Category Archives: FEATURES

The Feelies: Keep Calm And Carry On

Indie-rock icons the Feelies continue to play and tour at their own pace and comfort level

“Stay the course. Keep on trying.”

So sings Glenn Mercer on the Feelies’ In Between, their sixth album and second since rebooting in 2008. Last year, the Haledon, N.J., band founded by guitarists Mercer and Bill Million celebrated its 40th anniversary by reissuing 1988’s Only Life and 1991’s Time For A Witness plus a Record Store Day release of newly recorded covers. Those releases delayed In Between, which was finished early in 2016.

Time has always moved slowly in the Feelies’ world.

Crazy Rhythms, their frenetic, classic debut, arrived in 1980, but they waited six years for their second, the comparatively sedate The Good Earth, which was co-produced by R.E.M.’s Peter Buck. That was the first Feelies album with the band’s current lineup of Mercer, Million, bassist Brenda Sauter, drummer Stan Demeski and percussionist Dave Weckerman (although all five previously played together in bands such as the Trypes, the Willies and Yung Wu). After the (relatively) quick run of three albums between 1986 and 1991, Million relocated to Florida and the band retired until Sonic Youth coaxed a reunion in 2008 that led to sporadic touring—mostly weekend jaunts rather than extended tours—and to 2011’s Here Before.

“Six years between records is kind of standard almost for us; it’s the pace we go by,” says Mercer. “It’s our comfort level. We don’t feel the need to set up any particular deadlines. For us, being out of the public eye won’t have that big an effect.”

Stay the course, keep on trying, indeed. Or, to riff on the title of their poppiest moment, the Feelies are doin’ it again but in an unassuming, unforced manner. Mercer is rather laconic as he talks about the LP. “Stay The Course” might also be about getting the album done, but although “Perseverance was definitely a big part of making the record,” he says the hurdles were nothing unusual: recording delays, scheduling, equipment.

If Here Before sounded like a natural successor to Time For A Witness, eliding the passage of two decades, In Between initially sounds and looks like an extension of The Good Earth, the band’s most serene record. It opens with the sound of crickets and a familiar acoustic-guitar chord pattern anchoring the title track, and most of the songs, while still propelled by Demeski and Weckerman’s interlocking rhythms, are brief, leisurely and ruminative rather than caffeinated and forceful. For these Velvet Underground fans, the analogue is the self-titled third VU album (until its nine-minute final track, which switches allegiances to White Light/White Heat—more on that in a moment). Even the cover design, with its pale border and muted photo, recalls The Good Earth from 31 years ago.

Mercer, however, claims any parallels are coincidental. “I guess they both have a few more kind of mellow songs than some of the other records,” he says. “But really it wasn’t our intention to revisit that record directly. I think partially it has to do with a particular way we recorded Bill’s guitar. He plays a hollow-bodied electric, and we recorded the guitar with a mic, so you pick up a lot of the hollow-bodied aspects of it. So a lot of the parts that sound like they might be an acoustic guitar are really an electric, although it does have an acoustic quality to it.”

As for the cover art, Mercer notes that after Crazy Rhythms, all the albums have built on the same design template. Line them up, however, and In Between and The Good Earth are certainly most similar. Some tracks, especially “Turn Back Time,” could slip unobtrusively onto The Good Earth.

“Turn Back Time” is one of three songs with “time” in the title, which is perhaps appropriate for a band entering its fifth decade. “I didn’t set out to use that as a theme,” says Mercer. “When I was putting the titles together I thought of changing some of them because it was so obvious, but then, so what? Maybe part of it is that we have such little time together anyway that it becomes an element to dwell on.”

Some of In Between’s relaxed tenor came from the demos that Mercer created, either on his own or building on guitar tracks that Million sent. Mercer says the band liked the demos’ “laid back” feeling and wanted to retain that vibe as they worked together in Mercer’s Haledon studio. But that vibe is shattered by the title track, “In Between (Reprise),” which rides an insistent, loud, electric pulse for nine minutes.

