After repeatedly listening to Phox’s delightful first full-length release and seeing the band perform marvelously live more than once, their songs still maintain their mystery. That doesn’t make them meaningless. Rather the meanings seem to be derived from the sounds of the words mixed with instrumentation. The lyrics themselves are somewhat ambiguous and evocative of moods and feelings. Phox slyly avoid being pinned down, but do so in a way that you feel you know what the tunes mean even when that impression evaporates the more you dwell upon it. The music, like the world around us, remains enigmatic.
Lead singer Monica Martin annunciates clearly. The band members play behind and along with her, so it’s not that a matter of the words being heard. The sextet has been together since high school in Baraboo, Wisconsin—home of the Circus World Museum. Indeed, there is something carnivalesque about Phox’s pop psychedilca that ranges from folk to jazz to alt indie rock within and between songs. For example, the wonderfully effervescent “Slow Motion” begins with a plucked banjo, then vocals, whistles, hand claps, and additional musical instruments join into the mix that goes from quiet to not too loud and back again without ever losing momentum. Sometimes it’s the bass line that carries the weight, other times it is a piano, a clarinet, or a drum, or something else. It does not matter as epiphanies emerge and fade and come back again. The tempo stays steady and deliberate even when individual players pick up speed when adding baroque touches to the composition; an aural rendition of an optical illusion. What you think you hear and what you hear may not be the same thing. Fast or slow—it’s all the same thing really, depending on context.
Martin’s voice requires description as she has a distinctive way of phrasing. She sings each word or phrase as if the words come to her as a pleasant surprise. Hence, she continues to astonish the listener. Martin sounds seriously playful. So even in a song called “Evil” with lines like, “Face deep in between my best friend’s knees”, there’s a childlike quality to what’s going on. Maybe face deep between a friend’s knees means something innocent. Heck if I know what the song is really about; however, the chortle in Martin’s suggests otherwise.
Despite Martin’s prominent role, Phox are more than just her and a backup group. The rest of the players continue to shine when she is not present. Consider the long and beautiful instrumental coda (if one can consider five minutes of a seven minute song a coda) that ends “Raspberry Seed”. The combination of acoustic guitar and strings with quiet horns and steady drumming creates an infectious ambiance with a haunting redolence of old movie westerns.
There was a time in American history when the Midwest was the Old West. The Wisconsin-based Phox intimates that aura of being a stranger in a strange land. Their music is more atmospheric than centered and gives the impression of always going somewhere down the road. Frederick Jackson Turner theorized the American frontier disappeared more than 100 years ago, but music by American bands like Phox reveals there is more to wilderness than just land. It can be a state of mind, and it is far from being conquered. You do not have to be an animal to explore it, but being a resourceful vulpine doesn’t hurt!