words by ADAM OFFITZER
It’s become an increasingly familiar ritual – an annual two-week stretch in December when every music fan scrolls through endless lists, write-ups, and Spotify playlists of the year’s best albums, playing catch-up with the records they missed or never got around to. At first it’s fun, but at some point it becomes a daunting task to replay the alt-J album as many times possible until it finally grows on you.
Fortunately, We Are The 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace and Magic can give us all reason to stop catching up with last year’s music and focus on the here and now of 2013. Ironically, the duo takes us into the present by crafting a sound from decades in the past.
While bands with a “retro” sound have been a dime a dozen in the past few years, Foxygen can certainly be added to the list of those who have done it right (Cults, Tame Impala, Dr. Dog), providing their own unique spin on the bluesy, raw sounds of The Velvet Underground, The Band, and countless other inspirations without trying too hard.
At least they don’t seem like they’re trying too hard. The album’s nine tracks breeze by with an understated swagger and carefree vibe. Lead vocalist Sam France exemplifies this rebellious confidence, commanding each track with his warbling, quietly soulful vocals. France does have a strong natural singing voice, but often times he chooses to talk-sing, channeling his inner Lou Reed (especially on “No Destruction,” which at times sounds like an alternate cut of the Velvet Underground’s “Rock and Roll”).
Old-school guitars and easygoing, driving drum rhythms maintain the retro tone established by France’s vocals, all adding up to make Foxygen’s record a nice little blast from the past. But the album is far more than that – 21st Century Ambassadors is elevated with the help of Jonathan Rado’s keyboard and Richard Swift’s production.
While each track would certainly work as a straight-up guitar-rocker, it’s Rado’s gentle piano chords that truly make them complete. Light, bluesy keys drive the music along throughout the record, from the phenomenal opening track “In The Darkness,” to the unexpected switch-flipping tempo changes of “On Blue Mountain” and “Shuggie.”
The added dimension of the piano is matched with truly inspired production throughout, as bells, horns, strings and handclaps pop up all over the record, whenever they’re welcome. These added quirks and flourishes never feel overbearing or cutesy – rather, they keep the sound positive and the music consistently interesting by balancing the old-timey feel with a modern array of sounds.
Foxygen’s charm wears off just a bit by the last two songs, which don’t quite meet the others in the accessibility department. On the title track, France wears his influences too heavily on his sleeve, stuttering and screaming in a manner that will appeal only to those who miss old-school punk-rock the most. Album closer “Oh No 2” shows the band trying its hand at experimental, psychedelic stuff and only slightly succeeding.
The song is saved, however, by a piano-and-vocals finale that calls to mind Abbey Road’s famous conclusion. Even the last lyrics mimic McCartney, as France sings in an airy falsetto: ““If you believe in love, everything you see is love.”
Nostalgia rock can be tiring, as certain sounds become trendy for short periods of time, only to go away as quickly as they came (lo-fi surf-rock comes to mind). But with We Are The 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace and Magic, Foxygen is a breath of fresh air, reviving a vintage style of songwriting in a new and creative fashion. [B+]
Find it at:
Stream We Are The 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace and Magic at Pitchfork.