Foxygen, Getting into Beefheart

The point of this column is to talk about a recent release, or show, and then look for something similar or related in history to recommend. There is a lot of really good music that people don’t know about, really important stuff I probably still don’t even know about, but I don’t stop learning. There’s so much to learn, explore and enjoy in the world of music.

Foxygen – “Hang”

If you aren’t aware of Foxygen, they are a psychedelic pop/rock band out of Westlake Village, California. The duo of Jonathan Rado and Sam France have been doing this since they were in high school in 2005. They’re touring Europe next month, so I’m going to assume they’re doing well for themselves.

What I’ve heard before has been that really common modern indie rock sound, and I’m really excited to see them diversify their sound; not because I hate that sound, but because I’m intrigued to see something new out of them. I’ve really felt like Foxygen had a lot of creativity, but they kind of got in that trap a lot of indie bands do of finding a sound and just going with it. They pulled out a lot of the reverb they had been using to make room for a 40 person orchestra composed by Matthew E. White which is used in just about every song. I’m not sure was really necessary for every song; however it really fills out the sound and makes something pretty awesome.

The record becomes darker the more time you spend with it. The cover is an abstract painting of a person being carried by a dark figure away from what looks like a burning town. The music itself, however, starts off fairly happy sounding with the first couple tracks which are some of my favorites off Hang. The tone of sarcasm becomes more and more apparent, the most obvious one is the song ”America.” “America “has a heavy brooding feeling as the sarcastic vocals set the tone. The song has an almost Tim Burton feel to it, but I’m guessing it’s a song symbolizing modern American politics, in which case I think it’s a pretty solid comparison. It even pokes at religion in politics: “I cry, Lord, to have used you. How could I, of all, to have used you.” There’s a lot of silliness here, too. I get a small Zappa vibe off of this record; definitely not as on the nose as Zappa though. I think it makes sense because Zappa was making fun of the sounds of the 70s, and I feel Hang is making fun of the modern emulation of that sound (Uptown Funk for example).

Overall I really like this record; I think it’s lovably absurd and theatrical.

Captain Beefheart

In the spirit of silliness and sarcasm and because he was a friend of Frank Zappa whom I mentioned, I want to talk about Captain Beefheart. If you know who Beefheart is, there’s two reactions you’re probably having: either why do people even like that guy? or (if you’re like me) lets spread him around like a religion. In general Beefheart is divisive. Very few people have weak opinions on him. His music was experimental blues and R&B, mixing it in a blender with some freeform jazz elements, creating something entirely irreplicable.

The first record was more just eccentric blues; it was called “Safe as Milk” and is a pretty good place to start as it’s really the safest he ever was with music; after that the sound moved to the more recognizable Beefheart on “Trout Mask Replica.” This record sounds very 60s especially “Zig Zag Wanderer” and “I’m Glad.” ”Electricity” kind of showed the direction the band would head in the future. I would say it’s worth it to hear the whole thing through; it’s just really good.

“Trout Mask Replica” was made to make you uncomfortable and has a very disconnected sound. The themes are very dark, like in “Dachau Blues..” At times the music just uses pieces of random imagery to create a sense of chaos. The record was written and recorded over the course of a year when the whole band lived in the same house pretty much stuck there by themselves. The record was actually funded by Frank Zappa since Beefheart had been dropped by Buddha records.

The first two are the really important Beefheart records, but right after Trout Mask Replica was “Lick My Decals Off Baby.” The 70s weren’t great for the band. They kind of tried to commercialize for a while, and it didn’t work, and the only one I really listen to after “Lick My Decals Off Baby” is “Ice Cream For Crow.”

Beefheart definitely isn’t “accessible,” and even people who really like him sometimes take a few listens before they “get it.” The music isn’t something to listen to while you do something; it’s an experience of its own demanding attention. The most important thing to understand is that a lot of it is just sarcasm, and maybe it is best taken a little less seriously.

Revised February 8th 2017 – added links.