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Phoenix - The "Go-to" band of smart synth-pop return
on 22 April 2013
The grey clouds part, the chill has gone and the sound of summer has arrived. It is possible to play Phoenix's wonderful 2009 "Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix" until the grooves wear out and then get another copy and press repeat. This ever inventive French band produce smart, intelligent and finely constructed pop songs that soundtrack your highs and lows but are especially effective as the days draw out and the brighter sunsets beckon. They are a band so sure of themselves that their latest album which has been four years in the making is cheekily entitled "Bankrupt". On the evidence here the vaults remain full and for those who wish to completely overdose on a Phoenix extravaganza there is a deluxe edition of this new record that features 71 bonus tracks! It has been widely reported that they had intended to call this album "Ludwig Van Phoenix" to show a nod of continuity with its predecessor. Band leader Thomas Mars promised that the follow-up Bankrupt! would be more experimental and possibly ` psychedelic' there is, however, no sharp break here. Certainly the songs are generally denser and a bit more experimental, but the format follows the approach on WAP with largely 3-minute pop tracks hooked around a lengthy middle track. None of this serves to knock off the glossy pop sheen. Ironically the opener to the album "Entertainment" starts off with a slightly Oriental theme and then sounds in parts like the Strokes of old. Julian Casablancas has been raiding the sound of Phoenix for two albums so it's only fitting that they repay the favour in this excellent lead single. More powerful songs follow with an immediate highlight the thudding "The Real Thing" which will undoubtedly be mixed to death on the internet. The lovely summer anthem "SOS in Bel Air" follows, granted the lyrics are hardly Shakespeare but it floats along nicely, much better is "Trying to be cool" which sounds like a potential disco anthem with its huge backbeat and bubbling synths.
The long title track is going to be pure marmite. Love or hate will follow as it takes the approach of "Love is like a sunset" and is a French synth cocktail with a nod to Daft Punk infused with twinkling keyboards, pounding bass and sonic waves of sounds that builds to a huge crescendo. It signals the second half of the album where despite some of the goodies which have gone before are to be located the best tracks. Instantly recognisable is the Gallic insouciance on display in the "Drakkar Noir" destined to be on a future Phoenix Greatest Hits album, somehow they then better this with the album's standout "Chloroform" packed full of an imposing synth wall of sound and Mars exhortation to "Buckle up, we'll chase each other/It's not a lot it's just enough to matter/Anyway you want the truth is/I will marry you on Tuesday". The penultimate track "Bourgeois" is almost a semi-ballad and a superb pop song, while closer "Oblique city" may turn out to be the album's best track and begs the question is that the sound of some piano lines from Abba in the background?
If Phoenix has had a problem in a very long career it has often been an overdose of gigantic truckloads of singalong melodies which are almost relentless as traffic on the M25 ring road. Like "Wolfgang" this new album sees more structure and shape, but also a willingness to head off the beaten track when some experimentation adds to the sum of the parts. Granted "Bankrupt" is not a giant step from its mega-selling predecessor that is a very hard act to follow. This leads to the inevitable recognition that on first listens it certainly doesn't top their finest moment. It is nevertheless a fine album and like all others in the Phoenix oeuvre its base square root is danceability and joie de vivre. "Bankrupt" cement the reputation of this great French band as the "go-to" band of anyone requiring a pop sensibility so clever it should be awarded an honorary degree. As such time to check out the deluxe edition!