“It’s called pedal tone or pedal point,” says Mercer. “It’s one of my compositional tools and one of my favorite things to hear in other people’s music. I think Eno might have been the one who pointed out actually the more you listen to it, it might appear to change—like Neil Young said about the one-note solo in ‘Cinnamon Girl’: ‘Well, it’s not one note, it’s a bunch of notes; they just happen to have the same name.’ You’re hearing something, but the reception changes; it’s something about the way the ear is able to process the information. You know, if you sit long enough, something that might have at one point looked inactive, you’ll see it be active. It’s something about the way you perceive things.”

“In Between (Reprise)” is everything the rest of the album is not: noisy, abrasive, teetering on the edge of chaos. And in adding that new, surprising layer, it elevates In Between. The level of abandon and aggression contrasts with the precision of the clarity of the previous tracks, a precision built on the rhythmic interplay that’s always been the Feelies’ hallmark. “Precision,” however, isn’t quite the right word.

“We’re actually not that precise, at least we don’t want it to be,” says Mercer. “The real excitement of rock ’n’ roll is when things are rubbing against one another or kind of going in and out and threatening to fall apart, and then it comes back. If it was totally precise, it wouldn’t be interesting.”

—Steve Klinge

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Homeshake: Moody Blues

With Fresh Air, Homeshake does it once more, with feeling

The introspective mood of Homeshake’s Fresh Air brings to mind the mellow ballads of the Stylistics and Blue Magic. Peter Sagar’s slow, late-night grooves create an atmosphere that invites you to open your heart and slip into the quiet joys and anxieties of true love.

“This album is actually faster than the stuff on Midnight Snack, my last album,” says Sagar, the Toronto artist behind Homeshake. “The songs are based more on feelings than events and experiences, and slower tempos work better to convey the emotions I’m writing about. It’s more positive than the last record, but it’s still pretty sad.”

Sagar slowly built up the tracks during six months of writing and recording, adding layers of soothing, oceanic synthesizers and subtle, jazzy electric guitars to complement his mournful vocals.

“I came into the studio with the demos I made at home on a four-track cassette player, then fleshed them out at the Drones Club, a studio run by a group of artists I know,” he says. “I use drum machines, drum kit, guitar, bass and synthesizers and record to one-inch, 16-track, analog tape. I like the warmth you get and the ability you have to speed up and slow down the tape. I want to have full control of everything so the result is as close as I can get to what I hear in my head, but I embrace things that happen on the spot. Improvisations or mistakes can make the music more interesting.”

Although he once made a living playing in rock bands, Sagar says it’s the sound of R&B, vintage and modern, that resonates most: “My father loved that stuff, and I grew up listening to it. You can dance to it, but I was always drawn to the soothing, thoughtful rhythms and the urgent emotions.”

— j. poet

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Mind Over Mirrors: Drones Ablaze

A move to the Windy City has broadened Mind Over Mirrors’ musical palette

A change of scenery can straighten your head, but Jaime Fennelly really cleared the decks when he moved from Brooklyn to Washington state’s Salish Sea in 2007. He traded city living and touring and recording with Peeesseye, his trio with future guitar hero Chris Forsyth and drummer Fritz Welch, for a cabin reliant on solar power on a five-square-mile island.

Mind Over Mirrors is rooted in the solitary, wide-open state induced by his island sojourn. On early albums, Fennelly played trance-inducing rhythms and million-mile-stare drones using an Indian harmonium and analog electronics. But after moving to Chicago in 2011, the same year that Peeesseye wound down, he found common cause with Midwestern musicians similarly committed to sonically inducing transcendence.

Mind Over Mirrors first swapped instrumentals for songs on 2015’s The Voice Calling, and on the new Undying Color (Paradise Of Bachelors), the project has become a band. Drummer Jon Mueller, fiddler Jim Becker and singers Haley Fohr and Janet Beveridge Bean (Eleventh Dream Day) deepen the grooves and broaden the sound, freeing Fennelly’s synths to play a lead role rather than carry the show.

