, April 25th, 2013 10:29
Are Phoenix the most willfully contrarian indie band of the last 13 years? Have a lock at their stylistic trajectory in relation to the general direction of all indie music since 2000. The French band started their career in June of 2000 with United, an album filled with what at the time was deemed to be terminally gauche and conservative 80s soft rock and white boy R&B. The guitar loving indie tastemakers of the time were only just starting to find a way forward after spending the last few years of the 90s in a stunned daze, following the collapse of US alternative rock and the cocaine-ravaged end of Britpop. More often than not, the alternative was straightforward guitar-chugging power-pop, often labeled emo, or a steady procession of pre Kid-A-ping mini-Yorkes. At The Drive In’s Relationship Of Command was a near contemporary of, and situated at the polar extreme to, United’s yacht-rocking beats. It may seem like a boiled spud and sausage affair now, but if in 2000 you were the edgy sort who favoured tiny striped T-shirts, then ATDI's churning guitar chords were probably what you loved.
Now look at 2013. Phoenix release a new album filled almost exclusively with straightforward, synth-powered, guitar chugging power-pop. It's a shift they've been pushing since 2006's Strokes-indebted It's Never Been Like That – an album released at just the exact moment when many were picking up synths and pulling back from the dregs of the New Rot Revolution. So what are people now obsessed with in 2013, after years spent fiddling virtual knobs on their Moog emulators and bringing us new rave, chillwave and now Jai Paul(ave)? Soft rock and white boy R&B. If in 2013 you’re the edgy sort who favours trendy oversized striped T-shirts, then this is what you probably love.
Knowingly or not, it’s an odd arc for Phoenix to follow, even with France’s long history of slightly gauche music. "C’est shit mais ce chic!", the Anglo-Saxon world assumes the French mantra goes. The idea of Phoenix recharging our relationships with power-pop by hoovering up recent cultural castoffs like some kind of French Dune sandworm and taking it into its colossal body before blasting a refined and highly prized musical genre spray out of its backside is appealing. But it'd only have worked if Bankrupt’s take on indie power-pop was powered by the same oddly fearless spirit that defined United and elevated it above an exercise in blow-dried vintage pop. Sadly, it’s not, and that album’s glorious spirit has been lost somewhere along the band’s 13 year trajectory.
Fourth album – and commercial breakthrough – Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart offered glimpses of it on standouts like 'Lizstomania' and 'Rome', and you can hear it peeking out in the cascading synth waves and rhythms of Bankrupt's 'Drakkar Noir' and 'Don’t'. Both songs are fine moments of energised yet oddly melancholic power pop, but every spark is surround by a series of technically proficient thuds that almost look and feel right from a distance, but shatter like eggs when given a mild squeeze.
Considering how successful its predecessor was, it’s not surprising that Bankrupt is in every way a Wolfgang 2.0, to the point of being sequenced almost identically. Both kick off with their lead singles and both offer a mostly instrumental halfway point that also doubles as the album's peak. Yet where Wolfgang’s 'Love Like a Sunset' looked to Eno’s 'On Some Faraway Beach' for its source material, Bankrupt’s title track puts Wendy Carlos and Daft Punk’s TRON soundtrack into a blender and hits liquefy. It’s the standout moment here, alongside 'Bourgeois' (which is sadly not a cover of Jacques Brel’s 'Le Bourgeois'), and is arguably one of the year’s finer moments of synth-driven pop.
Unfortunately, almost everything else is dead weight in comparison, notable mostly for finely-executed but beige power-pop that'll end up soundtracking a promotional video for a tech company. Tech Company Indie is a lucrative genre many bands exploit today, of course, but it's merely window-dressing, not inspirational. As absurdly bombastic as they could be, the Cheap Tricks and Cars of the past created big, stadium filling power-pop that wasn’t afraid to snap its beefy fingers in the face of our numbing daily routine, reminding us that just being alive really is… something. Phoenix gets the motions nearly right on Bankrupt, but that crucial snap simply isn’t there.