I’ve never been much of a Francophile. Sure, like most, I enjoyed a few tracks from Daft Punk, Air and Justice, while also reveling in a lot of Serge Gainsbourg, but I’ve never been au-dessus de la lune for most things Gallic. If there is one French band for which I will gladly claim myself standard-bearer, it is Phoenix. In fact, I might just do that. I’ll start a group called “The Order of the Phoenix.” (Surely, that name hasn’t been used for anything else, right?) I have had the distinct pleasure of reviewing every previous Phoenix album, including the recent compilation of some of their favorite songs, Kitsuné Tabloid. I can’t claim to have championed the band from the beginning, but I did catch on more quickly than most, and have been singing their praises ever since. Yet, somehow, we’ve never made a Phoenix album our Album of the Week. Zut Alors! This madness must stop!
Frankly, the decision to make Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix our AOW this week was an easy one. WAP is, hands down, Phoenix’s best album so far, and one of the best pop releases of the year, though followed closely by Metric. Hype has spread like swine flu about this album for at least the past three months, since the release of the first digital download, “1901.” Add that to a widely viewed appearance on Saturday Night Live, and you have the makings of a zeitgeist. The band has always rooted itself in ’80s flavored soul, dance and funk, and this new album doesn’t stray too far from that fertile field, but when it does, it triumphs.
One-two punches as potent as “Lisztomania” and “1901” will be hard to come by this year. The opening repetitive bounce of the opener is immediately ebullient, preparing one for the party within. And, be sure, ain’t no party like a Phoenix party. WAP is our choice for your summer barbecue soundtrack, and you will be dancing with kebab juice dripping down your chin. Guitars and synths dance and spar throughout “Lisztomania,” as they do on the rest of Wolfgang, and the result is a contagious mix not heard since the days of Journey’s Escape or “Separate Ways.” Yeah, I said it. I compared Phoenix to Journey. What are you doing to do about it, huh? Nothing. That’s what I thought. There are two separate endings to “Lisztomania,” making it the Return of the King of pop songs. The first just needs one more drummer to add to the Bow Wow Wow feel, while the second is pure Postal Service. The intro to “1901” could easily bridge the gap between M83’s recent album and the rest of Wolfgang. The resultant guitars, incredibly cheerful chorus and Thomas Mars’ impassioned vocals balance the ambience with the activity, and ultimately makes for one of the most engaging pop singles of the year. Additionally, I thought we had yet another ’80s reference as I at first heard Mars singing “Colin Hay!” but later realized it was “going hey.” Oh well.
Amazingly, even after that effective pairing, I found a song that easily became one of my favorite Phoenix songs ever in “Fences.” The slow groove of former Phoenix albums returns with this track, like a late night flirtation, or at least a cross between “I Can’t Go For That (No Can Do)” and “Sexy Boy.” Former limits are stretched with the following two-part track, “Love Like a Sunset,” in which the band at first does its best Vangelis, Tangerine Dream and Brian Eno impression. In fact, now the inclusion of “Love on a Real Train” on Kitsuné Tabloid makes a lot of sense. The instrumental “Love Like a Sunset, Part 1” could have easily replaced that track on the Risky Business soundtrack. As one part flows seamlessly into the other, we then jump into the meat of the song, slow and plaintive, with Mars’ heartfelt poetry played over measured acoustic guitar strums.
“Lasso” and “Rome” could be considered sister songs to “Lisztomania,” energetic and effervescent, with rhythm sections that repeatedly press your `automatic dance’ buttons. Yet, as opposed to quite a few dance oriented albums, studio flourishes are as carefully placed as warheads in the H-bombs Wolfgang’s cover so (pop-) artfully depicts. The coda of “Rome” (isn’t that a Paul Simon song?) is awash in orgasmic synth as one can imagine a group of sweaty revelers at a rave as the song builds to climax. “Countdown” isn’t the only song on WAP to employ the use of lyrical repetition, but is probably the one that is most effective, in that Mars’ “sick” and “drip” almost become instruments in and of themselves. “Armistice” plays with different keyboard riffs to the point that a Phoenix / Ratatat collaboration can’t be too far in the making.
The members of Phoenix wear the rock or pop star tag well. In fact, with the grandiose title, which, according to the band is not meant to be humorous, and the song title, “Lisztomania,” a tag that refers to the screaming women who used to attend Franz Liszt’s shows, Phoenix seem to relish the spotlight. In fact, guitarist Laurent Brancowitz said in a recent interview, “I like to imagine a lot of people crying at the same time, listening to my guitar solo.” Either he’s being self-deprecating, or that’s the statement of a man who was destined to be a guitar player. The thing about Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, however, is that it provides the musical balls to back up that statement. Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix is the poppiest of pop records, and luxuriates in that distinction. From the first few notes to the closing bars, you may not even realize that you’ve been dancing for the last 36 minutes. That’s right, like Madge and her Palmolive, you’ve been soaking in it. Zut Alors!