“I think on the surface level, what I play looks different compared to solo Mind Over Mirrors albums, but I feel like I’m striving to communicate similar ideas,” he says. “Jon and I have been exploring complementary sonic and thematic terrain. I’ve been hearing fiddle in my work since the beginning, but it took me several years to find someone that was equally footed in American vernacular string music and drone music. I feel like there’s so much to explore with Jim, and what we’ve been able to do together so far feels like just the beginning. Likewise with everyone in the group.”

—Bill Meyer

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Dead Man Winter: Heat Treatment

Dead Man Winter finds new life in ashes of post-marital despair

Behold the dreaded breakup album. Once a release gets pegged as such, it’s immediately saddled with enough presumed emotional baggage to prompt the most seasoned marriage counselors to reassess their vocation. And never mind the artistic expectations often assigned to such overt catharsis.

Hence, Dave Simonett finds himself in a bit if a predicament with Furnace (GNDWIRE), his second and most personal effort as Dead Man Winter, the plugged-in alter ego to his bluegrass-inspired acoustic outfit Trampled By Turtles. He leaves himself dangerously exposed to scrutiny on Furnace—though it’s not as if he had a choice.

“Breakup records aren’t generally something I’m interested in, but I couldn’t get past the damn thing,” the 36-year-old Simonett says of the emotional unraveling and ensuing creative windfall that followed the demise of his decade-long marriage—a relationship that began when he was just 19 and produced two young children. “It had to be done.”

Furnace’s conventional folk/rock shell provides a certain measure of comfort, as does Simonett’s languid vocal delivery. But you won’t find much comfort in the words. “I’m a destroyer, I’m burning in the starlight/All I wanted was to die, but you would not let me go,” Simonett sings on “Destroyer.”

Furnace was once a much different album. Looking to regroup after his divorce, Simonett retreated to an isolated cabin in his Minnesota home. Snowed in much of the time and left to his own devices, he wrote like crazy. Trouble is, he didn’t like what he heard when he got back, even after the record was mastered. “It just sounded kind of hollow,” he says.

So Simonett recruited some pals from the Minneapolis roots-rock scene—including Trampled By Turtles bassist Tim Saxhaug—and headed to Pachyderm Recording Studio. In the wooded-retreat setting that produced such classics as Nirvana’s In Utero, the group recorded everything live to tape. “A lot of the songs the guys were learning during the first take, but it was easier the second time around because I had some space and time,” says Simonett. “I could actually focus more on making the record than my own stupid misery. It was like letting the steam out of a valve.”

—Hobart Rowland

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Sinkane: One Planet Under A Groove

Sinkane’s Ahmed Gallab is making universal music

Sinkane’s uplifting, multifaceted grooves are unrestrained by genre and geography. The melodies on the new Life & Livin’ It include elements drawn from country music, jazz, funk, reggae, rock, African psychedelia and Cuban dance rhythms. In the hands of Ahmed Gallab, the group’s main songwriter and bandleader, they blend together seamlessly, giving a joyful boost to lyrics that deal with people wandering through the world longing for some kind of emotional or spiritual connection.

“I’m an optimistic person,” says Gallab. “So I want to talk about the problems of the world in a positive way. Artists like Funkadelic and Bob Marley were grounded in reality, but their music always made you feel better. This album is about my experiences of coming from Sudan and growing up in America. I never felt at home in either place. The songs are about those identity issues.”

Gallab was born in London to Sudanese parents. The family traveled frequently between Sudan and the United States, absorbing the music and culture of both countries. “My father listened to jazz and Sudanese, Middle Eastern and African music. I took those elements, as well as sounds drawn from country music, and boiled them down to their essence. African and Cuban rhythms, reggae and the sound of the pedal-steel guitar put me in touch with a profound feeling of connection. Poor folks created reggae, country music and a lot of African music to express a sense of immediacy and struggle. I related to that and wanted to see what would happen if I brought all those elements together.”

