Album Review: Foxwarren - S/T

There are places where my musical tastes and interests overlap slightly with those of my boss.

She’s around two years younger than I am, but was raised by parents who played her Joni Mitchell records rather than plunking her down in front of MTV as a child.

She has a background in songwriting—but is very particular about her sound; when I offered her reverb and delay pedals to run her acoustic guitar through, it only took one string pluck before she was like I DON’T LIKE HOW THIS SOUNDS PLEASE REMOVE THESE IMMEDIATELY.

Not everything I’ve passed her way for listening has worked out—Emma Ruth Rundle’s guitars were too loud—but there is the slight overlap, like Phoebe Bridgers, The National, Nick Drake, and The Cactus Blossoms.

Another place of overlap is idiosyncratic Canadian singer and songwriter Andy Shauf—specifically, his 2016 concept album The Party, which we both have copies of on LP. She had discovered him, as she does with most things, through a NPR ‘Tiny Desk’ performance; I had found out about Shauf through an internet friend’s Facebook post shortly after the album’s release, comparing the sound to XO and Figure 8-era Elliott Smith.

Remaining relatively quiet throughout 2017, I was wondering what Shauf was up to as of late, now that 2018 is coming to a close. I was surprised to learn that he has opted to follow up The Party with not another album released under his own name, but rather, released through his band, Foxwarren.

A group of childhood friends, comprised of Shauf, guitarist Dallas Bryson, and the sibling rhythm section of Darryl Kissick on bass, and Avery Kissick on drums, Foxwarren formed over a decade ago—roughly around the time Shauf released his first solo album, Darker Days, though this marks the first time they’ve ever committed anything to tape with the intention of releasing it.

Their self-titled debut, issued through Shauf’s connections to Anti- Records in the United States, and Arts & Crafts in their native Canada, was recorded in the Kissick brothers’ family home, as well as in a rental house in Regina, Saskatchewan.

A relatively concise 10 tracks spread across 35 minutes, Foxwarren finds Shauf (as the band’s de facto frontman) leading the group through a sound that isn’t drastically different from his solo output, but it’s different enough, as a whole, that you can tell this is the work of a collaboration—or a different direction, rather than a solo outing.

After finding out about Shauf’s Foxwarren project, I told my boss about it, and described the album’s first two singles, “To Be,” and “Everything Apart,” as sounding less ‘kaleidoscopic’ and not as ‘rollicking’ as The Party—to which my boss gave me a long stare, telling me she didn’t know what either of those words meant.

“You know,” I continued. “Like XO or Figure 8 Elliott Smith. Like Jon Brion. Like Beatle-esque pop music.”

She again assured me she did not understand what I was describing—and I conceded that ‘kaleidoscopic’ was one of many words I over used in my music writing to describe a very specific atmosphere created by a song or record—like how I also over use the expression ‘fragmented imagery’ or say that something is very ‘evocative’ in nature.

Though, after I sent her a link to stream “To Be,” she said she understood what I meant by it being less kaleidoscopic in its scope, when compared to the sound Shauf had labored over on The Party.

Foxwarren, too, sounds labored over, just in a different way; while an album like The Party had to be more or less cohesive because it was a cycle of songs that told a story, there is an astonishingly meticulous nature to the production value and arrangement of this batch of songs—specifically looking at the crispness of Avery Kissick’s drum kit, as well as the vintage, analog synthesizers that Shauf adds throughout used to provide a layer of nostalgic warmth.

The album’s cover art, too, lends itself to that aesthetic of something from the 1970s—an arty, folk-leaning rock band, capturing an at times sunny, but mostly pensive, sound—Foxwarren’s dedication to this style across the album’s entirety is impressive, and it, thankfully, never comes off as derivative or disingenuous.

That aforementioned ‘warmth’ and ‘crispness,’ of course, means that Foxwarren is the kind of album that almost demands to be listened to on vinyl—though the effect (and affect) is not diminished through a good set of headphones and an attentive ear. The album’s structure and sequencing also seem to have been organized with a preferred vinyl format in mind.

“To Be,” one of the album’s first singles, opens up the record—a smart move because it doesn’t exactly lure the listener in with a bait and switch, but it is, without a doubt, one of the album’s most readily accessible and infectious songs. The album doesn’t so much abruptly switch gears, but there is a noticeable change in tone as the group works to build a surprising amount of tension from the slightly psychedelically tinged “Lost in The Dream,” as well as creating an unnerving, jittery environment within the rhythm on “Everything Apart,” which truly sounds like nothing else on the record—and according to the press materials for Foxwarren, was almost left off because of the stark contrast in sound.

The first side of Foxwarren ends with the head bobbing slink of “In Another Life,” and the relatively straightforward acoustic shuffle “I’ll Be Alright,” which features an instrumental break structured around quick plunks on the keyboard that sound surprisingly (and perhaps unintentionally) Reggae-esque steel drums.

Side two begins with a swirl of Shauf’s vintage synthesizers on the very dreamy, swooning, slow motion “Lost on You,” which boasts some moody, sweeping string arrangements, a rumbling bass line, and some fascinating twists and turns as the song unfolds, leading into the tumbling groove of “Your Small Town.”

Maybe this revelation won’t hit you the first, or second time you listen to Foxwarren, but at some point, hopefully, you’ll realize that there isn’t a bad song on here. And there are times, in the past, when I’ve been thinking critically about a record and said that there aren’t ‘bad songs, per se,’ or that ‘even the less successfully executed’ tracks are still enjoyable—but here, that’s not the case; from beginning to end, Foxwarren is an absolute joy to listen to.

The joy continues on the second side’s centerpiece, the reflective, evocative groove of “Sunset Canyon”—which is among the finest in an album that is this good; that gives way to the impressive “Fall into A Dream,” which begins as a sunny, pop oriented song that ends in total dissonance and noise—noise that fades effortlessly into the album’s closing track, “Give it A Chance,” which is sparse on lyrics, but the band manages to pack a lot of emotion into its melancholic arrangement.

Given that Foxwarren has been a band for the better part of a decade, but was unfortunately not Shauf’s priority as he slowly built his reputation as a solo singer and songwriter, just as the album itself comes to an abrupt conclusion, it’s uncertain as to what kind of future Foxwarren as a band has—is this just a one-off album, after years of playing together, because the timing worked out, or if this is Shauf’s focus—at least for the time being.

Rarely do I come across a record that is this phenomenal from start to finish, so meticulous in its attention to detail, cohesive in its sound almost entirely across the board, and thoughtfully arranged and performed—as rare as it may have been for the members of the group to have the time available to come together to make this record happen, Foxwarren itself may be equally, if not more, rare in its quality.

Foxwarren is out now via Anti-. They are currently sold out of vinyl, but the compact disc is still available; the vinyl is, apparently, still for sale via Shauf's Canadian label, Arts & Crafts.