Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix wasn’t exactly circled on my calendar. First, I was lukewarm on their 2006 It’s Never Been Like That. That album left a bitter taste in my mouth, primarily due to its unfulfilled potential. The rest of the album couldn’t catch up with the stellar 3 song stretch in the middle. And upon the release of their new album, I just didn’t like the title. Wolfgang Aamadeus Phoenix. Something about it just irked me, propelled by the fact that it didn’t make a lot of sense. The cover art is an eyesore to me. The disjointed pink border encompassing 3 blimps? Not a fan. But I thought I could get a “Long Distance Call” and a “Lost and Found” out of the album, chalk it up to a middling release, and be on my way. So needless to say, I didn’t spin the new disc with my Phoenix colored glasses on.
What hindered It’s Never Been Like That were songs where the music happily played along only as background noise, stripping the songs of playful vocal-music interaction, diluting the musical identity, and conveying an overall sense of blandness. When it succeeded, however, the music, particularly the guitars and keyboard, became a key component instead of an afterthought. A touch of synth or an interesting guitar riff would spruce up the song, which allowed the melodies to shine more brightly through. There were some good moments on It’s Never Been Like That; there just wasn’t enough of them.
Wolfgang sought out to erase the blandness and capitalize on the instrumentation abilities of the band. “Lisztomania” starts out the album like Phoenix should have been doing the whole time. Mindless strumming gives way to a glimmery guitar line, and a nice feature of the keyboard, once as the hinge during the pre-chorus and, again, as an ornament in a pleasant bridge piece. Thomas Mars’ sense of melody is as keen as it was in 2006, but not surprisingly, it’s comes out sitting pretty thanks to a refined attention to the music. Keyboards dimly ring in “Fences” backed with one of Phoenix’s best melodies, polishing off another gem merely 3 tracks into the Frenchmen’s fourth album.
On It’s Never…“North” was the album’s lone instrumental piece that was solid, but ultimately ran about 2 minutes too long and should have had the other instruments phase in earlier into the song. But hearing “North” at least indicated where “Love Like a Sunset” came from. This song functions as the centerpiece of the album, the alpha-male of Phoenix’s work to date. And it’s odd how the least Phoenix-like song is their best. The song is officially broken into Part 1 and 2, but they run together so well, that for the review’s sake, we’ll call it one song. It runs nearly 8 minutes, with only the last 1:30 featuring any vocals. The synth carries the bulk of the song’s atmosphere, and there is certainly a lot of atmosphere to go around. It starts out as a scarce pulse but crescendos and breaks like a veteran post-rock song. The synth and palm-muted guitar chords pace up and down, then finally hit the sonic climax before releasing into a simple acoustic outro that caps off an almost apocalyptic feel. The song swirls and pulses and breathes so well that you really feel that you heard something important, if only for a minute. And then you’re left to wonder, did Phoenix just do a quasi-post rock song? What? Yep, and it’s gorgeous.
Somewhat reluctantly, you have to move on to the next song, and it’s Phoenix going back to their old power-pop self. “Lasso” is a good song, that somehow succeeds without any real tricks. The band goes pretty vanilla on it, but it hits all of its marks and never gets complacent. It doesn’t steal the show, but it moves things along. “Rome” is a really great song, plain and simple. It’s a little more subdued, and the melody is fantastic, probably the finest on here. You’ll notice how Phoenix doesn’t strum their guitars into oblivion, but rather applies finesse to “Rome” that the 2006 Phoenix may not have done. “Countdown (Sick for the Big Sun”) and “Girlfriend” stand pat in their pop goodness while holding down the fort until the closer, “Armistice” arrives. It dials up a level that rivals “Rome,” “Lisztomania,” and nearly “Love Like a Sunset.” From the music to the melody, this song gleams (I love how Mars sings “and I come down in your room”) to give Wolfgang a great finish.
So the Frenchmen made a believer out of me, I’ll admit it. They’ve eliminated all those faceless moments from their predecessor, and turned them into distinctive pop moments. And it’s not that Wolfgang is groundbreaking (unless you count “Love Like a Sunset”), but it’s power-pop done correctly. Phoenix kept the same template for power-pop they had in 2006, they just made it better. Their already bright melodies were augmented by the synths splashing all over songs, and guitars with more freedom to move around. The extra attention to detail results in Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix being a fantastic album, with no flaws to speak of. Certainly Merriweather Post Pavilion and Veckatimest will best Wolfgang with their creative and sonic prowess, but I guess that’s the nature of the power-pop way. But Phoenix doesn’t need to be groundbreaking to reward us with a joyous, endlessly fun album that should sit comfortably in the top 10 on everybody’s list.