Monday, January 23, 2017

album review: 'hang' by foxygen

So as I think I've mentioned in passing a number of times on this show, I'm a big fan of going out to karaoke bars - and whenever I say this, I tend to get a lot of side-eye glances and comments of 'Wait, you're a music critic, how the hell could you stomach that?' Well, part of it comes from the privilege of living in Toronto and getting exposure to a ton of fantastic singers and genuine artists that come from a prolific arts scene - I imagine it's much the same in New York and L.A. - so on average the quality tends to be a little better. But at the same time it gave me an acute sense of perspective - many of these folks are incredible performers, they do this for a living far better than I ever will even at a karaoke bar, and despite my side project pretensions to making original music, for some of these folks it's their life, with karaoke just being an outlet for practice and letting out steam. I'm not going to sell myself that short - I'm a pretty good singer when I want to be - but at the end of the day even despite being a critic there's a difference between being a hardcore music fan with a penchant for showing off and an actual musician with poise and training, especially when it comes to the creative process of writing and performing.

I say all of this because when I started listening to early Foxygen albums, I got the immediate impression that this would probably be the sort of music I would make if I lacked the restraint or self-awareness to pull away and realize my own limitations. Because look, I love 70s rock, but that 2012 album Take The Kids Off Broadway was very much an example of loving the sound and style and textures but not really having a grasp on cohesion or composition. Now they definitely improved considerably on their next record We Are The 21st Century Ambassadors Of Peace & Magic - an half-ironic title, given how much their style nakedly aped the 20th century, although I would seriously question in terms of songwriting how much capacity this band has for irony, even if I did think the overall writing felt tighter. But then came ...And Star Power, a double album a year later, diving back towards rougher, lo-fi territory and that same sense of cacophonous composition, and yet the splatter-painting style of writing didn't have the same energy or groove or momentum, to say nothing of some painfully redundant lyricism - you do not want to get me started on how painfully weak the 'concept' of this record feels, especially given how sloppy some of the recording and playing feels. Now granted, some have argued that it was representative of the duo's famously contentious relationship, but for as much as Foxygen idolized the 70s, you'd think they'd take a lesson from Fleetwood Mac when they made Rumours and not throw cohesion out the window. But hey, they managed to hold it together to pull together an album that they've called their 'California record', going bigger and grander than ever - so did it connect?

Oh boy... okay, so you all remember when I said there's a big difference between being a diehard music fan and a trained musician with instincts for composition and restraint? Well, if you weren't convinced by their previous records, I can see some people looking at this and thinking that they might have finally found their groove in grandiose music history masturbation - sorry, I mean callbacks and tributes. In other words, this should be perfect music nerd bait, especially for a guy like me who loves over-the-top 70s rock, especially when you factor elements of vaudeville, big band music, and even hints of the country sounds that crept into L.A. in the late 60s and 70s, all brought together for some grand statement about America... and yet, after a dozen listens and the more I dug into the writing, the more I'm left feeling that I'm missing the climax, more a whirlwind patchwork of Cliff Notes that end up meaning less than the sounds they reference.

And for context in this review, I think it's important to reference one of the original purveyors of similar huge sounds and over-the-top excess that has been referenced a number of times in critical discussions of Hang, and one of my favourite albums of all time: Bat Out Of Hell by Meat Loaf. Now to some extent the records obviously run in different lanes in the details: Bat Out Of Hell trafficked in overheated machismo, pseudo-gothic swagger, and the sort of melodrama that gave Meat Loaf and Jim Steinman an excuse to crank everything to eleven. But at their core overarching themes of an American dream that has failed a confused, oversexed and misspent youth - which would be a much greater focus on Bat Out Of Hell II: Back Into Hell - that does have pathos, especially in the Los Angeles context, a place where any and all dreams could happen. And both albums in their composition draw upon melodic trends of the past in vaudeville kitsch, big band spectacle, and Phil Spector Wall-Of-Sound techniques. Hell, you could even make an argument that with the smoother melodic transitions on Hang that they were capturing a more abbreviated version of what Steinman was capturing in his compositions. Now, of course there are major differences in that composition: Foxygen is bringing a more assured, languid tempo and pace to this project, with the more elaborate horns and lush strings sections that call to mind mid-to-late 70s Billy Joel and Elton John, from the choppy rollick of 'Follow The Leader' to the piano bar melancholy of 'Mrs. Adams', from the touches of gentle pedal steel and layered country melodies on 'On Lankershim' to the creaking vaudeville piano, screwball percussion, tuba, girl-group backing vocals and tapdance interlude of of 'Avalon'. The entire record is swimming in broad, Golden Age Of Hollywood theatricality, from the waltz cadence and lush twinkles of 'America' playing off the painfully elaborate piano interlude that breaks towards smooth jazz - because of course it does - to the sort of soul-baring breakdown against the deeper horns on 'Trauma' that I can't help but feel Father John Misty already satirized far better on 'Bored In The USA', even if I do like the main melodic phrase. Hell, the album even ends with 'Rise Up' a bells-driven and utterly overblown inspirational ballad complete with organ, guitar flourishes, and a ridiculous amount of arranged bombast, with the only hints of rock coming in some squealing chunky strums that roar through the mix and would have definitely been more welcome across this record.

