It’s not uncommon for music journalists to call an album ‘self-indulgent.’ This typically means a somewhat eccentric and/or idiosyncratic artist makes an album that expands upon their pre-established eccentricities (or idiosyncrasies) in a way that makes their music either less accessible or, more often, worse. One notable example would be MGMT, whose second album, Congratulations, embraced the weirder, more ‘eccentric’ side of their hook-filled debut and became perhaps the decade’s most critically underrated album (seriously, Congratulations is a masterpiece).
From the get-go, it seems like this new Foxygen (aka vocalist Sam France and multi-instrumentalist Jonathon Rado) album will be relegated to a similar territory. Is the band ‘weird and eccentric’? You bet- just note that their second album was called We Are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace and Magic, or check out these videos where they bring David Letterman to pieces of go toe-to-toe with the silliest musician of all, Mac Demarco. Do they write good songs? You bet – just listen to to this one from the aforementioned 2013 LP, or this other highlight from 2014’s …And Star Power (which, in the eccentricity department, was like 30 songs long (and also not very good)).
The reason Hang will probably be called self-indulgent and garner all the affiliated sentiments is because, well, it’s basically show-tunes. I don’t even know what genre this album falls into aside from ‘pop’, because these songs could probably show up in any Rogers and Hammerstein musical and pass through the ears of every septuagenarian in attendance without raising an eyebrow. For that reason, this album is really exciting- I don’t know if there’s any contemporary album by a ‘rock’ band or otherwise that sounds like Hang. So as far as novelty goes, bravo. If it weren’t for the hallmarks of modern music’s delicate, subtle production value, this album could have come straight out of 1970s Los Angeles.
As far as the songs go, and how enjoyable they are, well the results vary. Essentially, verses and sections of songs fall into two camps – the show-tunes that dial in impressively catchy melody lines, grand climaxes and just the right about of Sam France’s cartoonish, glamed-up, ‘sexy’ vocals, and those that just sorta sound like they fall into some uncanny valley between show-tunes and 2010s millennial parodies of show-tunes.
Opener “Follow the Leader“, despite being a zero lyrically, is the most notable exception, sounding culled from …And Star Power and grooving on a 70s electric piano riff. Strong horns and strings sit comfortably amidst Supremes-esque backing vocals that pop up frequently throughout the record’s run. Immediately following is Hang‘s worst track, the big band Sinatra bop of “Avalon” that, aside from a quick double-time detour, pretty much sits on the same two chord progression and repetition of the line “In the garden of Avalon!” for four minutes.
And so the record goes. “Mrs. Adams” sounds like it’s trying to say something lyrically, with lines like “Hey, Mrs. Adams, whathca doin now / with a gun in your mouth”, but like the rest of the record, any message is impressionistic at best. The track’s slower, more emotional sections are nearly touching, but the staccato piano and vibraphone disrupt any momentum the song builds. Similarly, “America” is most certainly a political statement (“Our heroes aren’t brave, they’ve just got nothing to lose / Because they’re all living in America”) but features France’s most painful vocal delivery, alternative between equally vibrato heavy tenor and alto octaves, and disrupting the mood the song seems to establish with baroque harpsichord and piano sections that further deviate into swing-time lounge music. The song is a purposeful mess, but rather than make an interesting statement, it stands as an obnoxious oddity smack in the center of the album.
The back half of the album fares better than the first. “On Lankershim” is the record’s strongest track, combining a killer melody line, an emotional climax, some thoughtful lyrics (“Well it just gets bigger till you can’t seem to figure out / I walk away but I still can’t seem to figure it out”), great horn and string ascensions, and a triumphant, building jam through the album’s final third to France’s repetition of “you walked away!” “Upon a Hill” displays France’s most theatrical vocal delivery and once again features a strong melody that is inevitably upended by a double time big band coda that at this point in the track listing is only surprising because it pops up within a two-minute song.
The record ends with two slower, more sentimental ballads. First up is “Trauma”, which is cut from the same cloth as Meatloaf’s grandiose epics and features a wonderfully sad and wistful guitar solo, and the closer “Rise Up”, which actually crosses into a melody so sweet and familiar over a piano and woodwind backing that I was certain I’d heard it in a Disney movie before. Combined with the repeated refrain of “Everybody wonders where the red fern grows”, it nearly approximates Foxygen as a children’s music act. The huge timpani sections then give way to a progressive, driving distorted guitar solo that ends the record on a high note.
I can’t say I love the record, or will be listening to it much in the coming year, aside from perhaps “On Lankershim”, but at 33 minutes and eight tracks, it never overextends its welcome. It’s refreshingly original but only rarely great. My biggest hang up isn’t the album’s frequent and unexpected deviations between sections of orchestral baroque pop, but rather France’s lyric writing. Where once he penned such hilarious but insightful gems as “You don’t need to be an asshole you’re not in Brooklyn anymore“, France seems content to let Hang‘s only statement be made through the band’s decision to fully embrace the big-band, musical theater aesthetic. It’s been three years since the last Foxygen record, and only four since the band hit the big time- to think that France has nothing to say regarding his life or the state of affairs for the group in the interim is an ominous sight for the duo’s future. Still, if they continue to show up with fresh ideas, I’m willing to indulge them and search for what made 21st Century Ambassadors such a great record.