“With [21st Century Ambassadors…] we were really trying to make a literal snapshot of the ’60s,” says France, sitting next to Rado on the same particle board box. “We didn’t care. We wanted to reproduce that completely. We didn’t care about being original or anything. The new album is a little more vague, a little more mysterious.”
To many, “originality” is a prerequisite for “good” or “important” music, and it’s not surprising that despite the charm and polish of their first album, it had its fair share of detractors. …Star Power is likely to face just as much criticism, as it’s a double album. In the age when albums are marketed behind readymade singles above all else, the grandiose double album is antiquated. Any attempt to make one is generally seen as self-indulgent, and what results is usually bloated and overwrought. But just as Foxygen were setting out to copy the music of the ’60s on We are the 21s Century…, so too were they diving headfirst into the double album and all its associations when they recorded …Star Power, which was pared down from over 100 songs and ideas for songs they had written since recording We Are the 21st Century…. “It’s a double album that plays into the tropes of a double album,” Rado says. “It’s self-aware.”
“That’s kind of the point of it,” France adds. “We wanted it to be ridiculous.”
In many ways, …And Star Power and its accompanying live show serve as the culmination of all that Foxygen has been through, musically and otherwise. Their first release, the 2012 EP Take the Kids Off Broadway, was the raucous, excessively overdubbed effort of a band that was still trying to figure out how to make a record. We Are the 21st Century… was, by contrast, polished and concise, recorded with the help of producer Richard Swift (the Shins, the Black Keys). Not only have they honed their live show to near-perfection—on Wednesday night, Rado tactfully maintained his composure after a wannabe stage-diver knocked over his keyboards (although he did later say “fuck that guy”)—they have also figured out how to truly be themselves on a recording. …And Star Power, which they produced themselves, is as rough and distinctly them as Take the Kids Off Broadway, but also polished and coherent in a way that doesn’t belie this spirit. For the first time, they sound more like “Foxygen” than the acts that came before them. But a band once defined by its influences is a band always defined by its influences.
But then, suddenly, everything changes.‘Cosmic Vibrations’ races back into the void, pushing the line from gorgeous ditty to dark ode, to deep voices and slow, minimalist movement. Being a Foxygen song, it never strays too far, seamlessly transitioning back in a brighter jazzy tune by the end. The track marks the signature of the entire album – diverse as shit, traipsing between noisy mess and gorgeous lilt, begging to be turned up just a little louder. A Foxygen album seems to be pretty similar to an episode of Doctor Who: an endlessly exciting journey through time and space – oh, and it’s bigger on the inside 😉
The smorgasbord of goods (look, we started talking about cheese, don’t expect me to stop now) unfortunately makes it easy to tune out or lose focus by this point. Twenty four tracks is a big investment, but if anyone can return on that investment, it is Foxygen. And while the album as a whole could do with a little more structure, if you can manage to tune in for the best moments, it’s undoubtedly worth it. Personal highlights include ‘Flowers’, ‘The Game’ and ‘Everyone Needs Love’.
..And Star Power is wild and varied business. It’s worth starting from the middle after you’ve had a couple of listens, as a way to maintain your attention span. Each track seems like it’s from a new planet, rather than one albums, and no matter where you start; it’s all out of this world.
Mixed review of “…And Star Power” from the New York Observer — they critique the sprawling style of the album along with its production, but acknowledge (and praise) it’s many individual great moments:
The first issue of The New York Review of Books, published February 1, 1963, featured a critique of John Updike’s then-new The Centaur by Jonathan Miller. “This is a poor novel irritatingly marred by good features,” the review began. Repeated airings of Foxygen’s …And Star Power bring Miller’s droll comment vividly to mind. On the whole, the fourth full-length opus by these L.A. indie rockers can’t be called anything other than a self-indulgent mess. Still, every now and again, glimmers of pure brilliance stand out in the muck.
I get the sense that Foxygen is trying very hard to immerse listeners in its own distinctive sound world, and that world is lo-fi in the extreme. Instruments and voices are woefully recorded. Tape hiss is so omnipresent that it’s practically another member of the band. This approach has worked before for plenty of artists—Guided By Voices and the Bevis Frond, to name just two—but it doesn’t work so well when coupled with oddly tentative singing and playing, dodgy tempos, and half-baked songwriting. And while Mr. France’s tendency, especially later in the album, to break into wild screams and whoops is clearly derived from Iggy Pop’s unhinged performance on the Stooges’ Fun House, there’s a huge and undeniable difference between the two. The Stooges rocked. Foxygen only judders a bit.
