I’ll Be Anything You Ask And More

Imagine a Cadillac commercial scored by Serge Gainsbourg: the French great croons, a pack of scantily-clad, cigarette smoking (perhaps under-aged?) women writhe around a Cadillac, caressing its metallic curves, as the engine revs ever louder. . . to paraphrase Gainsbourg’s countrymen in the French band Phoenix, it could never be like that.  But a Phoenix song recently featured prominently in an advertisement for Cadillac, one of America’s oldest luxury cars.  As “1901” buzzes in the background and a gleaming Cadillac glides down a highway, a man’s voice intones, “Reimagined . . . Reinspired . . . Reinvigorated . . . All designed to reignite the soul.”  To signal fresh, novel, shiny escape for the soul, one of America’s signature brands reached not to a hip act from its native shores, but to a Parisian foursome.  The narrator goes on to say, “The Cadillac of crossovers,” and though he’s referring to the 2010 SRX (if you were hoping to learn about the merits of this vehicle in rough terrain or bad weather, I can’t help you), you could hear his tagline as an apt description of Phoenix.  “Crossover,” long a term used to refer to black musical groups capturing white audiences, here refers to a band composed of foreign, non-native English-speaking outsider musicians who managed to become the sound of an American corporate icon.

Before 2009, Phoenix — Versailles natives Thomas Mars, Laurent Brancowitz (Branco), Deck D’arcy, and Christian Mazzalai – were known largely for Mars’ romantic entanglement with Sofia Coppola and Branco’s early career involvement in the band Darling with the future members of Daft Punk.  Phoenix’s debut album, United, was unsteady; 2004 brought Alphabetical, for which the group re-worked its sound, producing a maze of soul/funk that might have been attempted by the Beach Boys (in their later more adventurous days) or by Hall & Oates (had they experienced more adventurous days).  It’s Never Been Like That, from 2006, marked Phoenix’s first cohesive album.   Three years later that the band swept into mainstream consciousness, earning a Grammy and a Cadillac ad with Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix. Live, Mars handles the vocal duties, brothers Branco and Christian play guitar, Deck plays bass (Deck and Branco also play some keyboard), and they add a drummer and another multi-instrumentalist.  But the foursome are the engine behind the song-writing, and they self-produced all but their most recent album (for which they added Phillipe Zdar of the electronic group Cassius).

In interviews, Mars and co. return to three connected concepts with the regularity of a politician making a stump speech: modernity, outsider-ness, and simplicity.  First, they preach modernity, though they do not describe with any specificity what this means for them.  Judging by their use of the term, it seems to involve flexibility; the band employs words like “hybrid” and “collage.” Technology is also important — incorporating or mimicking new technology and using it to play with old sounds in novel ways.  For Phoenix, Prince was ultra-modern in the 80s when he played funk with electronics; Serge Gainsbourg also gets a nod for using synths in a way they believe anticipated 90s west coast hip hop.  In their own work, “modern” includes guitar that sounds like a sample and drums that could be live or programmed. Phoenix’s conception of modernity is not a self-proclaiming and determinedly cryptic avante garde, but a purposeful construction that attempts to combine progressive sound and popularity, a sleight-of-hand trick that pleases the audience while also allowing the magician to delicately change the way the audience thinks about, or listens to, the music.  Whatever Phoenix believed to be “modern” was not popular until the release of Wolfgang.

Second, Phoenix’s members stress their status as outsiders, which they believe allows them to listen to American music without constraints, and in turn gives them more freedom when crafting songs to ignore English-speaking cultural pressures and work outside pop’s perceived “rules.” Again, the group does not define the “rules” they work around, or say who sets them.  But members of the band give examples of things that defy the restrictions – the repurposing of a funk riff for a pop song (they give the new-wave American band the B-52’s credit for this), the use of uncharacteristically light percussion in rock music, and sticking with the first vocal take when recording even if it is imperfect.

Third, as Branco states: “What’s really nice in pop culture is simplicity.” Christian claims that the guitar chord that changed Phoenix as a band was a major seventh chord, “a simple chord, not technical.” But it seems that their goal is more the illusion of simplicity.  Branco likes the soul singing of The Impressions because they are “rather simple yet somehow sophisticated.” And Christian notes that every musician’s dream is to “write songs that appear really basic, simple, but which actually require quite a bit of work.”  In Phoenix’s songs, an ease of absorption hides a subtle twisting and warping of the conventions of a musical genre.

