Phoenix is the guilty pleasure made chic, a formal appreciation of ‘70s and ‘80s retro-pop that is often banished from the palettes of music intellectualists. Its success as a revisionist of cheese and indulgence (alluding to everything from Van Halen’s synth excursions to Mike and the Mechanics) lies in its distant vantage point: this is music made two decades after that which it idolizes, and from a French perspective to boot. The fact that the band can lay claim to the susceptible soft spot in any listener’s heart perhaps says more about our guarded sensibilities than its talent; in giving ourselves up to Phoenix’s charm, we’re somehow conceding to a closeted admiration for the retro sounds we publicly decry.
Although it has been together for nearly 10 years now, Phoenix has only recently merged with the mainstream consciousness. After briefly serving as the live band for fellow French pop conceptualists Air, Phoenix released the disco-charged single “Heatwave” in 1999, a decidedly different sound than its garage/punk roots and an indication of the fun path it would follow in coming years. Its two studio albums, United (2000) and Alphabetical (2004), have yielded a few of the most deliciously decadent pop singles in recent years: the former’s “Too Young” and the latter’s “Everything Is Everything”. “Too Young” benefited from an inclusion on the soundtrack to Sophia Coppola’s Lost in Translation and helped to considerably increase the band’s profile.
Perhaps in an extended attempt to seize Phoenix’s increasingly widespread exposure, Astralwerks has released Live! Thirty Days Ago, a collection of highlights from the band’s 2004 Scandinavian tour. It’s a bit curious that Phoenix would release a live album, especially when one considers that the band’s second studio album was just released last year. Additionally, Phoenix isn’t that type of band that needs an official live document, for its onstage performances rarely differ from the original studio versions. Nevertheless, Live! Thirty Days Ago showcases a band that obviously has a great time playing in front of a live audience.
The album’s 10 tracks are peppered with enthusiastic performances and a palpable sense of fun. The aforementioned “Too Young” and “Everything Is Everything” offer the most satisfaction, the live setting adding a jagged edge to their airbrushed perfection. The soft breeziness of “Victim of the Crime” and “If I Ever Feel Better” sound pleasantly reenergized, while “I’m an Actor” is a glimpse of the band at its most adventurous. Some audience participation overexcites “Run Run Run” and the epic “Funky Squaredance” (minus its country-ish opening), though the latter suffers a bit from some arena-sized hard rock boasts.
Inexplicably, Live! Thirty Days Ago contains a mere three songs from United, focusing instead on the inferior Alphabetical. Some of Alphabetical‘s lesser songs (“Love for Granted”, “(You Can’t Blame It On) Anybody”, and the title track) are humdrum inclusions, contributions that slow down the record’s otherwise galloping pace. Where Alphabetical is the more commercially accessible Phoenix album, it’s easy to see why the label and/or the band would choose to construct a set list around its songs.
It’s impossible to deny that Phoenix and its audience have a great time during the performances on Live! Thirty Days Ago, and for the most part, they’re entertaining for the rest of us to listen to. But it’s just as impossible to deny that there really isn’t much need to own this set if you already have the studio albums. Live! Thirty Days Ago succumbs to the same fate as 90% of the live albums on the market, serving its sole purpose as a redundant addition to a band’s catalog and not much else, no matter how strong its renditions are. Phoenix’s music is all about fun—we already know that and don’t require a live record to prove it.