Life & Livin’ It evolved over a busy six-year period. Gallab was constantly touring with Sinkane and spinning records in clubs as a DJ. He was also the musical director for the Atomic Bomb Band!, a group that played the music of Nigerian funk innovator William Onyeabor, with a large cast of famous musicians, including David Byrne and Pharoah Sanders.

“Playing with my heroes taught me how to lead a band and put on a show,” says Gallab. “I learned how to bridge the gap between a live performance and a studio recording. When I started working on this album, I spent three months alone in my studio, laying down guitar, drums, percussion and ambient sounds. Then the boys in the band came in. We learned the songs and went on tour. When we got into the studio, we played almost everything live.”

The album’s soul searching, largely autobiographical lyrics were written by Gallab’s longtime collaborator Greg Lofaro. “We spent a lot of time talking about what we were trying to say,” says Gallab. “I need to feel something to be creative, but Greg’s incredibly thoughtful. He kept asking me to explain my feelings and get deeper into them. He was like a therapist, with an amazing gift for making personal feelings universal. He won’t let me give up when I get stuck, which is important in a writing partnership.”

—j. poet

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Delicate Steve: People Person

With This Is Steve, Delicate Steve proves this is where he belongs

Steve Marion would like you to know, first and foremost, that he’s a human being. That’s why the New Jersey-bred guitar maestro’s given name is right there in the moniker of his primary musical project—Delicate Steve is both the four-piece live band Marion fronts and the superhero alias he assumes for his one-man recording output—and in the title of his long-in-the-works third LP.

“Making it feel very human is a big part of what I want to do,” he says. “I feel like there’s a lot of music now that is so far away from that; we’re so overly sensitized that we’re desensitized to what people are doing. I hope there’s a point at which we come back around to records being called, like, This Is Elvis or The Voice Of Miriam Makeba or Belafonte Sings Calypso. I want people to listen to this record and think of me.”

There’s an emphatic, authoritative clarity to that title that befits the album’s crisp, confident concision: 10 short, sharp instrumentals in 29 minutes that nod to a wide array of styles (power pop, hard rock, reggae, country, lackadaisical folk/blues, ambient gospel) without sacrificing the sonic signature of Marion’s distinctive guitar work and ear-candy melodicism. But the path to its existence wasn’t entirely simple or straightforward. After establishing a fascinating (wordless) voice with the woozy, dreamy instrumental psych pop of 2011’s Wondervisions and 2012’s Positive Force, Marion had visions of a grand next act: a “mindblowing” album featuring “Michael Jackson-level pop songs” with guest vocalists including David Byrne, Devendra Banhart and Win Butler. Recording commenced in January 2013, but the reality of his vision wasn’t quite panning out. So he scrapped the project midway through and went back to square one.

The next several years involved plenty of touring (sharing stages with Tame Impala, tUnE-yArDs, Cass McCombs, Mac DeMarco and Built To Spill, among others), studio collaborations (with Paul Simon, Yeasayer, Sondre Lerche, Zach Hill and Red Baraat) and the formation and Merge Records debut of a new band, Saint Rich, with longtime buddy Christian Peslak—but no new Delicate tunes. Eventually, with the collaboration-bug out of his system for the time being, having already used up the budget intended for the third Delicate Steve album and recognizing that he functioned best within the limitations imposed by clear deadlines and creative constraints, Marion decamped to a friend’s Catskills studio compound in the summer of 2015, where he knocked out This Is Steve solo, from scratch, in a mere 11 days.

The first Delicate Steve record designed with the idea of a live band in mind, This abandons some of the quirkier sounds of its predecessors (pitchshifting, acoustic/electronic patchwork percussion) in favor of mostly straightforward rock instrumentation. “Basically, I wanted to confuse my brain a little bit,” he says. Concepts came and went—the idea to making a quick, “Ramones-style” record was mostly jettisoned, though the impulse lingers in the relative punchiness of the album’s first half—and individual tracks suggested musical reference points that became “my little spirit animals” for the song. JJ Cale, for instance, guided laid-back, midtempo meander “Tomorrow.” The sparse “Swimming” vibes with Sly Stone; opener “Animals” has “a slight Jimi Hendrix feel,” “Cartoon Rock” was “ZZ Top meets Devo meets Deerhoof,” and “Winners” was rather specifically inspired by a combination of the Grateful Dead’s “Touch Of Grey,” Elton John’s “Captain Fantastic” and Ween.

