Phoenix may well be France’s most exciting traditional pop-rock band. Their sound is immediately familiar (I first recognized it as Jack Black cavorted with the disfigured in the film “Shallow Hal”) and it really seems like they could have whatever you can consider a hit this summer with any number of tracks from Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, their fourth album. The media blitz is on – a well-viewed SNL appearance in which they debuted the first two tracks from the album, they’re playing Bonnaroo, singer Thomas Mars fathered a child with Sofia Coppola – and for the first time, it seems as if they’re getting a push from some direction. It doesn’t hurt that they’ve made their most pleasing record yet. It’s slick but not stupid, the results of a traditional rock band working closely with a producer of electronic music, one which merges the clean lines of dance music with the grandeur of a crack studio band well-heeled in ’70s pop and ’90s indie rock. If Ted Leo fell in league with the robots of Daft Punk, you might expect a similar result – bursts of melody, an energetic tension that makes all the songs casually snap back into form through some precise, well-considered turns. Success having evaded them in the past (blame it on EMI’s mismanaged decade), there don’t seem to be many obstacles to the band becoming wildly popular. That’s fine with me. Think about how cringeworthy most music is, and then listen to these guys. Still cringing? Take a hike.
Having fit comfortably into a bright, European art/commerce merger alongside Daft Punk and Air, Phoenix has gone through phases which have seem to subsided into a position of confidence. Gone are the wide-open holes of debut United, and the Cake-style laziness of 2004’s Alphabetical. In essence, they’ve remade their 2006 album It’s Never Been Like That with a lot of the surprises gone, but a lot of the fat trimmed. The wandering, bombastic instrumental “Love Like a Sunset” comes and goes in two atmospheric parts for well over seven minutes, creating a divide in the album that buffers the brevity of their set this time around. It’s the only left turn they make, and it serves to stretch out a short album that’s hard to burn out on. Also, the keyboards are back; after laying off from the last round, they’re put to peerless use here, taking the pressure off the frenetic guitar work of its predecessor to carry all the weight. They’re writing material that reminds me of Fleetwood Mac in the ’80s, and almost convincing me that the parts that made “Gypsy” could be repurposed for good instead of tedium.
If handled properly, this band is going to make a lot of people happy this year. I put an endless stack of garage singles up against this one and they all failed. Have a really great summer. Get outside, meet some people. Live it up.