opinion byBRENDAN FRANK
If you were to believe the buzz, this was almost the album that never was. After the surprise success of their second studio effort, We Are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace and Magic, California outfit Foxygen appeared embattled. In fairness, you could see how onstage tirades, a cancelled tour, and swirling will they/won’t they rumours regarding another album might have given that impression. As it turns out, the duo of Jonathan Rado and Sam France were at work on a hulking, suited, guest star-studded 80-minute double album …And Star Power.
On its face, that last sentence is full of intrigue. Rado and France have provided several apt reminders as to why their heroes are our heroes too. They’ve been absorbing this music long enough to pick out the best of what they have to offer, right? Surely, the fact that Star Power is a double album was well thought out and based on the prodigious number of song-worthy ideas Foxygen had stocked away.
Well… not quite. Plugged as a “CINEMATIC AUDITORY ADVENTURE”, Star Power is over twice as long as its predecessor and contains about half as many hooks. On Ambassadors, Foxygen combatted overreliance on nostalgia with swagger, humour, and an eye for detail. Here, the structure is indulgent and the bounty spread thin. Sam France may sum it up himself best on “I Don’t Have Anything/The Gate” when he sings: “I have some cereal but forgot to buy milk”. Star Power is enjoyable in pieces, and contains some affecting and astutely evocative songwriting – but it lacks anything to tie it all together. It aims for Exile On Main Street and hits Out Here.
Existing in a loosely defined universe teeming with alter egos, Star Power’s conceptual underpinnings are so vague and noncommittal as to be pointless. This isn’t to say that the much-discussed concept detracts from the experience, but it really doesn’t add anything to it either. The sharpest tracks here aren’t elevated by Star Power agency to any meaningful extent. In particular, the piano jangle of lead single “How Can You Really” – which seems like something Ed Sullivan might have enjoyed – works just as well if not better as a standalone.
Ignoring the unimportance of the concept, there’s no getting around the fact that Star Power has an inordinate volume of filler. From the meandering “Mattress Warehouse” to the clearly misplaced circus overture found on “Wally’s Farm” to Metal Machine Music love child “Cold Winter”, the bloat is unmistakable. Even if they had kept the same number of songs (24!) on the record, it could easily be trimmed by 20 minutes to no consequence.
In a way, it almost makes you appreciate highlights more, scant though they are. “Cosmic Vibrations” deftly mutates from proto-psych freakout to “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” sendup, and the tempo shifts and easy melodicism of “Cannibal Holocaust” is the only truly compelling track for a half-hour stretch between suites 2 and 3.
It may be tempting to call Star Power a grower, but even through a dozen listens I’m not sure I’ll warm up to an album with such a poor notion of what it wants to be. A misstep, to be sure, but even more troubling is that Foxygen have distended from tight, trim retro-pop to unkempt, unfocused conceptual goo in less than two years. If nothing else, Star Power makes a strong case that Foxygen are at their best when they keep it simple.