Release Date: May 26, 2009
Record label: Glass Note
Genre(s): Indie, Rock
Not long before The Strokes became the coolest cats in Gotham Rock City, a small clan of Parisians aloofly lobbed a glorious ball of pop entitled 'Too Young' at an unsuspecting world. Sadly, most were rather oblivious. As the unrelenting, floor-filling, intelligentsia-pop of the indie-dance crossover scene (Daft Punk, Soulwax, et al) galloped out of Europe, riding the white horses of hype and surfing the wake of proto-blog praise, it seemed Phoenix, for all their sophisticated suss, didn't get the memo to join the conga-line and follow their peers.
Regular viewers of Saturday Night Live could be forgiven for uttering a perplexed ”Pardonnez-moi?” in April when the musical guests for actor Seth Rogen’s high-profile hosting gig appeared. ? As devoted as their small Stateside fan base may be, French disco-rock outfit Phoenix seemed an anomaly in a season more attuned to Kanye, Beyoncé, and Coldplay — or even ”mainstream” indie acts like Fleet Foxes and TV on the Radio. Give the show’s talent booker some credit, though: Despite their lack of Top 40 currency, the Versailles-bred foursome actually possess one of the purest pop aesthetics on either side of the Atlantic.
At one point in the schlocky 1975 musical comedy Lisztomania, Roger Daltrey whips out an absurdly large phallus and no less than five women simultaneously straddle it like a cannon. It's as insane as it sounds. In the movie, Daltrey plays Franz Liszt, the 19th century Hungarian pianist and composer known for his flamboyant playing style-- hysterical women fought over his handkerchiefs at concerts more than a century before the Beatles.
Realigned with Philippe Zdar, the half of Cassius who mixed United, Phoenix make adjustments on the polarizing characteristics of their second and third albums -- the pokey and occasionally listless Alphabetical, the jagged and tune-deficient It's Never Been Like That -- with some of the most direct and enjoyable songs they've made to date. The two opening songs, the bopping "Lisztomania" and the buzzing "1901," are so immediate and prone to habitual play that the remainder of the album is bound to be neglected. There is plenty to like beyond that point, including "Lasso," which niftily alternates between a tangled rhythm and tight-spiral riffing, and the labyrinthine "Pt.
No matter what else happens over the course of 2009, Phoenix have undoubtedly scored the Comeback of the Year. Back in 2000, this little-known group of Parisian lounge-rockers released a fantastic little disc called United, and though decidedly laid-back in vibe, this synth-happy quartet (fronted by Thomas Mars) had stumbled upon a unique vein of mid-tempo propulsion, mixing keyboards with peppy drum beats and Mars’ disaffected croon, resulting in minor pop masterpieces like the relentlessly optimistic bounce of “If I Ever Feel Better” and the giddy “Too Young”. The latter track wound up getting featured in the movie Lost in Translation, and by all means, it seemed like Phoenix were going to be pop’s “next big thing”.
Phoenix’s left turn on their excellent 2006 album, It’s Never Been Like That, which found the French foursome morphing from a less ambient version of Air into a band that out-Stroked the Strokes, was unpredictable, but not all that outlandish. Phoenix, even when they were at their most Air-ripping height (on their 2004 sophomore album, Alphabetical), could still bring the goods when shocked out of their sound-sculpting (especially on single “Everything Is Everything”). But it was still puzzling: How could a band that floated on the fringe of indie rock for more than a minute drop an album that is in the running for the defining new-new-wave opus? With the release of Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, an album that takes the easy hooks and brittle two-guitar attack that Phoenix perfected on It’s Never and somehow improves on them, Phoenix finally prove they had the chops to create not one career-defining album but two.
Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix shares a few similarities with MGMT’s 2008 breakthrough debut, Oracular Spectacular, but the biggest one is that they are both singles albums. And like Oracular, Wolfgang’s singles are so flat-out awesome, they deceive you into thinking the album is better than it really is. Wolfgang is also frontloaded, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the second half is dispensable.
French pop group gets edgy The title of Phoenix’s latest album obviously references composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and the song title “Lisztomania” describes the old-school Beatlemania that surrounded 19th-century Hungarian composer and pianist Franz Liszt. But don’t judge this record by its name—the Parisian pop group’s music is decidedly un-classical. Following up 2006's It's Never Been Like ThatMars sings with the urgency of Of Montreal’s Kevin Barnes, and his band plays with a Killers-like accessibility.
S o the single Lizstomania (see the theme with the titles...) is a fine example of smart-arsed indiedom from a band who you still need reminding are French. Even if this is sexier than it should be by rights....
Phoenix offer an object lesson in the perils of being ahead of the curve. Before Guilty Pleasures, Scissor Sisters and the Feeling, the Versailles quartet were offering a blend of two deeply unfashionable musics: soft rock and the kind of synth-heavy pop-rock that turned up a lot on the soundtrack of 80s teen movies. When their debut album United emerged in 2000, the only other major artists displaying remotely similar musical interests were Daft Punk, with whose members Phoenix guitarist Laurent Brancowitz had once collaborated in a short-lived indie band called Darlin'.
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.
Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix wasn’t exactly circled on my calendar. First, I was lukewarm on their 2006 It’s Never Been Like That. That album left a bitter taste in my mouth, primarily due to its unfulfilled potential. The rest of the album couldn’t catch up with the stellar 3 song stretch in the middle.
Following up pre-Twitter hit "Long Distance Call" from 2006's It's Never Been Like That, "Lisztomania" upticks its kickoff tap dance on both snare and guitar picks flicked against taut, electric strings, while keyboards color all manner of poptopia. Such gaseous buzz opens "1901" against pinging steel and another go-go tempo equally irrepressible. Phoenix's fourth studio disc this decade hits once again for the Parisian quartet.