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Oakland's Foxtails Brigade and its Auditory Escapism 

Wednesday, Apr 6 2016
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I've always joked that at least 50 percent of music journalism is figuring out who else a band sounds like. With so many press releases clogging my inbox each day advertising unknown sounds, having an established band or at least a genre as a reference point really helps.

But then a band like Oakland's Foxtails Brigade comes around and throws me for a loop — because it really doesn't sound like anyone or anything else.

"If you could figure out what genre we are, that'd be really helpful!" jokes the band's violinist, Anton Patzner.

In each song off the upcoming self-titled third album, out April 8, the band melds intricate acoustic guitar with horns and strings to create experimental freak-folk even Joanna Newsom would approve of. The only constant is lead singer and guitarist Laura Weinbach's hypnotic and soothing voice. Everything else is fair game.

The daughter of cult filmmaker Robert D. Weinbach, Weinbach grew up in Hollywood and moved in the early aughts to San Francisco, a city she'd wanted to live in since she was 12 years old. Before forming the band in 2006, she was trained in classical guitar, which explains the extreme intricacy of the upcoming record's acoustic guitar lines. Patzner's string arrangements have been featured on dozens of releases over the past decade or so, including multiple albums from Bright Eyes and Bay Area favorites Two Gallants. The band is rounded out by Joe Lewis on bass and Josh Pollock and Domic Mercurio on percussion.

Every song on the album begins with Weinbach and her guitar before the rest of the band comes in — though at times, it's more than just the five bandmates. The horn section on "Nun But the Lost" features Patzner's father, cousin, and two brothers, as well as Weinbach's brother. Though the band now utilizes a more traditional drum kit setup, it's not at all uncommon to see the rhythm section playing kitchen pots and pans onstage.

A listen of the band's single "Nun But the Lost" provides a perfect example of the many twists and turns present on Foxtails Brigade. The song features 15 key changes, horn interludes, electric guitar solos, drum rolls, and loads of tempo changes. Through all of the chaos and beautiful instrumentals, there's an inconvenient truth: the song and album as a whole are extremely dark, rooted in feelings of failure and rejection.

Many of the album's 11 songs are rooted in real life experiences culled from Weinbach's life. The aforementioned single "Nun But the Lost" harkens back to when Weinbach worked as a substitute teacher at a Catholic school in East Oakland.

"[One] day, during third period for the fourth grade class I was teaching, we went to chapel and I just remember there being some words, songs, wafers, alter boys, blood, and a body of some kind," Weinbach reminisces. "I thought that was really interesting and that song, 'Nun But the Lost,' is pulling from that experience. That whole experience in the chapel was a lesson in fear and fear of being rejected by God."

Though rejection is the overarching theme for the album, it's not necessarily in a religious sense, but more by society as a whole.

"I think there's a lot of stuff on this album in the lyrics that is about the struggles of being an unrecognized artist," Patzner says. "There's a lot of stuff about working really hard and not having any recognition for that."

Because so much of the album is rooted in personal experiences, it's interesting that Weinbach uses "I" so sparingly.

"There's something about 'I' that seems cheesy to me," she says. "It was something I felt from the beginning of my writing process was a weird thing."

It's now been a decade since the band first formed, and though their songs regularly garner a few thousand plays on SoundCloud, their main listener base (according to Spotify) is still firmly rooted in the Bay Area. With their new album, the band hopes to spread their sound further than it's gone before.

"As an artist, all you can really hope for is to be relevant," Weinbach says. "If no one hears the work you create ... it can be discouraging."

Fortunately, the effort the band put in on Foxtails Brigade is evident. It's a playful yet complex record, with more than enough depth to require multiple listens. "I think the music should enable you to escape to some degree," Weinbach says. "That's a bit of the reason why I listen to music — it helps me feel like I'm in a different place, a place I want to be in."

Let's hope she takes us with her.

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Steven Edelstone

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