Our Jams Could Be Your (Inner) Life
At the end of 2018, I made a list of Re-Critic's favorite records of the year. This is a fundamentally stupid thing to do, because everyone knows that there is no way to hear "all" the music in a given year, or even to hear the majority of music in one's favorite genres. But I keep doing it for a couple of reasons: 1) I enjoy the exercise of comparing all the music I heard and liked against each other, and 2) because, let's be honest, people expect that out of a critical website/blog. Increasingly, I hear and read opinions that call into question the efficacy of and/or need for a Top-10 (or Top-Whatever) year-end list, and I admit that there are a lot of really good arguments to be made against them. Along with the idea that it is an artificial limiting of scope in service of an arbitrary number as alluded to above, it may not allow for the necessary time it takes for an album to "grow" on a listener. Finally, perhaps most importantly, it tends to disproportionately penalize albums that come out at the end of the year, since everyone is so busy looking backward they may not see what's right in front of them. Released on November 30th, this is exactly what happened to Foxwarren's self-titled debut LP.
I knew of the album late last year, but didn't hear anything off of it until early in January when I grew tired of re-listening to past jams and wanted to dig into something new. It's a pity that's the case, because even with only four more weeks remaining in the year I am sure that it would have claimed a spot on my year-end list if I had heard it earlier.
The first thing that stands out about the album is that…well, in a way it doesn't stand out. This is a "West Coast" flavored acoustic-powered brand of indie pop that you've heard before in a lot of ways. And "guitar-meets-keyboard" as a melodic approach is one that has been tried in the past, several thousand times. The LP shuffles its way in and out of moods like a summer drive through coastal hills and valleys; it marries the simplicity of solo guitar singer-songwriterism to the blues-rock ideal of cogs in a machine who play their parts like seasoned pros; it smolders like a beachside fire pit as the party is winding down and becoming a memory, people just beginning to think about how they'll get home.
Making songs that merely sound pleasurable is no mean feat. It takes untold skill, knowledge, and a fair bit of inborn talent to pull off such a thing. Songs that sounded easy and relaxed and nice (but carried little in the way of substance) were the cornerstone of an entire subgenre that we tend to retrospectively think of as "yacht rock": these are songs released from the mid-70’s to mid-80’s that play in the background of your bi-monthly golf outing, soundtracks to driving from Home Depot to Toys R Us on a Saturday, well-known EZ-rockers that you put on your wedding reception playlist so that your uncle can hear something he won't feel threatened by (think England Dan, Seals & Croft, Ambrosia, etc). This is not an indictment of nice-sounding songs, I unreservedly love them, but it is a recognition that we take them for granted because there are frankly a lot of them. So many times there seems to be mutual exclusion between songs that sound pretty and ones that have weight and we are generally agreeable to the compromise, implicitly accepting that never the twain shall meet.
But Foxwarren is so much more than all that.
The second thing that stands out about the album is spot-on production. Recorded by the band and mixed by Jon Anderson, the sonics are crisp but have no abrasive edginess, even snare drums mostly sound a little bit underwater. Most of the record happens in the midrange, and where other albums built on such a sonic profile might come out sounding muddy, this one is immaculately stitched together by hand, a quilt with each panel arranged just so. And yet, there are some aural challenges and flourishes here as well - the droning denouements of "Fall Into A Dream" and "Everything Apart", the crescendoing static-like cymbal rush that periodically haunts "Lost In A Dream", the crickets over the top of everything on album-ender "Give It A Chance". Throughout, one is reminded that these aren't just "nice" and "pretty" songs, but that this project is one with a real aesthetic and a cohesive vision.
The final, and most remarkable, standout element is Andy Shauf as a lyricist and singer. Intriguing ideas abound throughout and they mostly play against-type for this style of music. We see the narrator facing existential loneliness and disgust with overly verbose people ("To Be"), coping with a difficult night and looking to the sunrise for solace ("Sunset Canyon"), or extolling a "poor fool" to "save a whisper for a sliver of light" while at the same time grappling with the notion that "in another life I will be you" ("In Another Life"), and only a few times does this become a bit treacly ("I am your small town breathing down your neck" is a bit on-the-nose in "Your Small Town"). This can be dangerous stuff, thematically - with too much focus on lyrics like this, a listener could find themselves down in the dumps by the end. But luckily the sequencing and gorgeous melodies never allow for that, and while Shauf's chorus-of-sighs delivery can at times bear a passing resemblance to that of Elliott Smith, he and his bandmates keep things too jaunty for it to turn into yet another in a long line of Either/Or reduxes.
The bottom line is that the songs here sound so beautiful that I would have forgiven them if they weren't great songs. But it just so happens that, in a shocking turn of events, they are also great songs. In a time when most bands would be content to make either nice music or substantive art, Foxwarren proves that they are the whole package.