Foxygen is a band that thrives on defying expectations. After Agoura Hills youngsters Jonathan Rado and Sam France formed the duo in 2005, they putted along relatively quietly for the next six years – releasing a string of EPs as well as an hour-long space opera – before signing to Jagjaguwar. Their next two records, 2012’s Take the Kids Off Broadway and 2013’s We Are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace and Magic, were both critically-lauded efforts informed equally by Motown and 60s garage-psych, crackling with eccentric energy and smartass charisma. The duo faithfully evoked the past while creating music that sounded singularly of the present. Shortly after Ambassadors threatened to bolster them into indie superstardom, they split up and put out solo records, only to regroup the next year for the ambitious but tragically uneven Rundgrenian-pop behemoth …And Star Power.
With LP #5, Hang, France and Rado display their unpredictability as musicians in an unprecedented way. Eschewing the scrappy psych-pop of their previous efforts, they employ the services of a 35-piece orchestra – and they’ll be goddamned if they aren’t going to milk every last molecule of sound out of that 35-piece orchestra. The resulting vaudeville-glam fever dream (which also happens to include such illustrious guest musicians as Flaming Lip Steven Drozd and Brian and Michael D’Addario of the Lemon Twigs) blusters by in just over half an hour, banishing any and all restraint to the sidelines in its wake.
In terms of production, Hang is easily Foxygen’s most polished work thus far – the production on the backing orchestra is darn near immaculate – but it’s also their most cluttered and uneven. Lyrically, it comes nowhere near the eccentric, electric wit of Ambassadors and Broadway. France continually spouts off strings of empty crypticisms masquerading as deep truths; it’s difficult to know what to make of them other than that they seem more like placeholders that the band never bothered to change.
Then, there’s the instrumentation. There’s certainly nothing wrong with elaborate orchestral arrangements in rock; in fact, just the opposite. Myriad musicians, from Barry White to Scott Walker, from the Rolling Stones to Curtis Mayfield – even contemporary indie songwriters like Sufjan Stevens and Jens Lekman – have used strings and horns to create works of enduring beauty and power. (And personally, I practically live for such musical grandiloquence. I’m all about that shit.) However, these artists had the foresight to balance their bombastic instrumentation with quiet beauty and lyrical witticism. Foxygen’s kitchen-sink approach to baroque-pop, on the other hand, just feels like – dare I say it – a bit much? Hang may leave a lot to be desired lyrically, but what it lacks in storytelling, it more than makes up for in stupid, over-the-top rock ‘n roll extravagance that teeters a bit too much towards chintzy self-parody. It’s like a shiny, jewel-encrusted box with nothing in it. One desperately wishes the band had spent more time refining their ideas into fully-realized songs instead of hanging back in hopes that the orchestra would carry the weight. But hey, at least they seem pretty satisfied with themselves, I guess.
The upbeat “Follow the Leader” opens the album with Supertramp-like keys, and it’s roughly another four seconds until the strings leap into action, then continue full-throttle for the remainder of the song. France does his best Mick Jagger-meets Hunky Dory-era David Bowie-meets-Thom Yorke on a coke bender over the lush, dreamy orchestration. Next, vaudevillian piano (complemented by horns and harp) leads us into “Avalon” (not to be confused with the Roxy Music song of the same name), a goofy pop-rock romp in the tradition of Elton John’s 70s heyday. Loop-de-looping clarinet solos, honking saxes, buoyant scatting, a double-time interlude, and a colossal sing-along chorus ensue as France yowls such sweet nothings as “Sunset Boulevard, nightmare dreams/Take this candle off the porcelain scene…Grab your favorite sweater, we’re in for nasty weather/In the gardens of Avalon.” Um, okay.
“America,” a schmaltzy, Todd Rundgren-worshipping suite-within-a-song, is perhaps the most ludicrous offender in the sensory overload department. France’s voice, now a wobbly, warbling snarl, rides flowing woodwinds and chintzy strings into a huge, drum-laden chorus as subtle organ and harp slip in and out of the frame. In the song’s maniacal bridge, the backing musicians make rapid, jerky switches between time signatures and tempos, shifting without warning from quiet piano-prog into big-band swing into John Zorn speed-jazz. Thankfully, this ecstatic delirium marks the halfway point of the record, so you can take a breather if you need to.
It’s clear that the band is still evoking the past; they’ve just shifted their focus to the more flamboyant side of rock history. At some junctures, they prove a bit too good at such emulation; “On Lankershim” straight-up hijacks the opening to “Tiny Dancer” before turning into what sounds like an ELO song and a Little River Band song being played at the same time, and the chorus of “Avalon” gallops with the exact same cadences as that of ABBA’s bouncy, sax-laden “Waterloo.”
The spectacle rages on: France adopts a Jim Morrison growl for “Upon a Hill,” fumbling blindly for rhymes in a manner not unlike Morrison himself (“I sit upon a hill/And through the windowsill she slowly sings a song for me/And in her eyes/She hands me my disguise, mmmmmmmm“); what starts as a relatively laid-back track transmogrifies halfway through into an madcap 2/4 runaway-carousel polka. The waltzy soul ballad “Trauma” continues piling on layers, threatening to collapse under its own cumbersome weight before it abruptly stops. The song, while ostensibly about trauma, has disappointingly little to say on the subject (“Some are big, and some are much larger…They from our mothers and fathers, among others”).
Finally, we reach the end of this overwhelming sonic journey with the hyper-melodramatic “Rise Up,” which employs Meat Loaf-like choruses lousy with timpani, harp, strings, chimes, and some pretty kick-ass French horn. The track moves into yacht-soul territory on the verses as France fixates, apparently, on Wilson Rawls’ 1961 children’s novel Where the Red Fern Grows and stumbles upon the most profound lyrics on the entire record – words that, in these harrowing times, take on a particular poignancy (“It’s time to wake up early/Start taking care of your health/And start doing all the hard things, and believe in yourself/And follow your own heart, if nothing else/And listen to your own dreams, nobody else’s will do”). Really nice thought. Would that they could have applied this kind of thinking throughout the album instead of going all crypto-psychedelia on us.
Hang is a fucking weird record, even by Foxygen’s standards. Still, there’s more than a little charm to the whole affair, and it’s easy to get swept away by the maximalistic bedlam and truly awe-inspiring musicianship exhibited in these eight songs. At its best, it’s entertaining and enjoyable; it fails in a couple places, but does so in such a noble and uninhibited way that you find yourself falling in love with it all the same. If the guys continue on this new sonic path while further polishing their songcraft, they could easily have another pop masterpiece on their hands. This may not quite be it, but it sure is a hell of a ride. (7.8/10)