Off Broadway made a half-hearted attempt to shield itself with some form of the label, even going so far as to liken itself to the cultish pop ramblings of Ariel Pink, but, in truth, there was something too vital, youthful, impulsive, and inclusive to Broadway to qualify as outsider art and its weirdness wasn’t self-aware enough for it to be an extension of any artful pretenses. It sounded like two kids with a lot spirit and love for the records they grew with just having a ton of fun like no one was watching.
Foxygen is compelling because the palatable and palpable energy thick with more weightless emotions that’s fused to their music. Of course, on Broadway some of that got away from them and became a little meandering and unfocused for stretches, but with the group’s full-length debut, the exhaustively but appropriately titled We Are The 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace and Magic, Foxygen focus that rampant and unwieldy energy around nine fully realized psychedelic pop and rock songs filled with careful and purposeful songwriting and arrangements while somehow seamlessly incorporating their penchant for left-turns into the mix.
The album’s ability to draw comparisons to minted 1960s and 70s acts is pervasive and specific, but they matter less at close range. It certainly doesn’t hurt that Sam France’s vocals most often draw immediate comparisons to Mick Jagger (with a hint of Lou Reed’s Loaded-era irreverence). Early standout, “No Destruction” settles into Stones or Dylan-esque folky piano ballad complete with organ and slide guitar, France’s creamy vocals hovering lightly above. The trick comes when they flip to the weightless bridge, “ooohh”ing backing vocals gliding along the arcing organ melody, France stepping lightly around the catchy vamping bass line before the chorus slides in. The second time the bridge lands is where the track really sinks its claws in, France going on an expulsive, emotive tear.
The rest of Ambassadors treads the theatricality of glam rock (“On Blue Mountain,” “Shuggie,” “Oh Yeah”), pastoral psych pop (“San Francisco”), and early Stooges-esque freakout (the title track), but “No Destruction” is a neat picture of the lyricism and personality found across the whole record. The songs are filled with imagistic non-sequesters that build mood more often than anything sensical, but the stuff like “rhinoceros shaped earrings,” “I was looking in the Bible,” and “pot in the subway with you” stay in your skull. As a vocalist, France brings a wallop of personality to the proceedings, filling all the tracks with an untethered delivery. As much as the singer takes cues from frontmen of the past, he makes it his own. On the title track he’s a manic rag doll ricocheting against the guitar riffs. On “Oh Yeah” he willfully alternates between romantic baritone and a falsetto worthy of the brothers Gibb. And with “On Blue Mountain” he leads an anthemic charge. There’s a giddiness, abandon, and joyful conviction to France’s vocal performance. As if he used to be the kid in his basement pretending to be the White Duke and now he’s got the songs to back him. It’s the embodiment of a truly modern relationship with the music of a person’s formative years.
The songwriting on Ambassadors is sticky and intricate too. “On Blue Mountain” beautifully executes two different tempo changes around a bruised church organ before building into a to-the-heavens, call-and-response climax. “San Francisco” demonstrates the record’s exacting and gorgeous handle on backing vocals with one of the best choruses in recent memory. “Shuggie” shifts down with another tempo change into a huge chorus filled with strings and voices. And “Oh Yeah” might be the strongest track here with its monstrous chorus, a wonderfully buoyant middle section, and a downhill coda that turns the song apocalyptic quick.
We Are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace and Magic delivers on the promise of Foxygen’s previous material in almost every way possible, offering up full and complete songs filled with bright instrumentation and enough surprising songwriting turns to get lost in, but there’s also a strong personality at its core bursting with a vibrancy that carries these songs beyond their specific musical waypoints and influences into a uniquely modern setting.
Jessica Davies and Katherine Blamire of Smoke Fairies talks with Beats Per Minute about some of their favorite records.
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