The French group Phoenix draw elements from their eclectic ’80s upbringing to arrive at a satisfying synthesis of rock and synthesizers. Vocalist Thomas Mars, bassist Deck d’Arcy, and guitarist Christian Mazzalai were a garage band based out of Mars’ house in the suburbs of Paris. Mazzalai’s older brother Branco joined the band on guitar when his band Darlin’ disbanded in 1995.
The group got its touring start on the French bar circuit doing Hank Williams and Prince covers to drunken audiences. Two years later the band took on the name Phoenix and pressed 500 copies of a single on its own label, Ghettoblaster. The A-side was a punk rock song and the other a chugging Krautrocker, hinting at their eclectic tastes. Shortly after, they were signed to the Paris-based Source Records. Phoenix became well acquainted with labelmates Air when they acted as their backing band on several U.K. TV appearances. The result of the electronic exposure was a single called “Heatwave,” which was very similar in approach to ’70s disco.
United, the group’s debut album, appeared in 2000 on Astralwerks and was recorded over two months. The album featured guest appearances from friends and family, including Thomas Bangalter (Daft Punk), Philippe Zdar (Cassius), and d’Arcy’s mother’s choral society on the track “Funky Squaredance.” From that point, they issued Alphabetical (2004), It’s Never Been Like That (2006), and their mainstream breakthrough, the critically adored Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix (2009). Part of the extended break between the third and fourth albums was due to Mars becoming a father (with his partner, director Sofia Coppola
It’s Never Been Like That was conceived with a live mentality. If at first it sounds breezily, crazily immediate, that vigor should not detract from its deeper, more lasting residual air of a band at the peak of their powers, both musically and intellectually. There is little in the way of the studied air of its precursors
Jump out first cut “Long Distance Call” lends the album its be-damned-with-what-went-before title. A bracing guitar intro segues into a stop start verse that is punctuated by one of those keyboard motifs that Phoenix seem so effortlessly to dust off from a synthesized archive and bring swinging back into modernity. The chorus is a defiant plea for their intention of starting over. The mosh pit ought to be alerted. Other highlights of the record include the buoyant springtime jangle of “Consolation Prizes”, the bold opening salvo referencing their own French-ness, “Napoleon Says”, and the aptly titled “Second To None”. This record sounds terrific loud. It has a jump-around zeal that previous Phoenix albums have only hinted at. It is both succinct and playful. Oh, and if it is a fashionable record, then it is fashionable only by accident and that is only because integrity is fashionable once more.
The musical playfulness that saw them swapping between new hip hop technical noise and a luscious orchestration, between fluttering house timbres and direct rock action on their opening two shots has been compressed into a more direct sound on album number 3. But the spirit of Phoenix and their misadventures discoloring the rulebook of what pop music can represent remains.