Phoenix is a band still looking for its way. After the highly-produced sound of 2004’s Alphabetical, an album that produced the band’s most well-regarded song to date, the ’80s-rockin’ “Everything is Everything”, it was evidently a conscious decision on the part of the band to move on to an approach with a more spontaneous, live-in-the-studio sort of sound. So, the French quartet holed themselves up in said studio, wrote the songs for the album right there, and recorded them mostly live, with only a few overdubs with which to add color and fix the mistakes. At least, that’s the story. The album that came of these sessions doesn’t embody spontaneity, exactly, but more of a painstakingly precise messiness whose production sounds a bit like a prog band trying its hand at garage rock.
Now obviously, the music that Phoenix creates is a far cry from prog — they have an awful lot more in common with, say, The Strokes on It’s Never Been Like That than they do with Rush. No, the p-word rears its head via the copious and obvious amounts of studio sheen on the final product. The simplistic, largely repetitive styles of the songs may portray the off-the-cuff feel that Phoenix is looking for on this album, but either we’re hearing one of the world’s tightest bands, or every single one of the subtle little screw-ups inherent in such a style are either edited out or covered up. Even the drumstick count-ins sound far too precise to be live. Handclaps? Sampled and inserted at precise appropriate moments. Tambourines? Too metronomic to be the real deal. Staccato, repetitive guitar chords? Not a single bum note to be found. It’s not that a band making a rock ‘n’ roll album should be striving for imperfection per se; it’s more the matter that the lack of imperfections makes these supposed lightning bolts of inspiration sound awfully, well, calculated.
Past that slight incongruity, the songs that Phoenix has come up with are the types of songs that can come off as clever without the negative connotations that the descriptor tends to bring. Album opener “Napoleon Says” may be the latest in a long line of rock ‘n’ roll tunes that use the famous French emperor/conqueror as a point of reference, but the dialog that vocalist Thomas Mars conveys is infused with dry wit, a smirking sensibility that’s actually sort of infectious. “Napoleon says to take off your coat / Take off your long johns too,” he says over a sparse guitar/drums backdrop, and Mars’ delivery of lines that read as sort of smarmy actually makes you want to root for the song’s first-person protagonist as he pursues his own little conquest. Musically, it embodies the sound of indie rock ‘n’ roll, taking off on its own set of chord progressions and melodies while never actually sounding particularly innovative.
Because Phoenix doesn’t want to sound innovative, its members just want to rock out a bit.
First single “Long Distance Call” is another highlight, incorporating synths that make “mwow” sounds into a cute verse that eventually climaxes in a chorus of “It’s never been like that,” sung quickly and repeatedly, serving as a refrain that doesn’t actually do much past allow for an audience singalong at the live show.
Really, the album’s strength lies in the simplicity of such moves — it’s when Phoenix tries to get more artistic and, dare I say, epic with their sound that they find themselves wondering what to do. The five-minute instrumental piece “North”, found toward the end of the album, sounds pretty at the beginning, but the only difference between the beginning of the song and the end of the song is a slight nudge on the distortion for one of the guitars. Otherwise, it’s a simple exercise in repetition-with-slight-variation, staying in a four-chord mid-tempo rut for all five minutes when two would have sufficed. To make matters worse, “North” is followed by “Sometimes in the Fall”, a six-minute attempt at a Big Rock Song (complete with a Big Rock Drum Opening) that suffers from yet another beat that might as well be played by a drum machine and an extended acoustic bridge made longer via repetition of the word “long”.
For the most part, however, it seems that the members of Phoenix have realized that they function best when they’re not trying to be big and important. There are no tender ballads, no drum solos (save that tiny little one at the beginning of “Sometimes in the Fall”), and no symphonic strings to be found on the album — it’s just a short, concise ten songs of straight-up ProTooled pop-rock ‘n’ roll. If you enjoy the genre and can stand the glare bouncing off the album’s shiny surface, you’ll likely find plenty to like in It’s Never Been Like That.