Review: Fox – The Fox Box

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CD. Cherry Red

Fox was a project put together by songwriter and producer Kenny Young, with vocalist Susan Traynor (rechristened Noosha for exotic reasons) giving the band of session men a sense of purpose and identity. But this lack of an organic identity also ensures that the band’s music is a touch inconsistent in style and as such, it’s hard to imagine them having much appeal beyond individual singles – their sound as a whole has nothing that leaps out to suggest either individuality or identifiabilty. This is a problem with a box set of four CDs.

The debut album opens with a cover of popular old standard Love Letters (Straight From The Heart), which is a nice, agreeable intro, even if it doesn’t offer much new to the arrangement. But the only clue it really gives to the Fox sound is that it sounds like it could be any number of female-voiced pop acts of the mid-1970s – very nice, very agreeable, very forgettable.

The band did have hits with their own material, though. Hit single Only You Can, for example, is irritatingly twee, with a cod-Caribbean sound that is very much of its time, and other hit Imagine Me Imagine You has dated equally badly. But both songs will probably be familiar to many listeners, even if you had no idea who the recording artist was (and even if you didn’t much care). There’s a lot to be said for the comfort of familiarity, of course, and many listeners of a certain age will be thrilled to be reminded of these songs I imagine.

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The first album has definite highlights. Juggler is a gorgeous, chilled number that sounds like it belongs on a languid, 970s Eurosmut movie – it wouldn’t feel out of place in Lasse Braun’s Sensations, and as the Sensations soundtrack is a personal favourite, I’m okay with that. Similarly, Patient Tigers is a lovely, laid back slice of pop chill out, very much of its time, and Spirit has a bouncy, summery feel to it. These tracks, with soft and sensual vocals, wah wah guitar and a certain hedonistic, mildly decadent feel, might suggest that Fox were the ideal band for summer vacations, passing romances and pot-hazed relaxation. But then, you get a track like He’s Got Magic, which is irritatingly twee, or the forgettable Pisces Baby and Love Ship, which feel like the worst aspects of hippy dippiness and pre-disco dance pop. The sort of thing you see on old episodes of Top of the Pops, sung by one-hit wonders with fixed grins, bad hair and loud clothes. It’s possible that one of those bands might be Fox, in fact, though they are technically three hit wonders. In fact, the album has a steady decline in quality from start to finish – stop listening after track 7 and you really haven’t missed anything, apart perhaps from the odd psych pop closer Red Letter Day, which is rather sweet.

The one thing that is most notable about Fox on this album is Noosha, who have a quirky – but not too quirky – vocal style, which at least gives even the worst songs a certain something. It’s been said that she was an influence on Kate Bush, though actual evidence for this beyond ‘slightly eccentric vocal style’ seems thin on the ground. But certainly, she’s the best thing about the band, and probably why they are remembered by anyone.

The CD includes four bonus tracks – Out of My Body is pretty good, while If I Point at the Moon is the track that perhaps gives most credence to the Kate Bush claims, Noosha’s vocals being very much of the Kick Inside-era Bush variety. These four additions are actually better than much of the main album, and almost tip the balance towards ‘must-have’. Almost.

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While this debut album didn’t set the world alight, it did at least deliver a couple of hit singles – at a time when pop bands were far more ‘here today, gone later today’ than they are now – and established Noosha as an impressive and unique talent. So clearly, the thing to do for the second album was to allow other band members to sing the lead on several tracks.

Mostly written by Young in Bali, Tails of Illusion ups the hippy aspects of the first album, which I guess seemed a good idea in 1975. And it opens well, with Yuli Yuli matching the best of the first album in terms of blissed out beach pop. But things take an unfortunate turn with the next track, Survival, where unwanted male vocals intrude into things, and hippy sentimentalities come to the fore. You can almost see the kaftans waving as you listen to this.

The rest of the album is a mixed bag – Strange Ships is a jolly, upbeat effort, while Minor Therapy is a bit messy, but salvaged by an especially engaging Noosha vocal. Kupu Kupu is shimmeringly dreamy, and would be the best thing on this album if not for a rather cumbersome chorus.

On the other hand, For Whatever It’s Worth is notable mostly for sounding uncomfortably like America’s A Horse with No Name, though it’s probably the best of the male-fronted songs. Little Brown Box, on the other hand is pretty bad, and Lily Sing rapidly descends from pleasant to uncomfortably discordant. In all, there are six male-fronted tracks on the album – out of a total of ten – and they effectively scupper the whole affair.

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There are, of course, several bands who have split vocal duties between members, but those bands tend not to have an established front person and dedicated vocalist. In the case of Fox, the side lining of Noosha is an unnecessary distraction, even on tracks that might be otherwise agreeable. You find yourself thinking how much more agreeable they might have been if she’d sung them.

There are two bonus tracks here – both recorded in the 1990s, they are entirely regrettable affairs with horrible production and ragga man Joe 90 crushing them underfoot.

Third album Blue Hotel might be considered superfluous for a pop band that hadn’t had any hits with their second album, but opener S-S-S-Single Bed was another hit single. There’s no accounting for taste, as this is a rather weak effort, a pseudo funky effort that lacks any actual funk, and is marred by vocoder vocal inserts and a poor chorus. It has a certain novelty value, but even if we accept that the idea of punk’s Year Zero is more myth than reality, the market for this sort of thing must have been rather reduced by 1977.

Livin’ Out My Fantasies is cod-reggae, Dejenina tries for a continental feel but is ultimately scuppered by the backing vocals, Almond Eyes struggles to decide on what sort of tune it wants to be and Magic Machine feels like a turgid Sixties leftover. Indeed, much of the album seems an uncomfortable hybrid of Sixties drippy hippy nonsense, 1970s funk and cocaine-flavoured LA AOR. It’d a combination that rarely works.

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On the other hand, the title track goes for Gary Moore-esque guitar backing and a louche atmosphere that works rather more effectively than it should, while Moustaches on the Moon transcends the ludicrous title to create an effectively melancholic, dissolute atmosphere. Album closer Make It Like It Used To Be gives the album (and the band) a stylish closer, a slightly folky and wistful soft rock number. The rest of the album could’ve used more of this. There’s another bonus track here – Pain & Pleasure is another 1990s effort that has no reason to exist, and even less reason to be here.

Also included in this collection is compilation album Images – A Selection, which initially feels a bit of an irrelevance here, given that the first six tracks have already appeared on the other albums (and are generally not the best numbers). However, there are ten additional tracks here, and oddly, some of this material is the band’s strongest, perhaps suggesting a direction that they could’ve gone on a future album. If You Don’t Want My Peaches is a funky effort that actually works as a great pop song, and Model in a Leotard is an impressive new wave, synth driven number, while I Want to Be Alone is a Lene Lovich-style slice of quirkiness. Electro People was the theme tune to Kenny Everett’s BBC series, and Dancing with an Alien is slick, Bowie-influenced electro pop. All this stuff is so far removed from the previous albums that you’d struggle to make any connection between the two if it wasn’t for Noosha’s vocals. But with the exception of overly-excited closing dance number Captain of Your Ship, it’s actually all rather good.

So what to conclude? There’s enough good material here for a single CD – albeit a rather schizophrenic one. But you’d have to be a pretty devoted fan to need all four albums, and does a band like Fox have that sort of following? I’d suggest checking out Images if you were in the mood for good synth pop, and maybe the first LP for the good stuff on there. But the entire box set might be a more than anyone needs.

DAVID FLINT

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