The CLUAS Archive: 1998 - 2011

26

The summer of 2006 must have been an exciting time to be young and French. Springtime student protests had caused the Chirac/de Villepin government to retreat on controversial employment reforms. Les bleus were heading for the World Cup Final and Amélie Mauresmo was winning Wimbledon. Former Dublin au pair Ségolène Royal was shaking up the presidential election race. And a guitar band from Versailles looked dead certs to become global rock megastars.

PhoenixAs it turned out, those protests gained little in the long term. The French football team lost the final so controversially that Mauresmo’s victory the previous day has been virtually forgotten. Royal lost the 2007 election to conservative Nicolas Sarkozy and (like Sarkozy, in his own way) is now more a celebrity than a politician. And that Versailles band, Phoenix (right), are still only big fish in a small indie pond.

But their 2006 album ‘It’s Never Been Like That’ was a cracker and it at least gained them a larger cult following in North America. They are still the only French rock band with a worldwide audience and credibility anywhere near electro acts like Air, Daft Punk and Justice. And their style of music has become a reference point: if any band mixes too-cool-for-school indieness with lovelorn melodic retro-pop, then they sound like Phoenix.
 
So, in this uncharted territory for a French band, Phoenix have just released their new album. Three years on, will it see them finally close the deal and break through to mainstream success?

It will not. ‘Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix’ has at least two excellent singles and rarely puts a foot wrong, but on the whole it leaves you with a sense of disappointment. How come?

Well, a great deal of the problem with the new Phoenix album is that it sounds so much like Phoenix. Most of the tracks on this record wouldn’t sound out of place on their previous album. Thomas Mars’ idiosyncratic vocal style, singing melodies so undulating and jerky that they’re almost out of sync with the rest of the song, sounds familiar by now. Was that all we saw in them?

And now other bands are picking up their sound – we recently mentioned French rivals Pony Pony Run Run, whose single ‘Hey You’ does the Phoenix thing better than Phoenix.

Those two fine songs we mentioned above, ‘Lisztomania’ and ‘1901’, are the opening tracks here and give the album a deceptively strong start. A failing of Phoenix, one reason why they aren’t filling Enormodomes or headlining summer festivals outside France, is that they’ve never written a killer radio-friendly chorus – but ‘Lisztomania’ has a memorable hook (though not as catchy as PPRR’s ‘Hey You’). By sheer force of concentrated Phoenix-ness is ‘1901’ so good. Third track ‘Fences’ is a pleasant bit of disco-indie, but The Virgins sewed up this genre last year with their brilliant single ‘Rich Girls’.

And that’s it for highlights. To mention this album’s fleeting nod to relative innovation, we note that ‘Twenty One One Zero’, the bit of loop-heavy stadium electronica that the band put on the web last year, briefly reappears here during an instrumental called ‘Love Like A Sunset Part I’. It gives way to ‘Love Like A Sunset Part II’, a very brief track which features three heavy acoustic guitar strums repeated. Then next song ‘Lasso’ resumes the classic Phoenix style.

It’d be disingenuous to present this as Phoenix maintaining their standards or refining their distinctive sound – quite simply, this album feels like a risk-free consolidation and the songs aren’t dazzling enough to blind you to this.

Of course, there’s the possibility that several million people who’ve never come across Phoenix before will hear this album and fall for it, or perhaps some well-chosen advertising placement will pierce the mainstream subconsciousness. But neither of these scenarios would make ‘Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix’ any better an album. This is still a fine band, oozing charm and talent, but they need to do something new with their music.
 


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Nuggets from our archive

2000 - 'Rock Criticism: Getting it Right', written by Mark Godfrey. A thought provoking reflection on the art of rock criticism.