Phoenix – Bankrupt!

 

Bankrupt

Phoenix’ story could hardly be described as an overnight sensation. Especially in US, the French quartet remained surfing below the radar for the most part of the last decade. There were occasional singles that created some minor stir; like “Too Young” featured on Sofia Coppola’s Virgin Suicide Soundtrack, but for the most part, they were only known to hardcore music fans or indie fans alike.

My personal relationship with Phoenix goes all the way back to the 2000’s phenomenal single “If I Ever Feel Better” featured on a now forgotten House music compilation. And for several years with only that particular track in mind, I pretty much assumed they were yet another French House outfit emulating some middle ground between Air and Daft Punk. It was not until four years later, when “Everything is Everything” became a minor hit European, that I realized that Phoenix were one of the funkiest pop bands around.

It’s a bit unfortunate that so many people have missed out on the bands early efforts. In terms of consistency, these are just as good as 2009 year’s breakthrough Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix. Especially their debut Untitled, remains the most sparkling gem in their back catalogue; where laid back “plastic-jazz” pieces like “Embuscale” and “Definite Breaks” were packed together with the The Stroke-eque new-wave of “Party Time”. Then there were the two exceptionally great singles “Too Young” and “If I Ever Feel Better”, all part in creating one of the most diverse and compelling pop records of its time.

The bands ability to churn out irresistibly catchy singles remained their trademark but it took them until “1901” before this manifested into any kind of wide-ranging chart success. Suddenly they became embraced by critiques and commercial radio stations alike, ending up on most of 2009 year’s best of lists. The story of Phoenix is not that unlike another French act, namely Anthony Gonzalez moniker M83. It took him also about 4-5 records before breaking into mainstream territory. The difference is that while M83 gradually embraced a more streamlined pop aesthetics, Phoenix never broke their formula, persistently holding on to their blue-eyed soul-infused pop-rock. In essence, Wolfgang wasn’t any different from its predecessors; it however does a better job of manifesting their pop sentiment into beautifully executed three minute pop songs.

So, where do the Frenchmen stand today? Their fifth album has been four years in the making and due to the unsatisfactory first-single “Entertainment”, I was pretty much set up for a disappointing return. Or at least, that was my initial reaction. “Entertainment” is definitely one of the most arena-sized crowd-pleasing songs of their discography, but the chorus sounded a bit forced creating a loss of momentum amongst the blazing synthesizers and furious drumming. However, it works much better as an album opener. The three tracks that follow are amongst the most pleasing of their entire career. The tracks sweep fluently into one other, bursting with sweeping synthesizers and Thomas Mars quality of jumping assured between different moods and tempo without gving any clear understanding of where the verses or refrains begin. It all falls naturally into place, overflowing with melodic shifts and gear-changes. The first half of the record is a statement of a band that all too well knows their strength and can manifest them into creative and entertaining pop songs – it could well be the strongest back-to-back material of their career.

Unfortunately and somewhat irreversibly, the seven-minute title-track breaks the momentum and the other half of the album struggles to recover. “Drakkar Noir” and “Chloroform” are two typical mid-paste Phoenix tracks that the band can seemingly creative without too much vigor or struggle. Overall the second half is less rewarding with fewer revelations, but the manic fast-paced “Don’t” and the ecstatic album-closer and twin-sister of “Entertainment”, exposes newfound qualities with each listen.

In a way, Phoenix created the perfect follow-up to their breakthrough. They went all in on the sunnier, up-tempo side of Wolfgang and turned it up to max. They also continued their track record of picking up on contemporary trends and incorporating it successfully into their own aesthetics. That’s why, in terms of production and soundscape, Bankrupt! is a closer relative to Passion Pit’s Gossamer then anything in their own catalogue. This is yet another solid effort from the Frenchmen that is nowhere near the Wolfgang-backlash I projected.

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