Peppy Le Pew: Four Parisians travel to Berlin to record platter of blatantly American guitar pop
The lyrics of “Napoleon Says”
(from Phoenix's third LP, It’s Never Been Like That
) are mostly just bubblegum for vocalist Thomas Mars to chew, but lines like “You know your French well” and “You want to be European” make it seem like a sly sendup of Yankee Francophiles. If so, it’s an odd sentiment coming from a quartet of Parisians whose summery English-language guitar pop straddles the line between Strokes/Killers bombast and Rogue Wave/Mazarin delicacy with nary a whiff of its Gallic origin intact. Not to mention that the staccato, twitchy guitars and moaning vocals of “Courtesy Laughs” are a dead ringer for the French Kicks. Who are, of course, American. (Ouch, my mind!)
Whatever cultural tensions the song tries to embody founder in the music’s bright, affable haze, as do all of Phoenix’s stabs at ’tude. “Napoleon Says” strives for danger and comes up empty-handed—the ringing one-note guitar line flecked with compressed chords attempts anxiety but settles for tautness, the jovial choruses and Caucasoid-funk breakdowns jollying away any potential menace.
Trying to rumple the clean, crisp linens of the band’s prior work, particularly the hermetically-sealed Alphabetical, Phoenix decamped from its Versailles digs and landed in a Berlin studio without having written a note of music. And it has to be said that this attempt at recording a more spontaneous, chaotic record ended in abject failure—on It’s Never Been Like That, they sound as fastidious and polished as ever. But we’ve got plenty of sloppy iconoclasts half-assing their way through rock already, so Phoenix’s inability to come unbuttoned is no problem—it’s produced a lively album with a strong melodic sense that’s as hard to quantify as it is to refute. Plenty of guitar pop sounds pretty piece-by-piece, but the nice moments don’t add up to melodies you can hold onto. Phoenix’s, though, are simple and inspired, delivered with Mars’ confident drift, particularly on the syrupy acoustic lope of “One Time Too Many” and the gently circular swirl of “Lost & Found.”
Throughout, there are flashes of the more hazardous album Phoenix wanted to make. “Consolation Prizes” opens with a few seconds of bracingly metallic rhythm guitar, but quickly eases into a bubbly acoustic progression more representative of the album’s genial temperament. “Rally” soon quits its vaguely dubby opening in favor of a lilting shuffle, all perky bass, tenderly chiming guitars and giddily rattling verses. “Long Distance Call” starts with a shaggy rumble that soon vanishes, leaving behind little breaths of organ and typically crisp percussion. The lovely instrumental “North” feels like it’s aiming for a grand climax as its thick bass, brisk drums and silvery guitar line gradually intensify, but the closest it comes is the distorted yet mild riffing near the end. And “Sometimes In The Fall” sustains its wild drum fills for only a couple seconds before falling into a decorous fuzz march, garage-y but squeaky clean. Phoenix just doesn’t do wanton, but it’s great fun to watch them try and still turn out winning FM-friendly pop ditties.