Phoenix’s best songs rely on the guitarists, who excel at intertwining emotive riffs.  The guitars are distinctive, with the smoothness and soft funk feel of 80s pop like Michael Jackson and Roxy Music, the clarity of soul, the sparse tension of Prince, a gentleness borrowed from folk, and the interlocking weaves, stutters, and drive of late 60s and 70s New York. Hardly new, but as in much of pop musical history, updating the old (or placing it in a new context) often passes for new; hardly a list of outsider influences, but a combination of an eclectic group of insiders passes for outside.  Not always simple either — the way Phoenix puts different guitar sounds together, sounds ordinarily expected in separate songs, allows for heightened instrumental contrast, increased expression and versatility, and sometimes even the evocation of language and gesture.  Joseph Conrad once wrote of the “magic suggestiveness of music – which is the art of arts,” and at its best Phoenix channels “magic suggestiveness” of its own.

 It’s Never Been Like That (INBLT) was recorded in just three months, and it is the sparest and simplest of Phoenix’s albums, with little else besides the traditional rock line-up and occasional synth touches.  A three song sequence in the middle of the album showcases the ability of Phoenix riffs to define moments with a gentle but blatantly emotional quality.  In “Long Distance Call,” the guitar nudges incessantly but indecisively during verses, surging with the chorus but then collapsing and falling out of the mix.  This gives each verse an opening that feels disappointingly empty, while the chorus expertly mimics a hint of escape, a hope of “maybe.” In the guitar chords of “One Time Too Many,” a couple of notes are played together, followed by one note that lingers and hangs; another guitar plays a similar line in choppier fashion, as if describing determination or conscience cutting against uncertainty and hesitation. The hook of “Lost and Found” pits a churning guitar against a building wall of jangly crescendo.  As one line drives forward, the other drifts prettily upward, like a lover oblivious to her partner’s concerns.  The sweet guitar then leads into the next verse, erasing the intensity of seconds before, but there is no resolution — as the song fades out, both guitars continue, each going its separate way. It is rare for three rock songs built around forward movement and appealing hooks to evoke conflict, melancholy, and vulnerability with such clarity and tenderness.

Mars is a paradoxical singer and lyricist whose skill lies in his weakness: he sounds powerless when he demands.  Like Cary Grant (as described by Pauline Kael), “He isn’t weak, yet something in him makes him hold back – and that something (a slight uncertainty? the fear of a commitment?  a mixture of ardor and idealism?) makes him more exciting.”  On the earlier albums, Mars’ lack of knowledge and inability to translate awareness into action – lines like “I guess I can’t live without things,” or “If I ever feel better” — draw us in, but can become too self-indulgent.  Make up your mind already.

On INBLT, Mars is more affirmative.  In “Consolation Prizes,” he sings, “No consolation prizes. . ./If you look like that I swear I’m gonna love you more.” He stays poised, ecstatically urgent, during “Rally,” throwing out guttural “huh” sounds in place of emotion that he cannot convey with words.  Then comes “Long Distance Call,” where Mars moves back and forth between the feverish immediacy of the previous two tracks and the vulnerable conflict of the next two songs; between the anthemic chorus — “It’s never been like that, it’s never been like that” – and the spare, resigned verses – “where to go, I had no idea about it/ most of the people do, they’re only doing just fine.” Mars transforms an unmet expectation into an exhortation to leave the past behind.  The brief explosion of burning feeling, which Mars’ usually smooth demeanor cannot contain, followed closely by his fall – “it’s never been like that” –assures the audience that he is not mired permanently in anomie.

 INBLT sold only 36,000 albums in the United States (according to Wikipedia). Three years later, in 2009, Phoenix released Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, which it had worked on for two and a half years.  Wolfgang used funk and bigger synths, toned town Phoenix’s gentleness and reached more for jubilant speed.  The synths increased the album’s warmth, concealed any of INBLT’s glum ambivalence, and pumped up the choruses. The sound was more complicated, but the appeal was simpler.  The expressiveness of the guitars was diminished or obscured, but the message was clearer, more one-dimensional.

