Sunday, June 28, 2009

Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix - Phoenix (SUMMER 2009)

Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix

Glassnote Records.

SCQ Rating: 76%

I first heard Phoenix in the dawn of 2007, during an impulse buy caused by some positive buzz on year-end lists and the band’s constant, unavoidable comparisons to Air. Needless to say, once It’s Never Been Like That shot from my speakers like the best beer commercial soundtrack no one’s made, I figured the only proximity Phoenix could share with Air would have to be geographical, not sonic. I pinpointed the error to lazy, connect-the-dot journalism and got back to wishing I was able to posthumously attach It’s Never Been Like That to my Best of 2006 list. Over two years later, while my brother gushes madly from the backseat about the recent leak of their new record, he relates how Phoenix were Air’s live touring band. And just like that, a giant puzzle-piece falls squarely in my lap. With Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, the band actually sounds capable of such a prominent side-gig, amicably blending their studio knowledge with the red-hot licks of their last record.

Such a mix of spunk and texture doesn’t come easy; check out Alphabetical if you don’t believe me. As good an example as any of a band getting totally lost amid all the possibilities a studio can offer, Phoenix’s second album was superbly tweaked and hopelessly boring, presenting a set of once-promising songs layered into a polished ennui. And while It’s Never Been Like That acted as a much-needed enema, cleansing their overwrought ambition with lean, off-the-cuff guitar anthems, the quartet from Versailles knew not to return to the same well twice. Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix is a collision-point, significantly more muscular in scope and supposedly more purposeful than their last record. ‘Lisztomania’ and ‘1901’ shoot for urgency and nail it; the former merging the celebratory indie-rock of 2006 with a tellingly bold bridge (chugging like a modern, micro-sized ‘Whole Lotta Love’ before disassembling into synth-bits) while ‘1901’ is about as badass a pop song you’ll hear all year. The whole of Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix (whatever the hell that means) essentially lives up to such early promise, unleashing catchy, if superfluous, tunes that are better distinguished instrumentally than compositionally. ‘Fences’ shares the beatific vibe of Alphabetical but never gets too comfortable while ‘Countdown’ could’ve sat pleasantly alongside anything from It’s Never Been Like That if not for its broader selection of organs and synths. Even the tracks that lack upgrades, namely ‘Lasso’ and ‘Girlfriend’, are rewarding in their addictive Phoenix-esque way; simply put, you won’t need the skip button here.

Of course, I’m commonly most interested in progression and Wolfgang… seems content to nudge its own glass ceiling once or twice. In the case of ‘Rome’, it’s a stunning success; the band’s first unabashed ballad, reflective yet hardly hung up over itself, constantly amping its casual drama with each chorus. Less expected but no less structured is the ‘Love Like a Sunset’ suite; first an epic build of keys and finger-picked guitar, followed by some heroic, open chords and a few lyrics by vocalist Thomas Mars. The brevity of that second act is eyebrow-raising considering the unusual five-plus minutes the boys spent lifting it up, but such is the risk with experimentation. These moments hint at some sort of ‘Statement Record’ but Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix certainly isn’t it. Wolfgang… isn’t even their masterpiece, although it proves how well they can expand upon a proven formula. What we have is an excellent understatement of how good Phoenix could, and might some day, become.

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