And yet … The album’s (well-chosen) leadoff single, “How Can You Really,” is blissful power-pop of the Todd Rundgren school. The sorta-ballad “Cannibal Holocaust” veers thrillingly from a slow evocation of Satanic Majesties-era Stones to a laid-back groove that channels the wispy beauty of Buckingham/Nicks-era Fleetwood Mac. The nasty, beat-skipping guitar riff that forms the backbone of “Talk” is a new garage-rock classic. Of the 24 songs on …And Star Power, at least half contain something—a surprising melodic turn, a wayward bass line, a gutsy horn blast—that grabs the ear in a positive way. None of these moments justify the whole, I’m sad to say, but they show what this band could do (and has done in the past) when it focuses.
And here’s the most abrasive review of “…And Star Power” so far, courtesy of WBEZ’s Jim DeRogatis (who gives it .5 stars):
As both a devoted fan—heck, a scholar—of psychedelic-rock experimentation and a defender of the merits of Foxygen’s 2013 breakthrough pop-pastiche We Are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace And Magic—even after the group proved to be far from stellar onstage—the third album from California studio wizards Jonathan Rado, Sam France, and collaborators comes as a major disappointment.
In fact, I can’t remember the last time I was so eager to hear the next release by a band that turned out to suck this royally.
A bloated, sloppy, sprawling, 82-minute, way-too-impressed-with-itself 24-track double album, … And Star Power veers far from the beautiful, orchestrated psychedelic pop of the last album, overshooting psychedelic noise to arrive at psychedelic mess. Sorry, kids, but there is such a thing as taking too many drugs; what the Romantics called “the systematic derangement of the senses” in pursuit of spiritual and musical transcendence is one thing, but getting so deranged that you can no longer tell the difference between otherworldly studio experimentation and the aural equivalent of burping, farting, and laughing at your own clever self for doing so is another matter.
American Songwriter has released their review of “…And Star Power.” It’s fairly negative, giving 2.5 out of 5 stars while criticizing their disorganization:
This sprawling double platter that runs just a little over what could comfortably fit on a single CD is undeniably creatively liberating. There are four suites that seem to be divided as if they were created for the four sides of a two album package. If a further concept is at work, perhaps of changing stations on an imaginary radio from space indicated in the liner notes, it’s not explored enough to be anything other than a murky theory. What’s clear is that Foxygen takes pieces of a variety of music they love such as ’70s era Todd Rundgren pop, Pink Floydian space folk, Velvet’s artsy garage, John Lennon styled introspection and a load of indie singer-songwriter attitude. They then cut and paste those together often with the primitive style of razor blades and recording tape.
It’s an occasionally inspired, more often maddeningly muddled mass of half-baked ideas and self-indulgent noise. There’s a feeling that a good producer and/or a lot more self-discipline could have corralled these ideas into something special. Guest appearances from the Flaming Lips’ Wayne Coyne and Of Montreal’s Kevin Barnes add to but don’t enhance the experience.
There’s a decent single CD lurking here … somewhere. Those with the time and initiative can probably find and piece it together. As it stands though, Foxygen bit off more than they can chew, leaving … And Star Power as an occasionally interesting failed experiment. It’s one that shows a band with a surfeit of ideas – many of them worth exploring – who needs to harness their creativity and impulses.
The genius for me of We are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace & Magic was producing just enough quality songs (9 to be exact) to have me intrigued and wanting more. Now with …And Star Power, I feel like Foxygen creatively dumped 24 tracks because they couldn’t narrow it down to a proper album length. Sometimes, less is more. Towards the end of the album I was thinking the last 4-5 songs could have been left off entirely and then “Everyone Needs Love” and “Hang” reel me back in.
First impression is Rado and France were sparse with the title but over-indulgent on album length. Twenty + songs and over 80 minutes of play time is a lot to digest. Tracks like “How Can You Really” indicate that this duo is not a fluke and can still craft hooky classic rock inspired jams. Once again they pull out all the stops. There are organs a plenty on songs like “Cosmic Vibrations”, there are slow tempo tunes like “I Don’t Have Anything/The Gate”, and Lennon inspired jams like “Flowers” that make this album somewhat irresistible. There is also lots of filler including five songs playing on the lead track “Star Power” and some noisy tracks like “Cold Winter/Freedom” that could have been cut or cleaned up. I still give it a thumbs up, as it is fine follow-up album with plenty to enjoy, although a little editing would have gone a long way.
