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It’s Never Been Like That

It’s Never Been Like That

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It’s Never Been Like That

“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.

 

Discuss this review at The Prefix Message Board   

“Long Distance Call” video

Phoenix Web site

Astralwerks Web site

Streaming audio

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<br/><p class="MsoNormal"><st1:PersonName><span >John</span></st1:PersonName><b ><span > </span></b><span >is 26<br/>and lives in </span><st1:City><st1:place><span >Los Angeles.</span></st1:place></st1:City><span > He teaches high school social<br/>studies, as he's done since graduating </span><st1:place><st1:PlaceName><span >Tulane</span></st1:PlaceName><span > </span><st1:PlaceType><span >University</span></st1:PlaceType></st1:place><span > in </span><st1:City><st1:place><span >New Orleans</span></st1:place></st1:City><span >. Through writing and editing for<br/>the arts and entertainment section of the student newspaper and deejaying for<br/>the radio station, he fell in love with indie rock.<o:p> <br/></o:p></span></p><p class="MsoNormal"><span >John was<br/>married in June to his beautiful wife, Marisa. She's finishing her masters degree<br/>at </span><st1:place><st1:PlaceType><span >University</span></st1:PlaceType><span > of </span><st1:PlaceName><span >Southern California</span></st1:PlaceName></st1:place><span > and has helped steep John in<br/>Pavement's back catalog and the allure of early Liz Phair records.<br/></span></p><span ><o:p> </o:p>After some<br/>misgivings about the metropolis, John loves living in L.A., for being able to<br/>find food from around the world on every block, for its improving mass-transit<br/>options and, of course, for so many concerts to see that it could drive him broke.<br/>John's an aspiring writer, but of fiction, not of screenplays.</span><span ><o:p><br/></o:p></span><span >John and<br/>Marisa have one dog, a chow mix named </span><st1:City><st1:place><span >Halle</span></st1:place></st1:City><span >; and two cats, an ocecat named<br/>Gigi and an orange tabby named Malkmus.</span><br/>

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