Phoenix, It’s Never Been Like That (Astralwerks)

Phoenix - It's Never Been Like That Phoenix
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 fa├žade, 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.

Danielson, Ships (Secretly Canadian)

Danielson - Ships Danielson
Secretly Canadian
By: Eric Greenwood

With a shrill, pixie-stick blurt to his uneven and deliberately jagged cadence, Daniel Smith resembles the Pixies' Black Francis on crack- two octaves higher and even more erratic. It's an undeniably acquired vocal style, which, coupled with his penchant for wildly eccentric instrumentation and wide-eyed innocence, can make for very difficult listening. Luckily, Smith possesses an unending wellspring of quirky melodies to make his bombastic musical elasticity all the more palatable.

Smith's idiosyncratic schtick should have grown old after two or three records, but he keeps honing his songwriting skills and pushing his willingness to experiment to unforeseen levels. With help from kindred spirits Sufjan Stevens, Deerhoof, and Sareena Maneesh, Danielson has assembled its wildest yet most consistent record to date.

Ships is a kaleidoscopic musical journey through the skewed lens of Smith's informed Christian beliefs that plays like a foot-stomping, sing-along folk extravaganza in some sort of twisted universe, where theatrics and helium squeals are de rigueur.

The music isn't centered on any semblance of traditional song structure. Instead, there are blasts of grating yelps interspersed with unconventional skronks and even hints of '70's cock-rock ("Kids Pushing Kids"). It all unfurls more like a musical than an indie rock record, but don't let the dissonance scare you away.

The Knife, Silent Shout (Mute)

The Knife - Silent Shout The Knife
Silent Shout
By: Kerry M

On this, the third record from Sweden's sibling duo The Knife, we find Olof Dreijer and Karin Dreijer Andersson delivering another dose of their signature synthladen eurotrash pop cacophony. Karin's processed vocals often channel a sort of strung-out and carbonite encrusted Kate Bush while icy, Spector-like walls of toe-tapping, synthetic rhythms pulse and careen along accompanying cinematic pads and razor sharp stabs.

Silent Shout is a record that improves with each subsequent listen. Initially, the off-kilter textures and processed tones can be off-putting, almost abrasive, to even the most receptive of synthpop fans. But, with time, the synthetics begin to blur into the background as the layers slowly peel away revealing soul and wit beneath the shimmer and dissonance. The opener and title track, “Silent Shout”, with its bouncy arpeggios set against multi-tracked and processed vocals followed by the hooky “Neverland” with its driving digital percussion and New Wave-tinged vocals sets the dark tone for the album. The lyrical stand out, Marble House, delivers a sort of Bjork meets St. Etienne in a dark Scandanavian alley scored with cheesy sci-fi pads and stabs, which ensconce the sibling's catchy duet.

And while lyrically nothing comes close to eclipsing the pop genius of “Heartbeats” from their previous release, Deep Cuts, several tracks on Silent Shout demonstrate considerable growth both lyrically and musically, making this a solid follow up from a band that has further evolved their own curious brand of synthpop.