There is no arguing that 2009 was a good year for Phoenix. Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, their most recent full-length, made an appearance at the top of every single best-of-2009 list, and you can bet that every last date of their ongoing tour is as good as sold out.
The release of Live & Unplugged, a live eight-track EP, at the turn of the year was thus a very rational move. The question here is: was it absolutely necessary? Having just seen the band live this past week, and having met the astonishingly grounded musicians, it pains me to open that door. Nevertheless, let’s look at the facts.
First of all, Live & Unplugged means you’ll be getting the band in its purest form since only the core members take part, forcing the Frenchmen to make some important structural changes. Thomas Mars (vocals), Laurent Brancowitz (guitar), Christian Mazzalai (guitar), and Deck D’Arcy (usually bass guitar, or in this case, keyboards and drum machine), take on the massive production of their studio creations with nothing more than the aforementioned instruments. As a result, the songs featured are simplistic versions of their greatest hits, and although they give us a good idea of what the raw sketches of each might have sounded like, they lack the drive that made the band famous in the first place.
Amid applause, the band starts off with a now classic hit from Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, “1901”. This version stays pretty true to the original, but one can’t help but appreciate the lucid performance of Mars’s effortless vocals. The quartet follows with the opening track from 2004’s Alphabetical, “Everything Is Everything”, one of the few songs that benefits from the serious make under. The slower tempo and the unadorned presentation really agree with the memorable lead single.
“Liztomania” then delights in an honest quality that’s seen through thanks to Mars’s vocals. It is certainly different than the album version, mainly because it lacks the precision of the studio version that made the song so infectious a year ago. However, it’s still a fresh take on a track that you have probably heard dozens of times already. Almost halfway through, “Long Distance Call” makes a predictable appearance. In spite of the pleasant flashback, it’s nearly impossible not to expect the version presented here.
As the EP develops, it become quite clear that die-hard fans will undoubtedly appreciate the chance to listen to slightly different versions of all-time favorites. “One Time Too Many” and “Love for Granted” come as pleasant memories that take us back to simpler times, but in no way feature traces of positive renovation. “Armistice” is a nice surprise, though. The closing track on Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix is an unlikely choice, and weirdly benefits from the instrumental disengagement.
Unlike their first live album (Live! Thirty Days Ago, 2004), Live & Unplugged was recorded in one sitting back in October, 2009. Consequently, it carries a specific sound throughout; that is until the 8th and final track. The Bob Dylan cover “Sad Eyed of the Lowlands” stands out mainly because of the beautiful merger that results from Mars’s vocal style and Dylan’s lyrical genius.
Where does their accent go when they sing? Truthfully, we’re about as close to answering this question as we are to figuring out the song choices and overall characteristics of Live & Unplugged. A new take on the beautiful tracks that make up Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix and maybe just one or two selections from previous works would have better served the purpose of a live album. In the meantime, this acoustic performance will hold over eager fans.