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Unknown Mortal Orchestra and Foxygen Filter the Past 

Wednesday, Feb 13 2013
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You like Instagram, right? And what you like about Instagram, aside from the appetite stimulation and cat photos, are those nifty little filters. The ones that take your scrumptious Thanksgiving turkey, your big-eyed 1-year-old nephew, the street scene from your table outside Four Barrel coffee, and alter them just so, adding extra scrumptiousness and urbanity. The fact that these filters are meant to imitate the color-shifting effects of old films and cameras is incidental; what they really do is make art out of your humdrum snapshot by ever so slightly fictionalizing it. The image, visibly altered, is made more meaningful — more beautiful — by being partly invented.

We're going to use this aspect of Instagram to talk about two young rock bands, and how the success and failure of their art is linked to the way their music filters (or doesn't filter) its source material. These bands are called Foxygen and Unknown Mortal Orchestra, and they are touring together now partly because their music borrows a lot (in some cases nearly everything) from rock music made by other bands decades ago. It's what they do with what they've borrowed that sets them apart.

Foxygen is a Los Angeles duo that just released an album called We Are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace and Magic. It should have been called We Are the Village Green Preservation Society Preservation Society, because this is a 24-megapixel, archival-quality still-life of late-'60s English rock. Photoshop Mick Jagger's feline snarl at the front of the Kinks' foppish pop, and you'd have created two-thirds of Foxygen's new full-length. Here even the production, courtesy of Richard Swift, works like a time-traveling camera, exactingly re-creating the warm, smoky atmospheres of classic albums like Exile on Main Street and Highway 61 Revisited. But there's no fresh filter here, no new lens to look through. It sounds just like the past.

All that's left for the members of Foxygen, then, is the arrangement of the subjects — the actual writing of the songs. They are good at this. "No Destruction" could pass for an Exile outtake. The playful piano and glockenspiel of "San Francisco" lend it the character of a Village Green tune — albeit one hijacked by the ironic mustache gestapo. Elsewhere we hear faithful reproductions of The Doors (on the steaming, straight-ahead charge of the title track) and the Velvet Underground (in the fractured chaos of "Bowling Trophies").

To the small degree that Foxygen succeeds in moving beyond its influences, it's through its lyrics, which are memorable and a little confounding. "There's no need to be an asshole, you're not in Brooklyn anymore," Sam France moans on "No Destruction," and it's one of a half-dozen lines that force you to crack a wry smile and wonder just what he's talking about. But even in their portentous vagaries — insisting that they mean something important but declining to say exactly what — aren't the members of Foxygen just showing that they learned the most important lesson of Bob Dylan's career?

If Foxygen is an achingly crisp snapshot of the past, Unknown Mortal Orchestra is the Instagram version, where clever filtering almost magically enlivens old-fashioned psychedelic rock. As with Foxygen, the core antecedents are clear: Black Sabbath, Hendrix, and early Pink Floyd. (Also any band included on or influenced by a Nuggets compilation.) But the menu of sonic inputs doesn't end there. While Unknown Mortal Orchestra's debut employed hip-hop-style breakbeats, its follow-up, II, places a more downbeat take on classic funk and R&B next to all the six-string wonkery. The highlight of the new album, "So Good at Being in Trouble," is what you might get if Funkadelic guitarist Eddie Hazel had written "Little Wing" — a sweetly sad, guitar-driven soul tune that's deeply affecting but not at all pretentious.

Lacking a traditionally "good" voice, Ruban Nielson instead wields a unique one. On songs like "So Good at Being in Trouble" and "Faded in the Morning," his wispy falsetto lands at the ideal intersection of "bedroom" and "soul." Elsewhere his slightly distorted vocals come through like a scratchy whisper, interacting playfully with his guitar work.

There are far too many familiar sounds here to say that Unknown Mortal Orchestra is truly breaking new ground. These guys love the classic effects of late-'60s psychedelia, like flanged drums and guitars over-saturated with analog fuzz and wah. And II, like the band's debut, comes swathed in a too-warm, dusty-sounding production that gives it the atmosphere of some long-lost relic.

The key word there, though, is "lost": Despite using off-the-shelf components, Unknown Mortal Orchestra built something that doesn't completely resemble what's come before. The band's relationship to its source material is akin to the Instagram-filtered photo of a familiar street view: Recognizable but altered, a slightly fictionalized edition that feels more like art than reportage. Foxygen may write better songs in the traditional sense, but there's no filter to freshen its common influences. We Are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace and Magic feels like a high-definition snapshot of a scene we've all gazed upon way too many times. And how often do you drool over that kind of photo?

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Ian S. Port

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