Top positive review
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Brilliant synth-rock Europop - Phoenix's best yet
on May 15, 2009
Phoenix are one of the greatest bands to come out of France in the last 15 years (along with Daft Punk and Air, two of my great musical loves, and several other bands that formed around the same time), and they are finally receiving some well-deserved attention. Phoenix just keep getting better, and they know it -- they love it, they exploit it, they bathe in its glory. Seriously, who else would have the "couilles" to title their fourth album Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix? But it's justified. This album is pure shining genius from a band with a unique and creative sound, a gift that the American public is starved for in these vapid, manufactured Disney-pop times. I've been hooked on Phoenix since the moment I saw their "If I Ever Feel Better" video in 2001 while living in Paris. Over the past decade, Phoenix have continually reinvented their sound -- with undeniable cohesion and hat-tips to previous albums -- and WAP, their pièce de résistance, is no exception.
It helps in assessing the roots of WAP, their fourth album, to look back across Phoenix's discography. United (2000) was a bizarre yet pleasing amalgamation of insanely catchy pop gems, dark bluesy instrumentals, hollering garage rock, and smooth downtempo. (Interestingly, their "Too Young" single, from United, was featured in the night-on-the-town apartment scene in Lost in Translation; this was America's first real taste of Phoenix.) By contrast, their second album, Alphabetical (2004), had a far more cohesive sound: its synth-y, finger-tapping indie pop made for a crisp, solid album. Listening to Alphabetical, you likely thought, "Wow, Phoenix have really come into their own since United!" Then in 2006, on It's Never Been Like That, Phoenix came hurtling back to their garage rock ethos, and the faithful listener was surprised once again. INBLT was rougher, edgier, less synth-y, more raw sounding than Alphabetical. (It probably helped enhance INBLT's "garage rock" sound that Phoenix produced it at Planet Roc Studios in Berlin, a Cold War-era radio station/recording studio. When you listen to Phoenix's albums in succession, you can hear this distinct difference.)
So here we are with their fourth album, a gleaming culmination of all their previous efforts. WAP has deep, undeniable rock roots yet equally incorporates luscious synth and keyboard, thanks to the skillful Philippe Zdar (of Cassius fame), who produced WAP as well as United. You can particularly hear Zdar's influence on the nearly-danceable tracks "1901" and "Girlfriend," which are also the first two radio releases. The guitars are piquing, the keyboards lush and full, the drum kits ablaze; this continues for the album's entirety. The lyrics are -- in Phoenix's trademark way -- nonsensical at times, yet interspersed with luminous moments of double entendre. For those looking for thematic cohesion, you won't be disappointed: WAP contains some obvious historical references, including "Lisztomania," "Rome," and "Armistice," not to mention the name of the album itself.
My top favorites on this seriously head-bobbing album include "1901," "Lasso," and "Girlfriend." In actuality, though, I could list every song as a highlight, as there's not a bad one among them. Most listeners will also enjoy "Lisztomania" for its sheer catchiness; "Fences" for its falsetto harmonies and lyrical allegory; "Love Like a Sunset" (an extended version of the single "Twenty-One One Zero") for its soul-searching instrumental depths; and "Rome" for its sonic lookback at "Sometimes in the Fall" (from INBLT, 2006). Listening to WAP will make you feel good: most tracks are seriously upbeat. And, if you're anything like me, you'll feel fortunate that there are still bands out there capable of producing such masterworks.
I think all Phoenix fans will enjoy this amazing album, by far their best to date. If you most enjoyed Alphabetical, you'll love WAP's crisp, return-to-synth beats. By contrast, if you preferred the rougher sound of INBLT, you'll appreciate WAP's rock richness. Very highly recommended, even for fans new to Phoenix. (Most people would tell new fans to start at the beginning of their anthology, but I think it would be fine to start with WAP and go backwards if you wanted.) Absolutely brilliant work, this album.