7 Feb 2017

Hang by Foxygen

From The Sampler, 7:30 pm on 7 February 2017

Foxygen Photo: Cara Robbins

Nick Bollinger reviews a maximalist tribute to their hometown from Los Angeles duo Foxygen.

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“Tip the world over on its side and everything loose will land in Los Angeles”, the architect Frank Lloyd Wright once said. This album might be the musical evidence of Wright’s observation. It the closest anyone has come in a long while to making a definitive pop record about L.A. And like the city itself, it seems to contain every loose thing.

It begins with ‘Follow The leader’, a big production piece with a 70s soul groove, an orchestration Hall and Oates would envy, while singer Sam France gives his blue-eyed best to a chorus that sits somewhere between a self-help mantra and one of those classic R&B invitations to get on the dancefloor. It’s a terrific opener; exuberantly upbeat with an ear-worm of a chorus, and a delightful video to go with it. But it’s barely representative of an album that takes maximalism to new heights.

We’re talking Queen-sized levels of bombast here. So who are these dudes? Foxygen is the Los Angeles-based duo of Jonathan Rado and Sam France. Now in their mid-twenties, they have actually been making music together since they were at high school early in the millennium. Gifted brats, they always thought big. One of their embryonic works - a fully indie effort recorded when they were just fifteen – was a self-described ’30-track space opera’. Hardly anyone heard it, in spite of its grand ambitions. And they have become no less ambitious since signing with major indie Jagjaguwar in 2011.

But they have increasingly had the tools and the budget to realise those ambitions. Their last album, a long sprawling set of psychedelic mayhem, was sprinkled with gems but rightly regarded as somewhat self-indulgent. This time, though, they have created an album that’s little more than half an hour in length.

It would seem that most of the budget went on the orchestrations, and it was money well spent. For these they called on Trey Pollard, a fellow Angeleno and jazz-schooled arranger, who seems to be as comfortable with Philly-style soul settings as he is with screen musicals. And confronted with a song like ‘Avalon’, he throws the full Disney at it. But if the arrangement is Disney-esque, we’re actually much closer to Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard; a place that, as France says in the song, “just isn’t what it seems”. By the next track, ‘Mrs Adams’, he’s singing about age, dreams and desperation, and it’s hard not to be reminded of Gloria Swanson’s character in Wilder’s noir classic.

The tour of Los Angeles continues with a song they call ‘On Lankershim’, named after another of the city’s iconic boulevards, which offers passing glimpses of aspirant actresses and the Hollywood sign, as a pedal steel guitar sweeps us back to some early-70s vision of cocaine cowboys in red convertibles. Again, there’s an excellent video for this one, though the music conjures enough images on its own.

Though listeners will have fun playing spot-the-influence, Rado and France are much smarter than the mere musical mimics some critics have made them out to be. And if France is singing about a city of illusions, the music, too, is not always what it seems.

If Rado and France’s song cycle has a single location, it’s convenient that that location contains such multitudes. Because, in one sense, Hang isn’t just about L.A; it’s modern-day America in its entirety. The album’s conceptual centrepiece is a song simply called ‘America’. And Foxygen’s view of the country is nothing if not equivocal. ‘Our heroes aren’t brave’, they sing, ‘they’ve just got nothing to lose’.

Hang’s technicolour production might suggest romantic escapism – the rock album equivalent of a film like La La Land – but it goes deeper and darker than that. Though Rado and France apparently conceived the whole thing four years ago, it’s an album that seems especially resonant as we enter the age of Trump. Though Hang unashamedly basks in 70s retro of numerous varieties, it also expresses deep uncertainties about the present.

Songs featured: Follow The Leader, Rise Up, Trauma, Avalon, Mrs Adams, On Lankershim, America.

Hang is available on Jagjaguwar Records.