Regardless of whether listeners pick up on those particular resonances, or divine their own, the decisive statement on the spine remains the final, undeniable word. So let’s welcome 2017: the Year of Steve.

“In my head it’s more of a summer record, but what I’m excited about is putting in a bunch of work over the winter months so that everyone will be jamming this thing in the summer,” he says. “That’s my goal.”

—K. Ross Hoffman

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James Chance: Flesh For Fantasy

No-wave sax legend James Chance returns with his first U.S.-released album in decades

That James Chance 2017 sounds very much like James Chance 1977 has nothing to do with a rut or retro vibe. Chance—or James White or James Siegfried (the name he was born with in Milwaukee)—has forever had a long, deep, abiding passion for James Brown, Su Ra and Albert Ayler, and on early albums such as Buy and Off White (both from 1979) or latter-day efforts such as 2012’s unreleased-in-America Incorrigible, made off with the riveting speed-soul grooves and atonal skronky sax blasts like a thief in the night. For his first U.S.-released album in decades, The Flesh Is Weak, with his most notorious outfit, the Contortions, the NYC-based Chance continues to mine fast, moody jazz and digs deep into fertile funky ground with the furor of a punk twice as young as he.

“I think that’s why I have a young following when we play,” says the 63-year-old Chance. “The aggression that came out in my music in the past is still there today. I’m not one of those guys who gets to a certain age and feels as if he’s got to mature and act more responsibly. I mean, I’m not contemplating fatherhood.”

It’s more than apparent on The Flesh Is Weak that he refuses to mellow, ripen and rot as Chance and his Cortortions machine gun through everything from hyped-up covers of Esther Phillips’ “Home Is Where The Hatred Is” and his jagged self-penned 1980 song “Melt Yourself Down” to newer, corrosive cuts such as the title track. Along with playing all of the yakety sax cackles and occasional lilt-a-whirl organ solos (“I wasn’t a fan of jazz organ for a long time until Sun Ra,” says Chance) on The Flesh Is Weak, Chance’s usual angular rhythms and kinked guitars—familiar to the no-wave genre he helped birth in 1978—get a mod revisionist feel with occasional Latin popcorn shuffles.

Such restless invention is the thing that brought him to Manhattan from Milwaukee, “where I learned to read music from nuns in the Catholic school I attended,” then moved him from participating in NYC’s downtown loft-jazz scene (“I didn’t fit in; I had a band called Flaming Youth named for a Duke Ellington song, but that confused audiences who thought we were a heavy-metal group”) and landed him squarely in pre-punk clubs such as Max’s and CBGB. “Those bands didn’t excite me either,” he says. “Save for Suicide and Richard Hell’s Voidoids, there was nothing inventive to be heard there.”

So Chance crafted a sound based, in part, on punk’s zealous energy (“We wanted to throw out stereotypical chords and make it even more primal,” says Chance, regarding no-wave), as well as Brown’s densely soulful raw chord changes and repetitious hypnotic rhythms. “Especially the song ‘Super Bad,’ which was super-heavy funk with wild Ayler-like sax solos,” says Chance enthusiastically. Quoting from Amiri Baraka’s Black Music, the saxophonist says, “Free jazz should join forces with R&B—that’s the fusion I wanted.”

Along with making a name and career for himself in France (“just like Jerry Lewis”), Chance made a few stops at slower jazz standard albums with his Terminal City outfit such as 2010’s The Fix Is In. He even laughs about trying his hand at oddball big-band music.

“The swing revival was horrible, too corny for New York, but I figured I could use it to my advantage,” he says. “Yet by the time I had written a bunch of tunes, the revival had ended. Good.”

