You Oughta Know / Foxygen – We Are The 21st Century Ambassadors Of Peace & Magic

[You Oughta Know is a segment where we take a currently popular album in the indie music world and point out some (somehow) related albums. If you're digging this album, you'll probably love these other ones we want to share. Some might be old, some might be downright classics, some might be totally new, some might be completely hidden gems. It'll depend. But the point is this: you oughta know about them. Sorry if you do already, we just love to share!]


Words by Brendan

I’m kicking off this new column with the album that birthed this idea. I listened to Foxygen‘s previous LP, Take The Kids Off Broadway, last year and was amazed by how much singer Sam France sounded exactly like Mick Jagger. I mean, it was uncanny and mind-blowing. “How does he get away with that?” I thought. But as I listened, I realized it didn’t quite matter to me. The songs were great, and I stopped caring about the similarities of their voices. Maybe Sam is just unlucky to sound so much like Mick, and it would be a struggle to make himself sound like something else.

All of these considerations of mimicry, recycling of past song styles, and retro culture are coming up again—and more so than before, even—thanks to Foxygen‘s new album with that pretentious-sounding title you see above. There are songs on here that, unsurprisingly, also sound exactly like a Rolling Stones cut. Some songs sound like Bob Dylan. And overall, the whole record is drenched in backwards-looking, 60s-revivalist, peace/love/harmony/hippie culture. It inspired this idea to write about a series of other albums that this one sounds like, other artists that are doing similar things, and the whole “How important is innovation in music?” issue, in general.

After the jump, you’ll find, essentially, a review of We Are the 21st Century…, but spread across some words about five other bands/records I like and think you should hear. Maybe you know them all well already, and why I’d want to talk about them. If so, cool, glad we have similar tastes! Maybe you don’t know any of them. If so, cool, check them out! Maybe you’re steeped in music and would be amazed to find that someone wouldn’t know at least a majority of these records (especially the older ones). If so, this article probably isn’t meant for you. Ideally, I’m putting this out there to: (a) share my thoughts about an album in a more open, free-form way, allowing me to talk about other records deserving attention; and (b) just let this thing exist on the web, and let people stumble upon it and hopefully learn something and find new music to like. Maybe it’ll start some discussion, maybe it won’t. But really, I just thought you, dear reader, should know about these records. So here we go.

If you look around on various blogs right now, you’ll find a lot of reviews of We Are…. You’ll also notice they divide rather neatly into two camps: “This is a useless rehashing of old ideas and deserves to die” vs. “This is a wonderful reworking of old ideas and deserves to be enjoyed”. The negative reviews are scathingly negative, too, bordering on being negative for entertainment’s sake. Flavorwire told the band to “stop smoking artisanal joints” and admonished that “there’s something very wrong with trying to recreate [the past]“. The Quietus called them “frauds and fakers who’ve been caught buying hippy wigs in Woolworths, man”. (That was in their review proper; on Twitter, they were not nearly as polite!) Meanwhile, Listen Before You Buy declared it “an immaculate record that only gets better with each subsequent spin”, and Pitchfork even bestowed it “Best New Music”, applauding the band’s commitment to repurposing the past rather than castigating them for it: “It’s one thing to give your band and your album a silly name, and to play dress-up with rock history while tweaking the formula. It’s another thing entirely to mean it; the more time you spend with Ambassadors, the more clearly that commitment and joy comes through.”

The only middle-ground review that I could find was by We Listen For You: “… This young duo seem so desperate to contrive a past they never had. I don’t know who Foxygen are writing their songs for, and the more time I spent with We Are the 21st Century the more and more alienated I began to feel.” I don’t exactly feel alienated by this record, but this is far closer to my experience with the album than any of the other reviews. I love the music here, and I’m sure that’s influenced by my simultaneous love of, essentially, all things 60s music. (When I was younger, I sometimes wished I had been born earlier so that I could have lived then, as silly as that sounds. Now, I didn’t do anything about that, but whatever.) The Dylan vocal rip-offs on “No Destruction” make me chuckle, for instance; I don’t find the imitation rancorous and unenjoyable, nor even without artistic merit. It’s just kinda silly for me. I do wonder about Foxygen‘s intent, though, but all that wondering has done is take me on an endless thought path about art and artifice, about the past and the present.

