The Mysterious Pop of Phoenix

Phoenix's early, sinuous disco singles like "If I Ever Feel Better" predated The Strokes, in case you're wondering which palm-muted, closely miked emblem of effortless cool was here first. Now among the biggest rock bands, the French quartet has had an odd trajectory: They began more lightweight and dance-y, slowly gained heft over time, and now, with this week's Bankrupt!, operate as a synth-rock crew with production as thick as cement. One of the most centered bands working, they nonetheless still feel catchy, even though it takes several listens for Thomas Mars' free-associative lyrics and mealymouthed hooks to sink in.

Early triumphs like the heavenly plastic soul of "If It's Not With You," the gumball-machine punk of "Second to None" or the Orange Juice-tarnished swing of "Consolation Prizes" were more fleet of foot than most bands of the early-2000s retro boom, and since they anticipated the dance revolution by a few years, it makes sense they'd go festival-rock late. Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix's "1901" and the new "Entertainment" took their wiry agility widescreen, with fat synth stabs and seismic, pogoing choruses. Fidgety early singles like "Everything Is Everything" moved too well and gyrated too much to stick. Going back to appreciate them now reveals more.

Even Phoenix's experiments retain a bouncing quirk or two: Witness the new album's title tune, "Bankrupt!", and its loooong sea shanty of a synth intro. It's also fun to see they've discovered minor chords -- who knows where "Oblique City" will take them now. Oblique indeed: The new "Drakkar Noir," after all, is named for a men's cologne, and the "fold it" vs. "fall in" debate about the true lyrics to "1901" is sure to become the modern equivalent of Pavement fans debating whether the line in "Cut Your Hair" ended with "Korea" or "Career," hard as it is for us oldsters to imagine that some young'ns have never heard of Pavement. Even if those guys once headlined Coachella, too.

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