....And pomp and circumstance
by Jericho Cerrona
If rock' n roll history is any indication, the self-indulgent opus is often followed up by the brisk "return to form" where all the drugs, ego, and flamboyance are ceremoniously flushed down the toilet in lieu of rehabilitation. This idea is especially pertinent when it comes to Foxygen's Sam France and Jonathan Rado, whose last effort, ....And Star Power, was the kind of abrasive wankfest which either signaled intentional disharmony or an unforeseen psychological meltdown. Whatever goodwill they had established with 2013 critical darling We Are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace & Magic had been nearly eradicated by cancelled shows, excessive drug use, and in-band squabbles which culminated in the noisy discord of ...And Star Power; an ambitiously genre-hopping mess that at the very least showcased a band on the verge of a nervous breakdown that hadn't completely lost their ability to surprise.
With Hang, Foxygen have pulled a sonic 180; both in terms of sound as well as attitude. Instead of squawking guitar solos and 60's psychedelia in the Marc Bolan/ Rolling Stones mode, their latest venture taps into airy 70s-tinged pop, complete with a 40-piece orchestra for maximum theatricality. The overly polished production has it's benefits; mostly in terms of giving the compositions a sweeping cinematic quality, but it also means that some of Foxygen's looser, more spontaneous tendencies are sidelined. The biggest downside to this new direction is that Rado's textured guitar work is peripheral at best, only kicking in briefly for a solo during the middle of "Mrs. Adams" and fully exploding on the final tune, "Rise Up" during its crescendo-laden conclusion. On the other hand, France fully embraces the album's kitschiness with aplomb; giving a series of charismatic vocal performances.
On opener "Follow the Leader", for example, France oozes a slinky Jagger-esque confidence over soaring strings, horns, and cooing background female vocals. On the aforementioned "Mrs. Adams", he adopts a lower register drawl, ala Bowie, while harpsichord struts along with symphonic instrumentation. It's the kind of self-aware posing Foxygen do so well without ever totally being drowned out by their influences. Some may disagree, as Hang traffics in some pretty obvious homage; Stones, Bowie, T.Rex, and Todd Rundgren are all here, of course but even stalwarts of camp like Elton John, Meatloaf, and Andrew Lloyd Webber get thrown in the mix. The latter is never more apparent than on the album centerpiece, "America", a rousing musical theater piece which lurches from big band bombast to piano-driven lounge number and then back to frenetic Danny Elfman-esque instrumental breaks. It's a genuine doozy; overblown to the point of self-parody, but thrilling in the sense that the band don't seem to be pillaging with ironic detachment. There's a sincerity and earnestness here that's infectious, even as one can feel Foxygen's wry sense of humor poking through any time things threaten to fall apart. On a song like "Avalon", for instance, honky-tonk piano and brass collide before turning into an audition for an ABBA cover band, but Rado and France somehow pull it off.
One of the more rewarding aspects of Hang is uncovering the combustible sides of the band which seem, at least initially, to be sublimated by the album's sheer grandiosity. Despite the peppy melodic stride of a song like "Mrs. Adams", there's a legitimate a dark emotional current to lines such as Hey Mrs. Adams, whatcha doing with that gun in your mouth? Meanwhile, the appropriately titled "Trauma" is the record's bleakest moment, with funeral backing vocals and France doing his best Leonard Cohen impression. It's this dichotomy; of utilizing elevated pop arrangements while sneaking in genuine human sentiments, that makes Hang such a defining creation for the band. It's also, unlike ....And Star Power, lean at just over 30 minutes, which itself is a bit of a self-aware nod given how theatrical the music on display can be. Instead of bloating out and sprawling in epic fashion, Foxygen continue their self-indulgent ways by inverting the notion of the pop opus, and luckily, we get to revel in the bombast.