“Talent borrows, genius steals,” Oscar Wilde once said. If that’s the case, then Jonathan Rado and Sam France, who make up the core of the retro-pop outfit Foxygen, must be savants: their 2013 full-length debut, We Are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace & Magic, as its goofy title implies, begs, borrows, and steals from just about every major act between 1964 and 1971. It stretches the applicability of Wilde’s dictum to call this album a work of genius, but it remains a nostalgic if derivative joyride nevertheless.
The comparisons to classic sounds begin as soon as France starts singing, evoking by turns Lou Reed’s Sprechstimme, Blonde on Blonde era Bob Dylan, and (most frequently) Mick Jagger. The Rolling Stones are the band’s most obvious touchstone, evidenced clearly by the opener “In the Darkness” and the title track. But any of the Stones’ contemporaries are up for grabs here, resulting in a patchwork sound ranging from Motown to Merseybeat to the Monterey Pop Festival. The production drives the point home, marrying retro fidelity to arrangements full of jangling guitars, celeste, and the occasional orchestral flourish. It’s all very 60s, almost to the point of pastiche, echoing the giants of old while never quite measuring up to them.
Highlights include “No Destruction,” which sounds like a long-lost B-side to “Positively 4th Street,” and the wistful, Mellotron-inflected “Shuggie.” The album’s centerpiece for me though is “San Francisco,” which recalls in many ways Scott MacKenzie’s 1967 classic of the same title, as well as the Tony Bennett standard “I Left My Heart in San Francisco.” Foxygen take their primary cue from The Village Green Preservation Society here, with gentle flute and a delightful Ray Davies-ish male/female call and response on the chorus:
I left my love in San Francisco
(that’s okay, I was bored anyway)
I left my love in a field
(that’s okay, I was born in L.A.)
This was the song that initially drew me in; nothing else here is quite as good. But that’s more a comment on the quality of this gem of a song than on the quality of the rest of the record.
My only really major complaint is with the lyrics. The highlights mentioned above also happen to be the songs make the strongest impression lyrically. But somewhat embarrassing lines like the following from album closer “Oh No 2” are unfortunately too common:
I was standing on the bed
Birds were landing on my head
Even though it’s just a dream
I still don’t know what it means.
I don’t really know what it means either, unfortunately. If the words were as good as the music, derivative as it is, we might really have something here.
I have long subscribed to the doctrine that originality is overrated. Wilde is right: we are all deeply indebted to our influences; better to say something important than to worry overmuch about being “original” (whatever that means). Foxygen clearly don’t. And while this means they never stake out a unique sound of their own, it also means they get to write the kind of music they like to listen to. Which just so happens to be the kind of music I like to listen to as well, so I suppose it works out.
- Foxygen – We Are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace & Magic (sunmedallion.com)
- December 14th: Foxygen (psychmas.wordpress.com)
- Foxygen (jellyk95.wordpress.com)
- Foxygen – “We Are The 21st Century Ambassadors Of Peace & Magic” Video (stereogum.com)
- Foxygen – No Destruction (majickcyrkles.wordpress.com)
- Foxygen – We Are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace & Magic (soundjuicemusic.wordpress.com)
- Foxygen is Number 11 on my list (themusicbard.wordpress.com)
- Sweetlife Preview: Foxygen (rhymeetreason.com)