Like the mythical bird rising from the ashes, Phoenix has resurrected 80’s synth-pop and made it hip for today’s generation. Having released their first album United in the year 2000 (read that like `La Bamba’ from Late Night with Conan O’Brien sings it in that popular sketch), and then later having the song “Too Young” used by Sofia Coppola for the film Lost in Translation, Phoenix have been amassing a following of fans of retro pastiche. Garnering comparison to Steely Dan, Hall & Oates, Toto, and other 80’s radio mainstays, they could have easily just duplicated themselves with a second album that maintained the status quo. Instead they released Alphabetical, a progression that `united’ their 80’s fixation to pop music of the present, so that one small step of four years became one giant leap in style synergy.
One distinct difference between the two albums is in its outlook. As United had at least a glimmer of hope that could be read between the lines, “If I ever feel better / Remind me to spend some good time with you,” Alphabetical is at times downright apocalyptic, “Things are gonna change / And not for better / Don’t know what it means to me / But it’s hopeless, hopeless….” That lyric is from the first track, “Everything is Everything”, which is not a Lauryn Hill cover. What’s odd is that the music accompanying these lyrics is closer to a Justin Timberlake song than to anything else. Think of JT as a disaffected Frenchman on Xanax and you’ll be somewhat on target. It’s “Rock Your Body” without the sexy swagger or dance moves, “Like I Love You” without the whispering earnestness.
Singer Thomas Mars is smooth as French Vanilla and keeps the same even tone and temperament throughout the album. Because his delivery is so even, it might be easy to dismiss the lyrics he intones and merely bounce along to the bass driven mild funk that his bandmates create. And while Mars is no Elvis Costello in the vocabulary department, he’s no Daryl Hall either. He’s somewhere in between Red dogs under illegal legs and M.E.T.H.O.D.O.F.L.O.V.E.. Sure, it might fall a little closer to Mr. Hall on the gradient scale, but “The more I talk about it / The less I do control” deserves at least a little credit. There are definitely examples to the contrary, but most can be forgiven thanks to the catchy hooks the band delivers to back them up.
Take for example, “Victim of the Crime”. The title sounds like it could be a gangsta rap number, and the rhythmic keyboard notes combined with the drums, slowed down, could easily back up 50 Cent. In fact, it sounds exactly like a rap song I just can’t put my finger on, Jay Z maybe? No matter. A French synth band might not get the street cred that N.E.R.D. or the Neptunes get, but they have equal chops. It wouldn’t surprise me to find out that Ashlee Simpson had tried to recruit Phoenix to produce a remix album or her sophomore effort. While it would sadden me to no end, it wouldn’t surprise me.
“(You Can’t Blame it on) Anybody” is reminiscent of Kool & the Gang’s “Fresh” or “Get Down on It” minus the soul and backup response. In essence, Phoenix put a hip, disaffected French Caucasian spin on the 80’s funk record. In that respect they stand alongside Air, though they lean towards ambient, Daft punk, though they lean towards dance, and Cyann & Ben, though they lean towards ethereal. Whereas all of the comparisons I have made would tend to make on think that there is something missing, I would refute that by saying Phoenix has put their own unique spin on musical institutions and have created their own genre which I’m going to call `frunk,’ which is French funk. If this term catches on I better be making some money off of it.
Air- Talkie Walkie
Kool & the Gang- Something Special
Justin Timberlake- Justified