It's Never Been Like That
By: Eric Greenwood
Pop music rarely gets any proper respect, what with all the schlock that permeates commercial radio, but it's pop's melodic accessibility that inherently marks it as music for the masses, which, of course, is typically frowned upon by any discerning arbiter of taste. Thus, calling a band "pop" might sound a bit backhanded, but it's absolutely not meant that way when levied at unabashed pop constructors, Phoenix.
All guilty pleasures notwithstanding, Phoenix combines a breezy interpretation of suave, stylish pop a la Duran Duran with the taught, angular dance-ability of early New Order mixed with the perkiest garage band you could possibly fathom. But confining the band's buoyant infectiousness to retro-fitted influences seems too constricting. Phoenix is definitely not trapped in any sort of early '80's aesthetic- at least not on this album.
In the past Phoenix has straddled that more than delicate balance of emulating too much Rick Astley in its Johnny Hates Jazz lite-soul-pop reincarnation, which is to say, it was barely passable, but there was something alluring in the way Thomas Mars evoked Brian Ferry's ultra-cool schtick that made it difficult to dismiss outright.
With It's Never Been Like That, Phoenix has calculatedly entered a slacker domain- one where jangly guitars only seem insouciant, as opposed to, say, in The Strokes' early singles. Underneath the happy go lucky façade, however, the band still sounds metered and precise, but it works because the songs rise to a level that demands repeated listens.
The punchy opener, "Napoleon Says", inextricably binds a self-deprecating air to a newfound confident identity with hooks so catchy you'll immediately start the song over. "Consolation Prize" stays upbeat, evoking flashes of Dexy's Midnight Runners with choppy guitars and a shimmering chorus, where Mars' voice bleats in a crystalline vacuum.
Phoenix has finally figured out how to construct upbeat, intelligent, modern pop music that you don't have to feel slightly ashamed to admit to liking.