“I don’t say much/ But I might.” ~From “Long Distance Call”
This sound shouldn’t work any more. It’s too easy. Too straightforward. The Strokes, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Kings of Leon and all who came in their wake and ripped off their style should have maxed out no-frills riff-rock’s credit account. This shouldn’t work anymore.
But oh my god does it on Phoenix’s third album, It’s Never Been Like That. The band that’s previously been content as a less ambient Air (which Phoenix previously backed on stage), the band whose biggest achievement to date was being able to pull off releasing a single named “Everything is Everything” that just about reached the same heights as Lauryn Hill’s classic of the same name, has dropped a concise killer of an album.
Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ “Maps“ is a good point of reference; many songs on It’s Never Been Like That, the follow-up to 2004’s Alphabetical, begin with that similar ringing, speedy guitar sound. Opener “Napoleon Says” starts as such, as does first single and album highlight “Long Distance Call.” Punctuated by gloriously off-beat organ chords and lead singer Thomas Mars’s lover-man coos, it calls to mind last year’s two great Princely singles, Spoon‘s “I Turn My Camera On” and My Morning Jacket‘s “Wordless Chorus.”
“Consolation Prizes” has a ’50s sock-hop joviality to it, a sound the Shins are equally adept at pulling off. The motif returns in that song’s set-piece partner, “Courtesy Laughs,” which recalls Wilco‘s “Handshake Drugs” and “Theologians.” “Rally” trips through two false starts before settling into the album’s predominant driving guitar verve, but the second of those two comes back in the song’s 6/4 bridge.
If there’s one element that sours the mix, it’s Mars’s injection of annoying grunts into just about every song. “Hhh” and “mmm” do not for poetic songwriting make. That’s why “North” is such a perfectly placed instrumental. Just when Mars’s histrionics seem in danger of devolving into full-on cheeze, he drops out of the mix, letting the rest of the band build up a steady burner reminiscent of Galaxie 500’s “Instrumental” off Today.
As for the epigraph, I get the feeling, with the album’s slack-rock pedigree, that the members of Phoenix are still holding out on how much they could really achieve. That if they wanted to, these four could rule the world.