Certainly, these songs are well-written. “In The Darkness” sets the paisley-patterned tone from the outset, and there are Beatles elements everywhere, from the guitar squall around 0:45 (that reminds me so much of the audience applause on Sgt. Pepper) to the monotone piano tinkles at the close. The aforementioned “No Destruction” points to Dylan and Rolling Stones posters on the wall and records in the bin (and see the discussion of Beggars Banquet down below). “On Blue Mountain” continues those overt homages, swirling in some Motown girl group backup vocals, and the hook even sounds exactly like “Suspicious Minds” for a few seconds (“We can’t go on together …” vs. “We can live on blue mountain …”). “San Francisco”, as I wrote about the other day, is obviously a 60s pop tune. “Bowling Trophies”, “Shuggie”, and “Oh Yeah” are the funky bunch here, musically, but continue the same old lyrical hippiness: “If you believe in yourself, you can free your soul”; “Because you’re freakin’ me out, you’re bringin’ down everyone’s vibes”. The title track is skittery and freaky, tipping a cap to Captain Beefheart without taking his all-out outsider attitude to heart completely. Finally, “Oh No 2″ is reminiscent of the spacier side of the Beatles (think “A Day In The Life”) and maybe even Bowie‘s “Space Oddity”. And that’s just skimming the surface. There are plenty of touchstones of 60s pop that they hit upon, seemingly effortlessly and decidedly unapologetically.

And that’s exactly the point I was making before I got stuck in counting up those references. These are good songs. I haven’t heard anything nearly as catchy as “San Francisco” yet this year, and I probably won’t for many months. I like the “shoo wop shoo wop”s and “bop bop baaa”s in “Bowling Trophies” and have to sing along with them. And yes, some of the lyrics are childish (“Smoking pot in the subway”) or nonsensically silly (“Bacon and eggs, and you can rearrange your mind”) or shake-your-head-to amateur philosophy (“The doooor of consciousness is oooopen”), but they’re quirky in an inventive way. Anyone could try to write shitty poetry derivative of Blonde On Blonde‘s wild imagery, but very few can do it effectively and convincingly. This is very thin ice Foxygen are skating on, and they’re centimeters from dropping into those frigid waters of mindless mimicry at any moment. But they don’t! And I think this is why the writers of those negative reviews I quoted do, indeed, hate We Are…: they’re rooting for this album to fail because it offends their beliefs that music needs to always be moving forward and inventing something new, and that if anything looks backwards, it better go so far that it speeds right through the space-time continuum and winds up farther ahead than anything else. Is this really fair? Of course not, but it’s understandable. I’m sure I’ll be grumpy 30 years from now when some hip band drops a record the critics and young fans drool over while (you and) I will know they just thought The Arcade Fire were really cool.

After all this, though, the fact remains that this record is fun to listen to. For now. It’s hooky, it’s pleasant, it’s a little odd in an inviting way, and it appeals to some of the things that I just so happen to like in a pop/rock album. But yes, it’s also occasionally derivative and clearly meant to repurpose song styles and attitudes from the past. That upsets some folks. Not me. I think it just means that this album will only hold so much appeal for me in the long run. I won’t be looking back on this in five or ten years (or maybe even one year!) and think that this was powerful music that deserves to be preserved for the ages. (It’s more deserving of the moniker “Best Current Music”.) I highly doubt the next generation or two will view Foxygen as our Stones or Beatles, and I’m worried that some responses to this album are based on the assumption that this is what the band is trying to do. If you dig the tunes, groove on, man. If you don’t, that’s fine, just quit bringin’ down everybody’s vibes. In the meantime, I’ll be spinning this one every once in a while, absolutely tapping my feet and whistling along, and most likely chuckling to myself about the band proclaiming themselves “ambassadors” of anything, whether or not they meant for me to laugh at all.

Foxygen on the web: Jagjaguwar / Bandcamp / Facebook / Twitter
Buy We Are The 21st Century Ambassadors Of Peace & Magic: Jagjaguwar / Insound / iTunes / Amazon

The Rolling Stones / Beggars Banquet
[London/Decca, 1968]

This album deserved to be shared first for its immediate relation to Foxygen‘s tune “No Destruction” (see Jagger’s vocals, particularly on “Jigsaw Puzzle”, as well as the similarity in name with “No Expectations”). But also, as a longtime “fan” of The Rolling Stones who only relatively recently got into their albums proper, I think it’s worth recommending to fellow listeners that this is honestly a great record, in all sense of the word: musical, sonic, cultural, etc. You won’t hear more than two of these tunes on classic rock radio, but fuck that shit. This album is rich with ideas, innovation, and timeless appeal, not to mention some raw channeling of late 1960s societal upheaval and confusion that merits serious listening and reflection. Remember that the 60s weren’t all flowers and weed. People were, indeed, shouting out, “Who killed the Kennedys?”