Now, 38 years after Buy, Chance and his Contortions are making a bold, righteous racket with Flesh Is Weak and a vigor he hasn’t felt for a minute. “I don’t plan on stopping anytime soon,” he says, considering everything from covering Frank Sinatra’s “That’s Life” (“It was one of the first 45s I bought, so dramatic, and my wife, Judy Taylor, has been pushing me to put it out”) to making sure each Contortion he plays with is as free and loose as he is tight.

“Plus, I still look good in a tux,” he says when his sartorial signature comes up in conversation. “That’s crucial.”

—A.D. Amorosi

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Chavez: Don’t Break Up Your Band

The ’90s indie-rock legends in Chavez return with the amazing Cockfighters

There’s no doubt about it: Chavez may very well, sort-of possibly, be kind-of back together as a recording unit after 11 years of not doing so. Perhaps. Chavez’s crisply rocking new EP, Cockfighters, and the promise/hope of additional 2017 music and touring, says so. Then it doesn’t.

“I hope we can tour and record more, ’cuz we look and sound so good,” says vocalist/guitarist Matt Sweeney.

“We don’t make plans,” says guitarist Clay Tarver. “We can’t. We just do what we want to and can do. We have no idea what the immediate future is or what it sounds like. If you have any idea, please don’t tell me.”

Of course, there’s the company line among the quartet’s membership—Sweeney, Tarver, bassist Scott Marshall and drummer James Lo—that you can’t reunite a thing you never split. But spend 4,004 days apart without working together, and it’s mostly bust.

Then again, the mid-’90s angular-indie-math outfit made two era-defining albums in Gone Glimmering and Ride The Fader without applying itself to rulebooks, especially considering that each man does things outside of Chavez (script writing, surfing/filming, sound directing, session playing) that could’ve altered its path. Or not.

“No, no, no. God, no,” says Tarver. “When we started, we were on a mission. We were about doing a singular thing as good as we possibly could: making Chavez music. I hated outside-seeking stuff. I thought it was a distraction. I would make you feel terrible if you fell for it. But then it kinda happened to me, and I had to completely pretend like I never said any of that shit. Then we had to turn our full-time obsession into a ‘Let’s do it when we can’ obsession. Somehow it worked. It sort of worked. But you can only do that when no one cares about your band. And then once you stop playing, people start caring about your band. Generally, it’s pretty impossible. I’d say don’t try it.”

And no, no member has more special needs than the other. When Chavez has its four members ready to roar in unison, it roars—loud. “We agreed that we’d do Chavez when we could and that we wouldn’t complain when some ‘special’ member thinks he has something better to do than play music,” says Sweeney.

Both Sweeney and Tarver love what they’ve done with Chavez in the past, with the latter questioning people’s appreciation of the quartet. “People at the time said we sounded like Rush or something,” says Tarver. “I love Rush. But come on. People thought we were too ‘difficult’ or were just being weird for weird’s sake. The truth is we hated that kind of approach.” Sweeney claims that no man’s input was a given and that every track had to sing for its supper. “Each Chavez song works hard to earn its Meal Deal,” he says.

The four men of Chavez enjoyed playing with each other so much that they stopped. “With those two records, we were annoyingly pleased with ourselves,” says Tarver. “It was pretty much exactly the music we wanted to make. And we thought we should get medals for it. And yet no one really seemed to notice or care. So early on, we decided, ‘Fuck it, let’s not try to force it on anyone.’”

“I love playing with the men and even the babymen of Chavez,” says Sweeney. “I especially relish the faces they make when they are rocking out. Not kidding.”

So who gets together after so long to only do—so far—the three songs and nine minutes of Cockfighters?

“Chavez does, Mr. Ding Dong,” says Sweeney.

“We felt like we couldn’t just dine out on the old stuff over and over, so we decided to not play any more shows until we’d recorded new material, and that’s what we did,” says Tarver, who decided to reunite the gang so that he had no regrets going into the grave. “The thing is, if we’d never recorded these shits, my second-to-last thought would’ve been, ‘You’re an asshole, Clay. You never recorded ‘The Bully Boys’ (a song penned in 1997). Why?’ And then my last thought would’ve been, ‘Fuck. I don’t know why.’ So that was it.”

