Phoenix It’s Never Been Like That

[Astralwerks; 2006]

Rating: 1.5/5

Styles: AM radio, french pop, electronica
Others: Air, Mellow, N.E.R.D.

With 2000's "Too Young" — best known for appearing in Lost in Translation a few years later — Phoenix abso-fucking-lutely nailed it. Glistening like New Romantic one-hit wonder Real Life's "Send Me an Angel" and going down smoother than a Wayne Shorter sax line, "Too Young" flipped the script on sleek, glossy, frothy studio pop, reimagining soft rock as an appropriately sickening background for youthful indiscretion, excess, and shallowness. The song's sheen meshed perfectly with its subject matter, and its undeniable melodic hook was guilty pleasure bullion, inviting and indicting in equal measure. Aware and ashamed of its own indulgence, "Too Young" nevertheless strip-mined its gaudy sonic for all its pop currency. Self-loathing and hedonism synced up, and the result was infinitely more danceable than one could have ever expected.

Six years later, this French band has yet to approach its debut record's best track. Sophomore effort Alphabetical received positive reviews upon its release, but it seemed to vanish into the ether a couple of months after it dropped — as pleasant as the album's Off the Wall-by-way-of-Timberlake aesthetic may have been, it yielded few memorable moments and no Moments, rocking the party far less in practice than in principle.

From the Strokes-y chug and Lou Reed-ish "huh!" that pop up during It's Never Been Like That's first minute, it's obvious that Phoenix have shifted gears drastically since we last heard them. This record is for all practical purposes a product of the mainstream's bankrupt-but-nevertheless-ongoing rock revival, all jean jacket cool and tight pants and style-is-substance. And Phoenix are actually good candidates to do something new with this genre, as they've proven ready and able to gleefully celebrate pop's inherent artificiality in the past. A change in demeanor accompanies this change in style, however, and it's a turn for the worse: Phoenix now gesture at being a Serious Group with Something to Say. Twinkly Interpolian guitars come in during big choruses full of undefined hopes, ambitions, and emotions — see "Long Distance Call" for a perfect example. Limp conceits ("Napoleon Says") and inscrutable vagaries run rampant in the lyrics, pleading for listeners to project their own dreams and fears into the songs but remaining veiled in such distancing verbiage as to preempt any true communion. And unlike the vapid landscape the band willingly created and wrestled with in "Too Young," the emptiness and lack of substance in It's Never Been Like That has a damning air of finality about it.

1. Napoleon Says
2. Consolation Prizes
3. Rally
4. Long Distance Call
5. One Time Too Many
6. Lost and Found
7. Courtesy Laughs
8. North
9. Something in the Fall
10 Second to None
Alphabetical
Source, 2004
rating: 4/5
reviewer: charles ubaghs


French band Phoenix, with the release of their sophomore album Alphabetical, prove themselves kings of indie kid babymaking music. Featuring the kind of saucy succulent harmonies, bouncy vintage-soaked rhythms and laconic French cool that would help even the shyest of music geeks peel off their skin tight Diesel's, kick off their scuffed Converse and knock boots like a champ. "Run Run Run" and "Hold on Together" feature enough white boy, cheese filled R&B lyrics to give Justin Timberlake a run for his money; yet unlike Timberlake, who desperately clings to the teat of mass fame and pseudo credibility like a four year old breast feeding for far too long, Phoenix are blessed with that uniquely French 'I don't give a fuck' attitude. Which makes Phoenix's glaringly obvious, yet shockingly original cocktail of synth infused, late '70s, Americana derived, AM radio pop stylings work. They walk the fine line of kitsch and hip ingenuity previously embodied by Serge Gainsbourg, a chain smoking Frenchmen so cool he recorded ridiculous songs with titles like "69 Annee Erotique" (which literally translates to '69, the erotic year') and during the '80s told Whitney Houston, during a live Television broadcast, he wanted to 'fuck' her. Phoenix, like Gainsbourg without the shock tactics, get away with making music that, in the hands of just about anyone else, would be disposable pop best left to the soccer Mom's of the world, yet somehow they straddle the line between fluff and absolutely essential hipness that few attempt, and even fewer succeed at.

1. Eveything Is Everything
2. Run Run Run
3. I'm An Actor
4. Love For Granted
5. Victim of the Crime
6. (You Can't Blame It On) Anybody
7. Congratulations
8. If It's Not With You
9. Holdin' On Together
10. Alphabetical
1. Napoleon Says
2. Consolation Prizes
3. Rally
4. Long Distance Call
5. One Time Too Many
6. Lost and Found
7. Courtesy Laughs
8. North
9. Something in the Fall
10 Second to None

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