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Phoenix - It's Never Been Like That

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Artist: Phoenix

Album: It's Never Been Like That

Label: Astralwerks

Review date: Aug. 6, 2006

Most people fell for French group Phoenix thanks to their first single, “Too Young.” A perfectly poised example of pop songwriting, it sounded at first audition like a misplaced pop artifact, a knowing, exacting tribute to 1980s synthetics. In reality, it was closer to 1970s soft pop brushed up with 1980s production techniques, thus providing an alternate-reality history where the 1970s pop met up with an economics of production equal to its content. That Phoenix would leave such studied maneuvers behind with their second album Alphabetical was no real loss, given they turned in an album that let their songs breathe outside of temporal referents.

All of which serves notice on It’s Never Been Like That, a puny, ill-conceived record in comparison to both Alphabetical and its predecessor United. Whereas once Phoenix were out on some magical parallel-universe limb of pop, they’re now grounded. Good portions of It’s Never Been Like That could have dropped off the last two Strokes albums, and elsewhere Phoenix rifle through their '80s closet again, this time only turning up lame tribute/pastiche to The Police or Squeeze or some other early 1980s outfit.

There are a few hints at former glories: “Napoleon Says,” “Rally” and “Sometimes in the Fall” are all catchy enough; “North” is a pleasant, meandering instrumental that could have been edited to a sprightly two minutes. But It’s Never Been Like That only ignites at odd moments, which suggests Phoenix may have lost both their will and their charming idiosyncrasies. This album sounds like it was made with compromise in mind, but Phoenix are now like any other group, and that’s no worthwhile compromise at all.

By Jon Dale

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