—A.D. Amorosi

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Foxygen: Excess All Areas

Foxygen is back with a grandiose love letter to America

Sam France and Jonathan Rado, the duo behind arch, hyper-kinetic pop provocateur Foxygen, are attempting to explain the unhinged, grandiose vision that lies at the heart of their latest album, Hang.

“It’s hyper-American music,” says Rado. “Hyper-American music.”

“Yeah,” says France. “We wanted it to be grand, cinematic. We envisioned it as a film, a huge musical film, and so, yeah, that’s what we made.”

“Like, we were definitely thinking of ’30s Hollywood musicals and imagery,” says Rado. “With ’70s production. Someone trying to do the ’30s in the ’70s, that was the angle. Or like Xanadu, kinda ballroom dancing pop.”

Recorded with Matthew E. White, kindred spirits the Lemon Twigs, Flaming Lips’ Steven Drozd (who was featured on their last album and now appears to be an auxiliary member of sorts) and Trey Pollard, it’s the band’s first “studio album” proper and just happens to feature a 40-piece orchestra on every track because, well, why the hell not? It is—and this is said with no little amount of understatement—a ridiculously ambitious, ludicrously ornate, overblown behemoth of a record. As musically restless as ever, Hang touches on a good deal of Foxygen’s beloved ’70s reference points. There’s Todd Rundgren (of course), Sticky Fingers-era Stones, Elton John, the Carpenters, Sly And The Family Stone—frequently, it would seem, within the same song.

And the band has gone Broadway, taking the aforementioned influences and adding a hefty dose of hallucinogenic vaudeville and Busby Berkeley musicals on bad acid. It’s a spiraling trip through Disney, Looney Tunes and a bizarre twilight zone where Bugsy Malone meets The Rocky Horror Picture Show. In short, the LP is by turns magnificent and maddening, flitting continuously from the sublime to the ridiculous.

Those who love Foxygen will love the band more, if only for the playfulness, irreverence and sheer gaudy spectacle of it all. Those who hate Foxygen (and there are plenty of haters out there) are only going to have their preconceptions reinforced. Indeed, it would be safe to say Hang could tip them over into bug-eyed, spittle-flecked rage. France in particular seems to revel in his role as arch provocateur, and he’s at his most foppish here, an eyebrow permanently raised, flouncing shamelessly. At times you could be forgiven in suspecting they’re hellbent on provoking a reaction from the more earnest of indie-rock purists, a performance-art duo that set out consciously to offend. Rado, however, remains adamant that they’re utterly sincere.

“I think there’s a really big misconception about Foxygen for a lot of people,” he says. “I mean, there’s an authenticity to what we do. We take the craft very seriously and, OK, so sometimes it does end up funny, but it’s never ironic. We don’t do irony. If we’re going to do something on a record, we do it the right way, because we’ve studied this shit for years and years. We take making our records very, very seriously.”

Foxygen, despite Rado’s protestations, retains the unerring ability to wind up the musical cognoscenti—these guys aren’t earnest enough, they’re scatterbrained pranksters, they lack “authenticity.”

“Look, it’s like this,” says France. “We’re meta, all right? We’re a little bit meta, and that really annoys people. With our songs and music, we jump in and out of the record. Like, we’re never afraid to manifest our personality in the music, and we embrace it. We’re just doing it as artists, and I know that sounds really pretentious, but it is art, you know? Do you remember when Lana Del Rey came on the scene and was on Letterman or whatever and people just trashed her? I mean, really trashed her. Everyone was just losing their shit. And I watched footage of her and everyone’s like, “Oooh, she sings out of tune!” but I thought she was really great. It ages like good rock ’n’ roll footage. I mean, fine, so she’s not refined in her singing or whatever, but there’s something there. But people are like, ‘What the fuck is this?’ When something massive comes around, people don’t know what to think. It makes them scared, which leads to criticism, right?”

France pauses, and without missing a beat, completely deadpan (but with an almost audible smirk), concludes, “So, basically, I think we’re just like Lana Del Rey.”