Now we'll get to the satire part in a second, but for as much as I find the opulence charming, this is also where my appreciation for this record crashes into a brick wall. For one, for as many stylistic melodic shifts as there are within tracks, there's a part of me that thinks Foxygen is playing it safe, certainly in their choices of textures, almost a little stifled by the pomp and circumstances of it all, certainly not with the same wiry rock edge that worked on early projects. And that wouldn't be an issue if, again, I didn't feel like Father John Misty went in the exact same direction on I Love You, Honeybear for much greater returns thanks to more developed hooks, writing, and much stronger vocal delivery. And vocals are a huge factor here, as I don't have a damn clue why Sam France thought this delivery was a good idea. I get using the girl-group backing vocals as a pastiche to the time, but why he didn't opt for thicker multi-tracking to command these mixes is a baffling choice, because he certainly doesn't have the raw presence to command them by himself. He doesn't have the effortless poise of a Billy Joel or Father John Misty, and he sure as hell doesn't have the same go-for-broke bombast of Meat Loaf, or, say, Kyle Craft, who with Dolls Of Highland took a much better hold of similar sounds and dragged them into rougher, more potent territory. Here, France either seems to be singing in his weedy indie rock tones or even worse trying for this throaty vibrato that seems to recall Colm Wilkinson but with no greater bass or presence. And it doesn't remotely fit the 70s grooves or vibe to have your vocal delivery reminiscent of Jean Valjean!

But of course, that's kind of the point, because reportedly this album, like Bat Out Of Hell, is supposed to parody the American dream through its over-the-top grandeur obscuring those who suffer and die in its pursuit and oh my god, I've seen Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls too, this is ground that was broken so often in the 70s it's not even funny! This is where we have to get into the writing and where I feel this record falls painfully short. Not only is Foxygen primarily dealing in parodic archetypes that were overused forty years ago, that's where the development stops: this is a record that references broad American stereotypes and makes halting attempts to tell a darker story on songs like 'Ms. Adams', but none of it feels well-developed or expanded, especially not in comparison to the overwritten singer-songwriters of the 70s or those like Kyle Craft and Father John Misty who follow in their footsteps! And that lack of greater development and insight, all the way down to the corny metaphors of it all being within yourself all along, it feels all the more flimsy and hollow to the point where you'd wonder if Foxygen were just playing it straight the entire time. But even if they were and were just going for broke... to circle back to Bat Out Of Hell, Steinman understood he was writing high melodrama, but he wrote it with the pomp and circumstances to mean so much more so if you could get sucked into it, it could transcend its own silliness. Hang, in contrast, is so underwritten that it feels like it's stretching to even reach the cliches, let alone satirize or transcend them - reference flamingos all you want on two straight tracks, but you could be so much more creative than this! And that's not even touching songs like 'Follow The Leader' where the melodrama seems to be going for a 'Two Outta Three Ain't Bad' feel and ends up just coming across sanctimonious and pissy.

And yet at the end of the day... I still think this album is passable on some level, that's how much the 70s sound works for me! And I will give them credit for some appropriately lush production and melodies that do have a certain grandiose ambition to them, even if they're wedged into bite-sized nuggets. And sure, if this is what Foxygen needed to pull out of a tailspin, all the credit to them - but they're not treading new or interesting ground when it comes to this style, and the vocals and writing really lets this album down in my books. For me, I'm thinking a light 6/10 and only a recommendation if you're a diehard 70s or Golden Age Of Hollywood fan who can take a good ribbing, but if I was going to look for that sort of sendup... listen to Bat Out Of Hell or watch Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls, maybe At Long Last Love to make it a double feature. You'll get a lot more laugh - and insight - than this.

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