The sonic difference between Wolfgang and INBLT is apparent in two similar songs: “Lisztomania” is a lot like “Consolation Prizes,” sharing the same tumbling drums, gleeful guitars, and loping momentum. But “Consolation Prizes” has more empty space — places where Mars sings unaccompanied by instruments, open spots where percussion is expected but doesn’t materialize.  On the bridge, Mars’ singing approaches pleading. In “Lisztomania,” the vocals are often layered so Mars is rarely without his own vocal backing.  There are swelling keyboards behind all the guitars. The bridge is described by the band as “the pirate part” where the band feels like “storming the enemy.”  Nobody plays alone so it’s more complex but also more inviting; “Lisztomania” is calculated to be all rush.

 Wolfgang’s next song, “1901,” introduced the album to the world, and the success of the giveaway of this single was instrumental to the band’s breakthrough.  The song feints a hook and then ambushes the listener with a rush of synthesizers and one of the shortest choruses Mars ever sang: “Fold it, fold it.” Synths ramp up with cinematic splendor, reaching for the grand as if coaxing the sun over the horizon in an 80s sci-fi epic.  Blurting electronics work the magic here, just a few notes that combine with the pounding drums, preventing attention from wandering during the guitar interplay and leading to the firm ground of the chorus.  Technology and the future are indelibly linked, and the fact that “1901” could soundtrack a futuristic movie and be used to advertise for a new car shows that Phoenix has become both cutting-edge and solidly establishment. Wolfgang sold over 500,000 copies in the United States.

Wolfgang’s sequencing emphasizes hybridity and change.   “1901” is followed by the blue-eyed funk of “Fences” — sparkle, prominent bass, and a disco falsetto.  A two part instrumental sits next to the shortest, punchiest song on the album.  The music is constantly in flux, but familiar elements drift through different songs, especially certain guitar sounds, and the band strips the instruments of much of the uncertainty they displayed on Wolfgang’s predecessor.  In “Girlfriend,” the synths add a lush sheen, and when the music builds to breaking point, they lead smoothly into a hook instead of collapsing or bottoming out.  This adds to the feeling of flexibility – there are few jarring moments like the end of choruses on “Long Distance Call.”

Wolfgang rearranges riffs to favor momentum and recycles two sounds that fit its idea of modern. “Lasso” and “Armistice,” which share some qualities with the songs on INBLT, are broken up with sections of jagged power riffing that act like the synths in “1901.”  Elements of funk slip into the two-part instrumental “Love Like A Sunset,” providing kinetic energy.  It’s a different type of funk guitar for Phoenix, not as soft or elastic as the guitar in the earlier work, harder and more robotic – there is almost a whiff of the ominous in parts of “Love Like A Sunset.”  Two songs later, when “Rome” starts to seem balladic or mournful, those tense hammered notes pop up again, undulating forward.  The guitars add robo-funk to ballad, manipulating and crossing genre, incorporating the technological into the traditional.  The intro to “Girlfriend” features what the band calls a “Timbaland guitar,” named after the rap/pop producer; Christian says “it could be a sample. . . it doesn’t even sound like a guitar.”  It’s high-tech mystery.  Phillipe Zdar, who helped produce, describes the sound it makes as “tonk tonk tonk” – tight, pointy, and hollow; it doesn’t dawdle (but it’s not evocative either).  The sound reappears on “Armistice.”

To some extent, Wolfgang’s success put Phoenix in a predicament: the absorbers of culture were in turn absorbed by that very culture – not only by Cadillac, but also by the Superbowl, the most American of events, which used “1901” to soundtrack a post-game highlight reel in 2011 – and have now become a piece of the cultural machinery.  The outsiders are now the insider’s insider, marketing American products and images.  To achieve popularity, Phoenix actually moved away from the urgent simplicity of INBLT towards a fuller sound, incorporating more instruments and fusing elements from other genres.  In “1901” Mars sings, “I’ll be anything you ask and more,” and in Wolfgang  Phoenix creates an album of variable groove, whoosh, restrained guitar punch, and tech gleam, mixing and matching sounds to appeal to a wider audience and earn the status of “Cadillac of crossovers.”

Mars and co. are back in the studio working on their next batch of songs, and it will be intriguing to see how their new position as insiders affects their approach.  Fans will likely be content to settle for another pretty illusion like Wolfgang.  But Phoenix should watch out, in case the music of Mr. Gainsbourg appears in a car commercial.

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