—Neil Ferguson

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Jesca Hoop: All Stripped Down

On Memories Are Now, Jesca Hoop navigates the spaces between the notes

The first thing you notice about singer/songwriter Jesca Hoop’s seventh full-length is how spare it sounds, each song assembled only from two or three instrumental elements and Hoop’s warm-yet-adaptive, shape-shifting voice. Then you stop hearing that sparseness, so rich does the album sound. Somewhere near a half-hour into its 40-minute running time, it hits you again, and you start wondering how the hell Memories Are Now can sound so expansive, considering its skeletal arrangements.

Part of the answer lies in the clear, unadorned production of Hoop’s own voice and guitar, which remain front and center. Produced by fellow songwriter/musician and sometime collaborator Blake Mills, Memories Are Now isn’t strictly Hoop’s most instrumentally austere disc; Undress and The Complete Kismet Acoustic offered voice-and-guitar renditions of previously released songs. But from the outset, Memories was planned as a raw representation of Hoop’s formidable songwriting talents.

“The first step we took was to think about where the loyalty begins between myself and the listener, where that relationship forms,” says Hoop from her adopted Manchester, U.K., home. “And Blake and I decided that it happens in a live setting, where I’m much less wrapped in sonic information. My studio albums can be quite dense. So we wanted to create more space and be more discerning about what sounds were used.”

With other material, in other hands, such a project might’ve ended up sounding airy or lightweight. It’s to Hoop and Mills’ credit that Memories Are Now sounds as full as is does—even at times heavy, as on “Cut Connection,” a stomping track that provides one of the album’s more unsettling moments, both musically and lyrically: “I’m living a dream/In the dream I’m buried alive,” Hoop sings coolly, and later, “I summon your hands/To bring me what is mine … I don’t waste my breath/Don’t waste my time.” (Much of the album, perhaps fittingly, mines this subject—the idea of stripping things down to the essence, leaving behind what’s no longer necessary.)

As on all of Hoop’s LPs, styles and genres abound. “I’ve never felt loyal to any one genre,” she says. “I think that can cause trouble. If you’re an artist who identifies with a genre, you’re setting yourself up for some relative ease, but if you don’t know exactly where you fit, if you’re just playing and enjoying whatever you find, it’s hard to know whether it’ll resonate with people. Or whether it will again, when you put out another album.”

But Memories’ humble arrangements allow Hoop’s voice to be displayed comfortably in multiple settings. Check the gamboling folk/country harmonies and fuzztone roll of “Simon Says,” the harplike ballad plucking of “Songs Of Old” or, in particular, the watery, tremolo-drenched “The Coming,” which deploys divine and satanic imagery to spin a tale of love gone tough, endurance gone exhausted.

“The Coming,” which closes the album on a strong, stately note, was the first song to arrive in the process. “When I began,” says Hoop, “I kept thinking ‘15.’ I needed 15 songs to make an album.” (Memories Are Now ultimately contained nine.) “I was a little overwhelmed. So I went for a long walk—about 10 miles—and hummed to myself the whole way. But I was still frustrated. Nothing came. So I made dinner, and went to my writing room, and the little gates of my mind opened up after a bit. I didn’t produce anything on that walk, but that walk seemed to clear the way to produce ‘The Coming.’ So I had to approach the rest of the songs with that same trust.”

It’s a trust that extended to the production of the album as well. “I know Blake very well,” says Hoop, “but I didn’t know how good he was as a producer. I was surprised at his level of knowledge and skill, what he was able to do in such a short period of time. Sometimes it’s a negotiation, but production always has to serve the song: How do we best convey the communication and emotional intention in this song and keep the integrity? That was Blake’s intent the whole time, particularly in terms of the voice, its unique ability to communicate. I’d want to do another take, and he’d say, ‘I don’t ever want you to sing that perfectly.’ He really encouraged me to come raw, to let the songs remain human and flawed. I think that’s what he wanted to protect all the way through.”

—Eric Waggoner

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