There’s a danger of stunting yourself if you’re too married to the musical past. If you’re a music fan, it could turn you into one of those people who say they like country music but don’t respect anything beyond “old-school” Johnny Cash. If you’re a publication with this attitude, you might do something like put Eric Clapton, Keith Richards and Paul McCartney on your cover a combined total of roughly 59 times. And if you’re a musician, you risk imitation of your inspiration. The nostalgia line is a tough one to walk.
This is where we find Foxygen, two early-20-something, mop-top guys with a fondness for folk, rock and psychedelia of the late 1960s; maybe more specifically 1967, era of John Wesley Harding, Between The Buttons, Their Satanic Majesties Request and Something Else By The Kinks. The inspiration list here is a veritable clusterfuck of Wes Anderson’s soundtrack dreams, and if vocalist Sam France and guitarist/keyboardist Jonathan Rado wanted to stop there, they could because they’d make a convincing cover band. But instead, they go further, pairing their whimsical acid-trip melodies with flitting synthesizers, throwing bluesy electric guitars and stomping pianos together with deliberately fuzzy drones and less precious freak folk. Foxygen has a reverence for the past, but it’s the band’s awareness of the present that makes its sound stand alone.
As press release legend has it, Foxygen caught its break back in May 2011 when France and Rado passed their homemade, freshly burned CD of Take The Kids Off Broadway to Richard Swift after his show on the Lower East Side. Swift loved what he heard, and eight months later, he invited the duo to come record in his National Freedom studio in Oregon for a week. The result of those sessions is Foxygen’s first proper studio album, We Are The 21st Century Ambassadors Of Peace And Magic, each of whose nine songs, the publicity lit says, the band believes “was a message of peace delivered from cosmic beings who used France and Rado as their messenger vessels.” Right.
France and Rado formed Foxygen in Westlake Village, CA, which is less than an hour from downtown Los Angeles, and sometimes they live up to the spacey flowerchild stereotype perpetuated by contemporary L.A. hippie and creative weirdo Ariel Pink. Pink also got his lucky break thanks to putting his CD-R into the right hands (in his case, those of Animal Collective). The similarities between Pink and Foxygen extend to their shared love of stretching familiar, sunny pop from a particular decade (Pink’s is the 1970s) into something that’s less predictable. Granted, Pink pushes his material to more bizarre heights—France describing a girl wearing rhinoceros-shaped earrings on “Shuggie” doesn’t make you do quite the double take that Pink inspires when singing about “Suicide dumplings dropping testicle bombs” on “Kinski Assassin”—but there’s still a common bond of quirkiness and adventure that makes the songs more interesting than their source material.
It’s to Foxygen’s credit that the band can still sound creative despite playing it straighter. The themes on the album center around the universal ideas of rejection and lost love, and France easily drifts between interpretations of a jilted lover. On “No Destruction,” he sings about a girl giving the slip “Through the door of consciousness” using his best Bob Dylan hiss, and his backup singers pop up like a group of wilted muppets, lazily echoing his thoughts at the chorus. Then on the xylophone-peppered “San Francisco,” he’s tiptoeing through memories of leaving his “love in San Francisco” in a softer, British-ized voice crafted in the image of Colin Blunstone of the Zombies, while touring bandmate Elizabeth Gomez assures him, “That’s OK. I was bored anyway.”
Foxygen’s proven itself capable of making strong singles—”No Destruction,” “San Francisco” and “Shuggie” being this album’s top three—but the band also likes to go rogue sometimes. This is apparent right from the start with the happy brass and cheering on opener “In The Darkness,” which is reminiscent of the beginning of another 1967 album, Sgt. Pepper’s. A couple of tracks later on “On Blue Mountain,” a church-appropriate organ is laying the foundation for France’s Mick Jagger-like testifying and the cult chant of “On Blue Mountain, God will save us/Put the pieces back together.” And then there’s “Bowling Trophies,” under two minutes of “Ba ba” lyrics, engine noise, a sly guitar riff and sporadic brass bursts. These freak-flag, improvisatory episodes are similar to those from Take The Kids Off Broadway, but they’re more tailored this time and suggest that although Swift cleaned up the band’s sound for the better, he didn’t really change Foxygen’s aesthetic.
Choosing to make music with such easily identifiable roots is a big risk: You could be marked as a copycat or, worse, if you’re not talented enough to pull off imitation, a poor man’s fill-in-the-band-name. But Foxygen is never overpowered by its influences. France and Rado make a polite bow at the nostalgia altar, but then they grab a couple of LPs from the shrine and take them back to their bedrooms for deconstruction. And in the course of reassembly, they add and subtract until their research subjects are present but in the background, and they’re left with songs that are distinctly their own.