Treat of Versailles

Phoenix please themselves — and you
By MICHAEL BRODEUR  |  December 2, 2009


VIDEO: Phoenix, "1901" (live at the Paradise)

Free Tix: Phoenix plays for the Phoenix!Yes, the band Phoenix is playing a double-secret concert for us on Friday. Win tix now on Facebook!

They don't have Thanksgiving in France — not even le jour de l'action de grâce. So, for the plate of beige food soon to be served to him, and for many other reasons, Thomas Mars (of rising pop superstars Phoenix) is psyched. It's been a good year: their relentlessly catchy Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix (V2) — whisked into the public ear this year atop Cadillacs via ad-ready singles like "1901" and "Lisztomania" — is about to cause some year-end listomania of its own. Since its release, they've been circling the globe playing to a steadily swelling audience. (They come to WFNX's sold-out "Miracle on Tremont Street" show this Friday and also play a free show for the Boston Phoenix earlier in the day — see below.) It takes about 30 seconds of any given track on the album to hear why. For a band who've been playing together since their teens — and have taken four albums to get to this point — they've attained a fine height from which to survey their long journey to this relative top, and they have one thing to thank: selfishness.

"Really. This record was the most selfish one we've done," says Mars from New York. "We learned coming up in Versailles that we didn't want to please everybody, so music was always something very selfish. We wanted to do this record in the way that we started, without a record company."

So it's not quite a hogging-the-gravy kind of selfishness — more like a mix of precision-maintained naïveté and open-windowed Zen. ("It's important not to try and understand too much of what you're doing," Mars tells me.) Whatever it is, it's given their music a winning balance of insidery intimacy and full-blown pop appeal. Wolfgang draws as much from Bach and Rachmaninov as from R. Kelly and Morse code — or at least, Mars suspects that it does. He tries not to get too consciously involved in these things.

"This was very much a matter of doing something that we couldn't come up with," he says, sounding uncertain about the idea. "We'd get our bodies tired, we'd get our egos tired — it's hard to explain, but we tried to get in a position that everything we do is more random, more out of luck." Indeed, the only calculation the band made was to track songs and not listen to them until three days later. The things they liked at first were always the first to go. "The ones that sounded unlike us were the things that stayed."

Thus, Wolfgang's biggest thrills come from its ever-present sense of self-discovery. Bits of Steve Reich and Terry Riley whip past like dashes down a highway over the panoramic seven minutes of "Love like a Sunset"; "Fences" sneaks a different kind of climax into each of its pristine transitions; "Rome" has the post-punk punch of an early Strokes track, but with less leather, stubble, and affectation. A Kitsuné Tabloid mix CD that dropped two months before Wolfgang offered up an insightful distillation of their influences (an overstuffed corne d'abondance of everything from Lou Reed's "Street Hassle" to Chris Bell's "I Am the Cosmos" to Ritchie Valens's "In a Turkish Town"). But it did more to display how tenaciously protective their musical memories are than how their songs actually come together. The secret, Mars swears, was staying true to form, going back to the Versailles of their minds — if I knew how to say "keeping it real" en français, I would.

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