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Rise Up, With or Without Fists

By Christian H. | Music | June 24, 2009 |

By Christian H. | Music | June 24, 2009 |

PhoenixWolfgang.jpgPhoenix: Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix
[V2 Records, Loyauté]

Phoenix is your typical poppy, skinny white indie-rock outfit. Hooky choruses and simple guitar riffs, singing that, in terms of tone, resembles blithely yelling down the street, and tight backbeats. Typical. Well, except that they’re French. Oh, and they are possibly the best synergy of the best elements of the indie rock scene today. They are The Shins without the underlying sorrow and the slower acoustic tracks. They are The Strokes without the guitar solos, distorted vocals, and dickish attitudes. They are Franz Ferdinand without the sexuality. Yet they are not blandly reasserting a genre’s validity; Phoenix have a unique sound to work with, an almost shy audaciousness. And they may just be the band that bubbles the scene to the surface from the depths of underground pretention.

On Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, the fourth album from this much-buzzed-about young band, we don’t hear new ground broken. There is nothing done on this album that hasn’t been done before. But it’s not the breaking of conventions that makes Phoenix noteworthy; rather it’s the finesse of those conventions implemented in a way that is accessible, entertaining, and yet still unconsciously impressive. And it is this point that makes Phoenix uniquely suited to straddle the indie scene and the mainstream charts: While they are unabashedly pop-heavy, their synthesized rock sound captivates the ear with honesty. They don’t lie to the listener to be likable.

The sounds on the album are not diverse, but it’s hard to complain when the songs in question are so beautifully polished. There is the aforementioned pop-rock groove, layered with synthesizers and Thomas Mars’ sweet, wonderfully doubled-up vocals. This is best represented by the album’s lead singles, and two lead-off tracks, “Lisztomania” and “1901”. There is a burst of disco, mostly on “Fences”. And the back half of the album jogs like a Police record for the new millennium (except, you know, better than a new Police record would be. Right?). But all through, the band has no problem settling into their comfort zone and chilling dynamically. On the wonderfully slow-building two-part “Love Like A Sunset”, there is a passionate edge that keeps you waiting vainly for release, particularly in the instrumental first half. And, despite their upbeat enthusiasm, their music retains depth. There is vibrant energy for those who just want to groove, but there’s vital processes running underneath for those who want to pay close attention.

All of this isn’t to say that Phoenix has made the perfect record. Indeed, for all its pop charms, it can easily slip into the background and be forgotten past the mid-point (which is good or bad depending on what you want). These tracks aren’t bad by any stretch (and if you can focus on them long enough, they’re wonderfully enjoyable), but they aren’t entirely engaging. It’s the sort of music that causes people to zone out at the wheel and daydream instead of drive. It could be due to production; the album is, at different points, polished and hazy. This has a lot to do with the vocals; while lovable and fitting, the doubling effect, particularly with such a sleepy tone as Mars’, can cross over into the realm of a strange lullaby that puts the listener right out.

Right now, Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix could act as a litmus test for the industry, to see their true acceptance or non-acceptance for the independent music scene. If, as I hope, the mainstream embraces the catchiness and shine of Phoenix’s pop song structures, it could mean a transformation of the genre, as like-minded bands get pulled into the spotlight. It’s unlikely, it’s probably a false hope. But right now, hope is all we can do.

Christian Hagen is a music journalist from Minneapolis (who is also in a band), who likes to waste his time writing about nothing, and who has yet to launch his own website (though one is on its way), so for now he can only link to his MySpace profile.