But as a whole, my first impression of the new album was one of confusion, making me scratch my head at what Rado and France were trying to achieve. The “Star Power” series of four songs, for instance, has its moments, but as a whole lack cohesiveness among themselves and with the rest of the album.
So would I give this a thumbs up, thumbs down, or somewhere in the middle? To answer that question, I asked myself, “Would I listen to this album again?” My answer: yes, but is it to better understand that Rado and France are trying to achieve or is it because, despite its imperfections, I truly enjoy the album for its intricacies and varied parts? I give it a thumbs up, but not quite at 90 degrees, maybe closer to 75.
Soon after the release of its 2013 LP, “We are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace and Magic,” Foxygen became one of my favorite bands. After a retrospective listen to 2012’s “Take the Kids off Broadway,” I decided few modern bands were more impressive. Rejuvenating the sounds of The Rolling Stones, The Doors and The Velvet Underground, Foxygen brought something both new and old to the table of psychedelic music, flower power with a modern twist.
With “…And Star Power,” the band seems to be moving out of the 1960s San Francisco music scene, and into ‘70s easy listening and punk. Naming influences like Todd Rundgren, Fleetwood Mac and The Stooges, Foxygen prepared fans for an eccentric concept double album on which the band, Foxygen, is overpowered by an alter ego, Star Power.
I would recommend this album to anyone who is a fan of music. “…And Star Power’s” 82-minute runtime makes it the band’s most enjoyable album.
European music show Encore’s Music Show has a nice feature on Foxygen, accompanied by an interview with Rado. It’s a fairly surface-level rehash of 2013 along with a preview of the new album, but it’s well-produced and the correspondent is clearly a big fan, which comes through in the report. Watch it below (the Foxygen segment starts at the 6:35 mark):
What we do know is that …And Star Power is a concept record about another band and a radio station – both named Star Power, naturally – and if Foxygen has the decoder ring for unlocking further meaning, they are not sharing it. One gets the sense that the concept is as loose as the record’s sprawling 24-song tracklist, and that’s kind of the point. … And Star Power is a playful and mischievous album, much like the band’s Richard Swift-produced breakthrough We Are The 21st Century Ambassadors Of Peace & Magic, but whereas its predecessor stuffed ideas within ideas within single songs like a collection of matryoshka dolls, each dose of fancy and classic rock cribbing is given room to properly roam on … And Star Power.
In conversation with Radio yesterday, he said that the album appeared to be leaving fans both confused and intrigued. That made him happy.”If you’re going to put out a record like Star Power, you kind of want that reaction,” he explained.
In comparison to We Are The 21st Century Ambassadors Of Peace & Magic, Star Power feels less polished, a little rough around the edges. Was that a sound that you were going for?
There’s a quality of records that we love, where they’re all sort of strange feeling, whether it’s completely overblown with instrumentation or, like, played on three instruments. With the production and the engineering, we were definitely trying to make it sound a little bit odd. I wanted everything to sound a little odd. It’s not like we were shooting to make something lo-fi. It’s just how it came out. [Laughs]
Was the [four-part] “Star Power” suite conceived as one piece or was it something that you stitched together?
It wasn’t one big song at first. We each wrote a bunch of songs called “Star Power”. Each of us wrote two songs with that name. Then we jut decided that if we had done that, then we should combine these songs, and then we realized that they fit together really nicely. It’s an extended version of how we often write one song.
What do each of you bring to the table?
I think that I bring the instrumentation – the technical skill of playing instruments. Sam has a strong instrument with his voice – which is my weakness – but he also brings the element of un-technique. He doesn’t really know how to play guitar and how to play bass, but sometimes that’s the best thing for a song. Sometimes it should sound like someone doesn’t know what they’re doing. That’s what Sam’s best at instrumentally.
Overall, …And Star Power is a record which has firmly solidified Foxygen’s status as one of the most interesting American bands of today. Yes, it could be shorter in places, but it doesn’t matter. It’s a well thought out record with a lot of tiny little details, and every song ends up having its own identity on the album. It could make do with a few omissions and certainly is not a hit record, but there has definitely been a lot of thought into the concept it set out to deliver. Each chapter has its own standout track (How Can You Really, 666, Freedom II and Everybody Needs Love, respectively), which is accompanied by a whole host of other exciting tracks. …And Star Power is best listened to in a full sitting, because only then do you ‘understand’ the album and its concept. Some songs are perfectly fine by themselves, but this record is meant to be listened to as a whole. This record may not become a commercial mega hit, but it will likely become memorable in its own right.