Buy Beggars Banquet: Insound / iTunes / Amazon

Natural Child / Hard In Heaven
[Burger, 2012]

These guys will surely fulfill the wishes of anyone looking for more music like the heavier side of The Rolling Stones, the bluesier and grittier edges. Seth, Wes, and Zack hail from Nashville and are obviously not only students of the history of blues and rock, but also practitioners. Long hair, beards, attitude, drugs, volume, energy. They have everything. And as a witness of one of their live shows, I assure you it’s not an act. If you find Foxygen reminding you of the hippy-dippier parts of the 60s and want to instead relive the glory days of rock ‘n roll when that just meant actually rockin’ out … well, Natural Child is a natural choice. Hard In Heaven, their second LP, was released last year on California label Burger Records (and I’d recommend looking through their catalog for other rockers, like King Tuff, Nobunny, Ty Segall, and many more).

Buy Hard In Heaven: Bandcamp / Insound / iTunes / Amazon

Bob Dylan / Blonde on Blonde
[Columbia, 1966]

Another classic album here, but I can’t resist. The connections between Foxygen‘s “No Destruction” and Sam France’s vocals and Dylan‘s characteristic up-and-down-willy-nilly voice and lyrical imagery are so striking, though. Particularly on Blonde on Blonde, Dylan‘s full talents are on display, and I’d bet it’s Foxygen‘s favorite. Even if you’re aware of this album and its almost-impossible-to-top influence, even if you love this album as much as I do, just give it another listen. Right now. The lyrics are so damn inventive, the harmonica is perfect, and the songs are still catchy and fresh so many years later.

Buy Blonde on Blonde: Insound / iTunes / Amazon

Meeting of Important People / Meeting of Important People
[Authentik Artists/Get Hip, 2009/2011]

One very admirable element of Foxygen‘s album is the band’s for tunefulness, pop melodies and hooks, and songwriting. This is particularly evident on “San Francisco”, but also on “Shuggie” and “Oh Yeah”. One of the outstanding pop bands of the 60s was The Kinks, and you won’t find bigger fans of Ray Davies and his songwriting than Pittsburgh’s own Meeting of Important People. (Lead singer Josh even wrote a great article about his love of the band for a local mag, The New Yinzer.) You can hear this in many of their songs—like “Brittney Lane Don’t Care” and “Hanky Church” from this album, and “Keep Your Eyes On Me” and “Gotta Clean Head” on their latest album—but they also wear other influences on their sleeves. Josh will frequently introduce a song at a live show as “a bullshit John Lennon tune” or a “fake Pitchfork song” or what have you. It’s all in great fun for them, and that fun is passed on to the listener, I feel. There’s nothing wrong with admitting your musical past and what strikes your fancy and motivates you, and there’s something to be said for being all up front about that in a genuinely humorous, friendly, and inviting way. Why cloak yourselves behind a veneer of hipsterism and mystery? Why not just have fun with it? I’m with the boys of MOIP on this one. And hey, Pittsburgh folks, catch them at a big show on April 5th at Mr. Small’s with The Cynics (world-famous garage poppers) and Neighbours.

Buy Meeting of Important People: Band site / Get Hip Recordings / iTunes / Amazon

The Black Hollies / Casting Shadows
[Ernest Jenning, 2008]

One of the aspects of Foxygen‘s album we haven’t touched on really is its use of psychedelia, of which there are many kinds, of course. Foxygen stick to the lyrical kind, using fantastical imagery and pretty voices. Okay, they also use some hippy flute melodies now and then, and “Bowling Trophies” and “Oh No 2″ are kinda spacey, but they don’t truly get anywhere near to the psychedelic pop of, say, the 13th Floor Elevators or Jefferson Airplane. That’s where The Black Hollies come in. On Casting Shadows (as well as their debut, Crimson Reflections), this band (whose name comes from a street name for methamphetamines) pumps out some powerful percussion and mind-melding melodies. They’re energetic and tuneful at the same time, and have been known to lay out extended jams/medleys at live shows. It’s quite a sight & sound, trust me. Their sound on follow-up Softly Towards The Light is marginally softer, aptly, basing some tunes around a vintage organ they discovered/acquired, and might be a more fitting inclusion on this list (so go check it out), but I’ll be god-damned if I just don’t love this song (and video) from Casting Shadows and felt like I had to share it:

Buy Casting Shadows: Insound / Ernest Jenning / iTunes / Amazon

3 Responses to “You Oughta Know / Foxygen – We Are The 21st Century Ambassadors Of Peace & Magic”

  1. Word, B. And weren’t the Rolling Stones and so on just channeling blues records they liked from days of yore? Showing your influences: allowed.

  2. @Chris: You got it, dude. Showing influences is great. Trying to cover them up is weird, but somehow acceptable.

    I’m still amazed that The Stones claimed songwriting rights on “The Last Time” when it’s so clearly a rip-off (altho Mick said it’s “based on”) the Staples Singers‘ “This May Be The Last Time”.

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