Graded on a Curve: Foxygen,
We Are the 21st
Century Ambassadors
of Peace & Magic

Foxygen’s 2013 full-length We Are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace & Magic raises an interesting question. To wit: Just how good can an album be when the strongest cut on it is a shameless Pavement rip?

The answer, surprisingly enough, is pretty damn good indeed. It doesn’t hurt that the Pavement steal in question–”No Destruction”–is for the ages. Nor does it hurt that the indie pop duo of Sam France and Jonathan Rado have an uncanny knack for raiding the old musical closet to put together new and garishly interesting outfits.

When it comes to retro, Foxygen prefers the AM band to the FM one; their songs are twisted, for sure, but most of them have the exuberant pop! of a cork coming out of a bottle of expensive champagne. And like a good bottle of bubbly, We Are the 21st Century Ambassadors will definitely go to your head.

The album’s potpourri of sounds runs the gamut from the dizzy-making French pop readymade that is “San Francisco” (dig those cheesy glockenspiels and the dreamy backing vocals of Sarah Versprille) to the truncated mutant blues that is “Bowling Trophies.” The latter is a total musical outlier (it borders on noise rock, from the Cows bugle blurt on down) and our favorite pot-loving duo’s retort to those people who wondered what it was doing on the LP probably ran along the lines of, “Hey, it sounded great when we were stoned.”

France and Rado like to throw surprises at you; you never know what’s going to come next with these boys. “Oh Yeah” is a shaggy feel-good with a T-Rex groove and the falsetto-fueled energy of a Rolling Stones disco move; “On Blue Mountain” works stoner magic by bookending riffs from the mid-sixties’ Stones and Elvis’ “Suspicious Minds.” Meanwhile, the title track is a far freaking out rockabilly homage that sounds like it was recorded someplace else–by which I mean on a planet other than the one we find ourselves on. Garage rock doesn’t get more deranged than this uncategorizable shape shifter.

As for “No Destruction,” it makes me as happy as anything I’ve heard in a while. France’s slacker vocals veer from Dylan to Malkmus, while the song itself saunters along at a shambolic (but irresistible) pace. And France tosses off some great one-liners (“There’s no need to be an asshole/You’re not in Brooklyn anymore”) from beginning to Dylanesque (love that harmonica!) end. And then there’s “Shuggie,” which simply leaves me speechless. It’s half sophisticated pop anthem, one quarter funk, and 100 percent cool, and I think I’ll let you try to do the math.

I’m not enamored of every song on the album; the very “Sgt. Pepper” opener “In the Darkness” is so atmospheric and wispy I can never seem to remember how it goes the minute it stops playing, while LP closer “Oh No 2” is one lush bummer and seems to meander on forever. That said, the latter track is beginning to win me over, thanks in part to its silly lysergic lyrics (“I was standing on the bed/Birds were landing on my head” etc.), sheer intergalactic intransigence, and from-out-of-nowhere Broadway show tune ending.

Foxygen’s career trajectory has taken some very weird twists and turns since 2013; plenty of folks said no thanks to their sprawling 2104 concept album …And Star Power, and many listeners–including yours truly–are still trying to wrap their ears around 2017’s out-of-left-field Hang, which is pure camp fun and a glitzy (and very, very orchestrated) stroll down Broadway’s Great White Way. Hang is growing on me–despite a couple of bad karaoke parodies that go right over the top–but both “Follow the Leader” (the greatest ’70s pop anthem ever!) and “On Lankershim” (horn-driven country rock) are dead brilliant.

Which leaves me, and a lot of other people I suspect, leaning towards We Are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace & Magic. But France and Rado are both ambitious and startlingly unpredictable, and I’m itching to find out where they go next.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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