[Image Courtesy of CYLS Records]
by Chad Jewett
It has seemingly been less than a year since the renewed interest in emo has flowered into a renaissance, and already we have, in Foxing’s The Albatross, our first headphone album of the revival. If there has been a drawback to the rebirth of this sound, it has been the relatively simplified memory of it’s genealogy, an artificially zoomed-in take on emotional post-hardcore that only seems really aware of a few bands who hailed from the Midwest and signed to Polyvinyl Records. Remember that old chestnut about how only 10,000 people heard The Velvet Underground & Nico but they each formed a band? Well apparently the same goes for Owen’s No Good For No One Now or Braid’s Frame & Canvas. And even then, you get the sense that a lot of bands seem to be missing all of the mood, narrative and evocativeness of say, American Football or the Cap’n Jazz anthology. Yes this sound is twitchy and mathematic, but, one those earlier albums, it also feels like it’s taking place on one night sometime between Columbus Day and Thanksgiving (specificity was always one of emo’s best friends), and somewhere between two front lawns. An album like American Football is immaculately recorded and it’s warm the same way your living room is compared to the walk between your car and your front door. It’s a concept album in which the concept is “Nothing is Forever, Especially Not Your Youth.” It twinkles, but it also thinks and innovates. But sometimes it feels like all that has been metabolized from these touchstone albums, at least for the contemporary band’s so enthralled with their textures, is the first of those three.
This is all to say that The Albatross, the full-length debut from Foxing, out on this generation’s Polyvinyl, Count Your Lucky Stars Records, is a special album. We’ll be lucky if bands in 2023, working out their version of fifth-wave emo, have records like this in mind, and really lucky if they learn better lessons from it. I bring up American Football not because it’s the closest antecedent to what is going on on The Albatross, even if songs like “Den Mother” have the shimmering guitars and sunset brass of that record. Rather, I think The Albatross and more thoughtful, progressive records like it, deserves to stick around like that album, mostly because it knows enough to both evolve and move on from what we all recognize as emotionally resonant, languidly quiet punk music. I’m not sure if it’s a landmark record the way American Football is, but I know that bands would be smart to study what it does right, because by and large, it constitutes most of the album. Braid might give this band its sense that a suburban yard is about the right size for a song, but those roots are belied by a profoundly diverse album that nevertheless manages the task of getting its considerable record-collection DNA to stick together. The vocals tip into woodsy falsettos that, combined with the album’s reedy slinkiness, bring to mind Bon Iver, combined with a Midwestern sense of drama and brass-tinged melancholy that recalls Seven Swans or Michigan, as well as those records’ impeccable musicianship (the bass-thick rhythm section knows a groove when it has one, the guitars are airy and coiled for effect). We’ve had cul-de-sac symphonies from this music, but Foxing seems willing to go for a cul-de-sac opera, and there are several deep-lunged songs carrying that weight.
Album opener “Bloodhound” begins with whorls of strings, punctuated by piano and a crooned scene-setting: “My bloodhound baying at your door / The wild grass overlapping your front porch.” Now we know where we are, and it’s a different destination when the group-vocals you and I both recognize come in, especially since Foxing is smart enough to set off the familiar descending male voices with an ascending female contra – it’s literally a fugue, and the bit-crushed echoes that bounce beneath the song’s denouement punctuate its pushed-out borders. You might recognize some emo signifiers, but they’re wildly deconstructed and bravely punctuated by a language that betrays some Southern gothic influence. “My head made a home for the hum of the insects,” “I felt your waves calming comely / Lights on as is angles casting sides,” “If nothing becomes, at least soft light lay on us.” Each of those lines are pitched to make you feel something, even if you have to do some of the work.
Foxing is certainly banking on listeners arriving at The Albatross with a willingness to invest. The band has clearly learned just as much from Frank Ocean, The Weeknd, Radiohead, or even closer relatives like the post-emo Gloria Record — the record plays with patience, open space, and withheld peaks to great effect. And indeed, The Gloria Record is an example of what happens when you give listeners not what they want (which, apparently, was more Mineral) but what they could use (which, clearly, is something worth thinking about going forward). So the words here are poetic and vaguely modernist; the sparkling of guitars float above the gravel of drum machines, impressionist studio sounds, tape-reversed swathes of melody, and wide-open piano. The voices yelp, but when they don’t, they have a cooled sense of the witching hour that will make a lot less sense to fans of quiet post-hardcore that don’t own I Want You by Marvin Gaye. “The Medic” is a soul song that manages to be impressively thoughtful about relationship dynamics, even if it’s also far from sure of redemption, and its programmed punctuations and stark dynamics are a lot more like Drake than Joan of Arc. The two-part “Bit By A Dead Bee” moves from an early-80s late-night inscrutability through a slightly too familiar group vocal, and on into a panic-attack climax, ending in the second half’s glacial post-rock. It’s all lovely, but you’ll have to stick around for it to pay off, and even that pay off will be a lot more about the lyricism of phrases like “Young soul, apricot belly,” than rote conclusions of volume.
The Albatross is almost uniformly invested in changing what it is we end up with at (this type of) song’s end, because more often than not, for this record, we end up pleasantly surprised and wondering if we’ve ever heard some of this stuff before. Because we certainly haven’t heard it put together this way. “Quietus” ends the album with this sense of pristine tastefulness. Its words evoke, always showing and rarely telling; there’s a soul-singer’s sense of language here, with a lot more attention to how words sound, rather than in any terrestrial literalism. The band seems to always be saying “You’ll find it;” indeed, Foxing’s admirable trust in its audience is just another thing worth considering in an album that seems to concern itself very little about anything other than what is going on in their own heads. In that way it reminds of me of last year’s excellent, and frankly, underappreciated Youth in Youth by fellow CYLS roster-mates Annabel. Both albums know a damn song when they hear one, and rarely settle for less. And impressively and improbably, while this album is beautiful, and rewards some time in headphones instead of MacBook Pro speakers, it’s full of gestures that meet you halfway. The lyrics, which are routinely excellent, will be asking you to finish coloring-in, but the melodies won’t. The expressionist production will ask you to worry less about scene-signifiers than emotional resonance, but we’ve been naming this emo, so Foxing is calling you on that. Simply put, The Albatross is one of the years most pleasant surprises. It deserves your attention, but it doesn’t really have to ask.