Published on October 7th, 2014 | by Dave Scaddan0
Foxygen…And Star Power
One of the most promising and hyped bands of the last few years, Foxygen, are taken down a peg with their tired new double album.
There are two kinds of fun that musicians can have: the kind they share with an audience, and the kind they share with each other. At the best of times, everyone gets it, but bands can make a crowd go nuts while feeling like they’re merely going through the motions, just as they can feel like they’re creating an incredible moment on stage or in studio when the listeners don’t seem to catch on. Who’s it all for, anyway? Hell if we know. What’s the perfect balance between doing it for oneself and doing it so others might be able to appreciate and adore it? Hell if we know, but we know when we hear the imbalance.
We know when we’re listening to preening muck that’s been systematically designed and programmed to cut to the gut of the largest market base possible with no real musical inspiration, just like we know what a band sounds like when it becomes too into itself for us to understand or admire. It’s the area in-between that most musicians — and listeners — seem to chase. We all want to feel like we’re closer to those who admire us. We all want to feel like we’re closer to those we admire. Music is a conduit that makes these two types of connections happen, but the frequencies often conflict. Comedy works this way also: we don’t want to feel like a gag is pandering to us, but we don’t appreciate being left out of someone else’s inside jokes for long — it’s just not good manners either way. For musicians, the proliferation of bedroom recording equipment only complicates the balancing act between sell-out and impenetrable auteur. If studio time isn’t paid by the hour, if every band jam can be captured on ProTools and scrutinized, how can a recording artist even tell what the public should hear after a while?
Don’t ask Foxygen for the answer. Hearing their double LP ‘…And Star Power’ is like hearing a band gradually losing its grip on the ability to entertain more than just the two people making the music. Though it begins with about a half-hour of very promising, playfully lazy-but-glued-together songs, the more it creeps like fading prairie sunlight to its eightieth minute, the more it smacks of the indulgent inside joke that we wish two people would shut up about already.
Sam France and Jonathan Rado practically self-excused this alienating self-appeasement with their ‘…And Star Power’ press release a month ago. The pretentious statement tells the reader that, “Star Power is the radio station that you can hear only if you believe.” This kind of affected set-up is tantamount to a religious pundit crushing his skeptics by maintaining that having contradictory opinions is evil by nature. If you’re not digging it, France and Rado seem to say, it’s because your tastes are wrong, not because the album is just no fun to listen to all the way through.
And even the parts in the first quarter of the album, the ones in the side titled, ‘Star Power, Side One, Part One: The Hits,’ are basically doing what Foxygen have already done better before. They slide through a few different heavy-handed influences, playing the same kind of bedroom karaoke night game they’ve played so well on their previous two releases, but with a mellower, less-bouncy, less-brash, less-everything approach. It’s pointless to play the game of ‘who are they aping in this one?’ for long, because to do so buys into a contest that cannot be won, and may have no purpose but to recognize thievery as art, or in this case as, “The Hits.”
The remaining three-fourths of the double LP descend into the worst kind of madness that a young band enjoying its first taste of big anticipation can fall prey to. It sounds like France and Rado have drunk enough of each others’ Kool Aid that they feel almost any sound they produce is worthy of releasing to the listening public. The simplest of beats and chord structures drone on pointlessly, hooklessly, climaxlessly, accompanied by lyrics and vocals so self-aware that they might as well be uttered under a blanket in a single bed in a single room of a deserted hotel. There’s occasionally a blip of energy, like on the track ‘Hot Summer’, introduced by a New York accented voice saying, “This song is called Hot Summa!” But the surge is quelled by a repetitive two-note keyboard part that goes nowhere and makes the song seem far too long, even at a running time of under two minutes. Realizing that the vocals are really Sam France’s Alan Vega impersonation and that ‘Hot Summer’ is really a nod (or something) to Suicide only makes it more annoying — it might as well be a two-minute recording of a yawn punctuated by the word, “Why?” at the end.
France and Rado come by this sans-interlocutor effect quite honestly, having been making self-released material together since they were fifteen years old. The giddy, insidious thrill of hearing your own voice on tape can be addicting to some, especially when they’re partnered with someone who perpetuates the thrill with jolts of folie-a-deux enthusiasm. But to expect this enthusiasm to be shared by anyone outside the core group of “believers” is just self-aggrandizing twaddle. Three whole sides of ‘…And Star Power’ are nothing more than a ‘you had to be there’ dirge into boredom and ‘are we we there yet?’ frustration. This final hour of dull mush doesn’t even manage to capture the kinds of gear-shifting zaniness found on ‘Jurassic Explosion Phillipic,’ the record that France and Rado made before winding up on the roster of Jagjaguar records. At least on that piece of pompous pocket-poolery, there are moments of youthful exuberance and devil-may-care abandon. ‘…And Star Power’ has none of this going for it once the first side is over. A track like ‘Talk’ tries hopelessly to generate some kind of energetic build, but it only takes one listen to see it for what it really is: a repetitive exercise in guitar noodling hiding behind the screams of a young man with nothing to say. Well, nothing to say except, “if you don’t get why this is cool, you’re not in our two-guy cool club, nyaah.”
There’s a pretty sweet gem waiting at the end of this trial. The closing track, ‘Hang’, serves as a sad reminder of what a stilted-yet-solid EP this release could’ve been if it had been pared back to about a third of its length. Here France and Rado actually take the trouble to write a song instead of just repeating a blasé phrase long enough to call it a keeper. The tone is lamenting, sweet, cushioned by an unassuming production style that keeps the song in touch with the past without feeling like it’s trying to clone it. If we make it that far in a single sitting, we’ll likely feel like we’ve fulfilled our end of a childish dare, proud that we didn’t flake out, but also a little ashamed that we agreed to the whole gauntlet in the first place.
And no list of noteworthy guest appearances can smooth out this steeplechase of a double LP. Sure, we can prick up our ears to the sounds of Matt Barnes or Wayne Coyne or Tim Presley getting their backstage passes scanned, but these noises are really just another reminder of how far away we are from the self-slaking river that ‘…And Star Power’ seems doomed to drift on. It’s telling that Foxygen’s management team tried to enlist Paul McCartney to guest-drum on a song during the record’s preparation. That France and Rado even dared to believe that such a collaboration might happen tells us all we need to know about how high their fame has perched them in their own minds, and why we, the listeners, must look like insignificant ants from up there.