Monday, June 8, 2009

Review: Phoenix - Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix (* * * *)

With a few notable exceptions, France hasn’t served as the steady source of musical imports that the U.K. and Sweden have for so long, but pop-rockers Phoenix are one of a few bands that have consistently been trying to change that. Their impact on The States has always been on the lighter side, but with their latest release, Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, the boys have raised the bar, crafting an exciting, fresh, and generally remarkable album that may have come too late in the band’s career to be anything of a breakthrough, but still deserves more attention than it will likely receive. Four albums and ten years into their career, it sounds as if Phoenix has hit their stride; turns out it was worth the wait.

Nothing on the new record belies the group’s over-thirty age average; each tune is packed with sugary pop hooks and an infectious, youthful energy that gives the music the ability to smash through any resistance you may put up. At the roots, Phoenix’s formula is so simple, there seems to be little to distinguish it from the approach used by myriad other pop-rock bands making decidedly less impressive music. The magic, however, lies in the details of both the construction and presentation of an all-killer, no-filler album that is as genuinely fun as any released this year so far.

The songs feel carefully constructed but never over-worked, with just enough variety and experimentation to compliment the record’s general immediacy. The band uses spiky guitars, fuzzy synths, and excellently placed percussion under the eager tenor vocals of frontman Thomas Mars; never missing an opportunity to slip in another subtle flourish or quick hook. Opener “Lisztomania” begins with a simple, two-note piano line and bouncy guitar riff and slowly adds instrumental layers, but it never gets complicated enough to distract from the great melody that drives it. The same principle applies to many of the record’s tracks, like album highlights “1901” and “Lasso,” both quite uncomplicated in their aspirations of pop perfection and both among the catchiest tunes I’ve heard recently.

As I mentioned, Phoenix offers a few twists and turns throughout the record’s ten tracks; “Fences” is a groovy, falsetto-laden pop-rock tune while “Countdown (Sick for the Big Sun)” explodes in crashing synths and drums before subsiding into moments of relative calm. Both serve to shake things up a bit, as does the less direct, seven-minute duo of “Love Like a Sunset” parts one and two, the first of which is an electro-rock instrumental number, the latter of which dissolves into a spacey folk tune. It’s an interesting way to break up an album that is mostly preoccupied with danceable, bite-sized pop songs – but it’s an appropriate and welcome diversion from the other eight tracks that follow much more conventional song structures.

Lyrically, Mars stays just sharp enough to keep things interesting when you can understand what he’s saying, but it’s not exactly fine prose, and it’s just as well – that isn’t what you came here for anyway. What you came for was perfectly executed pop music with a big heart and even bigger choruses, and in providing that, the record succeeds completely. A modest aim perhaps, but one that doesn’t get accomplished nearly as often as it should, and Phoenix should be recognized for creating a pop-rock album against which other records of the genre, this year at least, can be compared.

Last Word: Phoenix’s latest, the provocatively titled Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, is the best of the band’s career, a record full of fun hooks and captivating melodies that is among the year’s best pop albums so far.