Phoenix's mixtape for a hip French dance label is not what you'd expect at all.
Ah, the mixtape. The practice of tracking and ordering a cassette (or CD or .ZIP file) for someone else has become a romantic standard and is, of course, a pervasive presence in pop-culture criticism and fiction that shoots for a certain with-it-ness. There’s High Fidelity, there’s Chuck Klosterman and there’s Rob Sheffield’s Love Is a Mix Tape. There was the scene at the beginning of Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist in which Michael Cera sits, laboriously writing out track titles on little pieces of colored cardboard. You know it has reached its saturation point when the conceit becomes a key plot point in an Orlando Bloom romantic comedy -- that is, the truly pedestrian Elizabethtown. Part of the whole ritual is that it’s less about the receiver than the giver, and what it reveals about his or her personality. Close inspections can often reveal its creator's insecurities and fantasies. And it’s never as much about the individual songs as about the form it takes when melted together, its overall shape and sentiment. So what does Phoenix’s new mixtape tell us about the band?
Above all, the answer comes as a surprise. Given that Kitsune Tabloid is a mixtape series from a French dance label, you might expect it to be filled with the up-to-the-minute material usually found on these for-today-only dance compilations. And listening to Phoenix’s own slick music, you might expect a collection of similar, polished stuff -- or at least, of material that seemed in some transparent way influential to the group’s own precise, perfect pop music. Phoenix’s Kitsune Tabloid is neither of those things. But it is a gentle, genuine mixtape, with some breathtaking moments.
Now, the precise ways it’s a surprise:
1. It’s full of old music. Dusty Springfield, Elvis Costello and Dennis Wilson -- the disc is full of mid-century soul, '70s psychedelia and subtle acoustic pop. One of the highlights comes courtesy of a short-lived late '60s band the 13th Floor Elevators. It's easy to see how this gentle folk song, with a Dylan-esque lick of harmonica in the background, could be the kind of song to come to hold great meaning: "I can hear you singing in the corners of my brain."
2. There are few of the new-band obscurities that hook listeners in. In fact, there’s only one really, and it’s worth talking about. Dirty Projectors don’t need the extra hype, but “Rise Above” could have been on Bitte Orca and would have shined as bright as it does at the beginning of this mix. The song’s a single, drawn-out, swirling jam (like, Phoenix and my jam, dude) that'll have you singing along with it by the third repeat of the refrain.
3. It’s full of gentle, understated and soulful music that actually means something to Thomas Mars and the guys in Phoenix. There are flippant songs -- the warbled twang of Richie Valens' "In a Turkish Town" -- but there are also sweet, personal moments. The beautiful, grand ending -- Lou Reed’s “Street Hassle” -- is one of these. The final moments, after the song’s 11-minute journey, is a simple, “Please don’t slip away”. The song and the mix just does. That’s perfect.
None of this really gets us closer to an answer to how this deepens our understanding of Phoenix except to say, well, these rank as some of the band's favorites. Although listeners are not going to appreciate it in the same way its members obviously do, we could come to a different relationship of our own. That’s the way mixtapes work, and despite its up-and-down, grab-bag nature, this mix works that way, too. In sacrificing some of the sheen of the new that often surrounds dance-label compilations, Phoenix may just have created a Kitsune Tabloid that will, paradoxically, last longer and become more cherished over time.