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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

A great band arises from the ashes of Strokes-mania

How Phoenix came to rule the alterna-rock sphere with its summer album

Published: September 11, 2009
Section: Arts, Etc.

<i>PHOTO FROM Internet Source</i>

PHOTO FROM Internet Source

I like deep meaningful music about the alienation of the modern world as much as the next Radiohead fan, but sometimes postmodern angst can’t exactly be described as fun. But that’s certainly not true of French band Phoenix’s fourth and latest album, “Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix.”

There’s a certain French arrogance in cribbing Mozart for an album title, but it works, not least because Phoenix has long had a talent for arrangement and an almost orchestral-style rock. But those skills have been honed on this album, which has almost no low points and displays a cerebral talent that has rendered pop rock that’s perfect in its unthinking nature.

There’s a bit of the Strokes circa “Is This It”/“Room On Fire” in almost all of Phoenix’s discography, but the band has moved beyond the sort of contained brilliance that previously resulted in only fits and starts of greatness. The album is impressive from front to back, although I would be remiss if I didn’t note that the band’s best work is decidedly front-loaded. Nonetheless, “Phoenix” displays deftness and a lightness that place this album in the upper stratosphere of this year’s releases.

Album opener “Lisztomania” captures that sense perfectly; “think less but see it grow” more than adequately describes the way the tight rhythm works almost better on an unthinking level of sheer pop bliss. The album is peppered with the occasional electronic effects, but rather than drawing attention, they’re seamlessly integrated into the soft-rock vibe of the album, providing the occasional disco flourish.

“1901” is the second part of that one-two punch that opens the album, with stop-motion guitar work and lyrics that seamlessly weave the sense of being out at last call with a relationship drifting apart. Frontman Thomas Mars sings wonderfully impenetrable lyrics, drawing broad sketches and emotional portraits without being too direct, speaking mostly of love and relationships in words that ring true despite their obliqueness.

From there the intense propulsive effect of the album gives way to far more melodic tone that permeates the rest of the soundtrack, from the hazy instrumemtal that opens “Love Like A Sunset” and continues in the instrumentation of “Countdown (Sick for the Big Sun).”

The latter never quite gels the way tracks “Lasso” and “Girlfriend” do. Part of that is the guitar part, which drops out for a beat before the chorus, a far too frequently used dance-rock staple that shows less of a knowledge of pop than a willingness to use one of its laziest forms of shorthand.

The disco-esque opening to “Girlfriend” serves as a nice blend between the highs of “Lisztomania” and the longer, drawn out style at use in “Love Like A Sunset” and is the single most straightforward song, and a decided highlight of the second half of the album. Mars’s voice rings out clear and pleading, asking, “Die and see/You say it out loud…do you know me well, girlfriend?”

Album closer “Armistice” lacks enough punch to truly cap off this delightful album, it’s still another 3 minute jewel in an album full of them. Mars wistfully summarizes the day to day of a relationship; “When the lights are coming out/And I come down in your room/Our daily compromising is written in/Your signed armistice.”

That’s a persistent theme throughout the album; relationships dissolve, collapse, and both parties compromise, but Mars remains ebullient in the face of it all. Phoenix revel in the sheer joy of emotion, any emotion, in its purest form, stripped of all excess, and that’s precisely how it sounds like “Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix” was written.