Foxygen Promises Spectacle, But Delivers Karaoke

When Foxygen’s Sam France walked on The Vic’s old vaudeville stage, it was like Tim Curry waltzing within Rocky Horror’s castle: he looked tall, pale, and unkempt. Amid a full torrent of brass and woodwinds, France took the audience through a kaleidoscopic remix of Los Angeles’ music history.

Foxygen broke up after 2014’s …And Star Power. Or, more accurately, the concept under which they performed ended. Frontman Sam France and maestro Jonathan Rado still steer the ship, but Foxygen has entered a new phase. Ziggy Stardust killed The Spiders From Mars, and instead a Thin White Duke emerged.

What ensues are Hollywood horns suited for Sunset Boulevard and ‘70s A.M.-inspired rock fit for driving down the Sunset Strip. This phase of Foxygen sounds almost as grandiose as Van Dyke Parks, but they actually sound more focused to the casual listener. It’s opaque, opulent music you can shake your foot to.

Following a record that drew from the likes of Lou Reed and Todd Rundgren, 2017’s Hang borrows more from George Gershwin than George Harrison and Ellington over Elephant Six. If David Bowie was music’s ultimate chameleon, the duo behind Foxygen is some of music’s greatest masqueraders.

They almost performed the entirety of Hang, with a few exceptions, as they launched their set with the titular song from We Are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace & Magic, “San Francisco,” and “Shuggie.” But while France brings energy to his performance, the masks he has worn are now wearing him. He has spent so much time over his (young) career impersonating other vocalists — Bowie, Reed, Jagger — that, now he has found his footing in the rock world, he feels like he’s now performing his own voice too.

It’s multiple personality disorder for a vocalist. With this tour, France is impersonating the role of frontman instead of being the frontman. It was as if he performed karaoke in front of a live band.

On the other hand, Jonathan Rado is the glue that holds their music—and performance—together. From playing colorful diminished chord changes on keys to stepping on top the keyboard to, well, shred guitar that would have made ’60s Londoners write “Rado is God,” he shows his chops as Foxygen’s chief orchestrator. He also worked on some of the past year’s most critically acclaimed records, including The Lemon Twigs’ Do Hollywood and Whitney’s Light Upon the Lake. He’s a much-needed yin to France’s yang.

For live rock bands, there’s a delicate balance between spectacle (as style) and the music itself (as substance). Of Montreal, for example, ventures deep into spectacle territory: songwriter Kevin Barnes hardly touches an instrument while his backup band plays songs in the same BPM for the sake of buying him time to change between his absurdist costumes. It’s a pendulum, and France swung too far into spectacle without delivering the raw vocals that characterize the band’s records.

Theatrics in music isn’t bad in-and-of-itself. But a live rock band can’t forget the foundation of their music.

A critical review of Foxygen’s performance doesn’t mean they aren’t enjoyable or worth seeing. Foxygen are ambitious and so few artists tackle the scope of their concepts, save for Dan Bejar of Destroyer. And any fan of music—specifically the history of American music—can appreciate the time warp Foxygen throws us in by blending ’60s psychedelia, the Great American Songbook, and their production’s technicolor sheen that echoes Dave Fridmann’s most prized work.

Sam France is no longer the man who sold the world. He’s already killed the Spiders from Mars. But if you’re not fond of his Thin White Duke getup, don’t worry — you can catch them after they go through a Berlin phase.

Colin S. Smith
Colin S. Smith

Colin Smith thinks that Chicago right now is the place to be for music. He works for Illinois Humanities, is a freelance writer, and plays psychedelic-pop songs with his band.