Catching Up with Avi Fox-Rosen
Avi Fox-Rosen is on a mission to put out the best album of the year – or the twelve best albums of the year. His conceptual album-a-month project, one of the most ambitious jobs anyone in the rock world has taken on lately, doesn’t seem in any danger of slowing down. His initial release in the series got a thumbs-up here back in January and since then the albums have only gotten stronger. Other bands have famously released humungous amounts of music on a single album, or over a short period of time, but by comparison to Fox-Rosen, they’re all cheaters. Most of the songs on the Magnetic Fields’ hundred-song album are about a minute long and three chords at best; Vole’s hundred-song album, the first of its kind, saw them adding their own lyrics to other people’s music (i.e. turning the Clash’s Safe European Home into Greenpoint Pet Food Store).
Fox-Rosen, on the other hand, writes intricately and lyrically in a whole slew of styles, from funk, to oldtimey swing, to snarkily satirical powerpop, to all kinds of art-rock, some of it with pensive shades of the klezmer music he’s immersed himself in over the past few years. If he keeps this project up for the rest of the year, there won’t be another artist in the world who’ll be able to keep pace. Nor has this blog been able to keep up with him. So this is a long overdue look at what he’s been putting out, all as name-your-price releases at his Bandcamp page.
More than anything, Fox-Rosen’s songs are funny. As a guy who makes a living playing guitar – and also plays in Yiddish Princess, who do hair-metal versions of old Jewish songs – he’s learned a vast supply of cheesy riffs and sprinkles them with surprisingly good taste throughout his songs for plenty of laughs. He’s big on satire. The funniest of all the songs on the five albums he’s put out since February is on April’s album (the best of the bunch so far), a spot-on spoof of phony-sensitive Counting Crows style janglerock. The song is titled Plastic Los Angeles: the cynically sentimental lyrics are a hoot, but the music is even funnier. Fox-Rosen not only has the lazy chord voicings down cold, he also has the lazy inflections and amp settings down so cold that you don’t even notice that the song doesn’t have any drums. The rest of that album puts a simmering anger front and center, no surprise since the central theme is stupidity. The other songs include a cruelly hilarious Christian rock parody, an even crueller dis of cluelessly rapt, trendoid web surfers set to fake early 80s disco, a wickedly crude nod to Huey Lewis, a slightly subtler power ballad that references Oasis and a brief spoof of computerized club music.
March’s album is also very funny: it’s about money. Fox-Rosen quotes Hendrix and gets more bombastic from there on the first track, a raised middle finger to an arrogant one-percenter. I Went to College cleverly explores the limited options remaining for a guy with a degree in “esoterica” in the era when “entitlement all came tumbling down,” while All It Takes Is Money alludes to how the world’s oldest profession is a prototype for pretty much every other kind of transaction. Then Fox-Rosen drops the comedy and gets serious with a couple of biting folk-rock anthems: How Sharp Does the Bite Need to Be, a parable of a sleeping village surrounded by wolves, and the bitterly elegant Wish I Could Still Believe.
The theme of May’s album is fairy tales. Jack and the Beanstalk gets retold as a metal spoof, The Emperor’s New Clothes as snarky power ballad parody, the Ugly Duckling as a snarling mix of klezmer, swing and noir cabaret. Fox-Rosen’s take on Rapunzel makes fun of a gentrifier girl in her highrise, while the funniest track, Don’t Let Go, flips the bird to Oprah-esque top 40 ballads from an unexpectedly diabolical point of view.
February’s album takes a jaundiced look at love, “A word you have to say so you don’t hurt the feelings of people who like to say it more than you….love is the biggest pain in your ass,” Fox-Rosen complains. A swinging country shuffle, a pensive art-pop song, a jaunty swing number, a garage rock tune and a creepy carnivalesque take on what the Beatles did with When I’m 64 round it out: it’s the most straightforward of all the albums so far.
This month’s album is about teen angst, and once again Fox-Rosen is heavy on the parody. Second-generation Chuck Berry by bands like Rockpile, Henry Mancini-style boudoir pop and 80s synth-pop each get a good spoof, followed by an unexpectedly serious, Beatlesque folk-pop song and a sexy new wave tune titled Cyanide. This time around, Fox-Rosen takes teenage lyrics by Heather Warfel Sandler, Leah Koenig and Sarah Zarrow and sets them to music for the final three tracks. It’s going to be a lot of fun to see what he has in mind for July. Throughout the series, Fox-Rosen plays most of the stringed instruments – guitars, bass and mandolin as well as keys – with contributions from several drummers as well as Michael Winograd and Dave Melton on keys plus Patrick Farrell on accordion and Alec Spiegelman adding some excellent clarinet and sax on the June edition.