Phoenix follow Daft Punk, Air, and virtually no one else in the brief tradition of French bands not being terrible. Seriously, I usually can't be bothered with anything from the continent, which I understand is an extremely ethnocentric point of view (I went to grad school, see), but one that has been forged by years of pop and rock appreciation. What's with all the techno? So crap. But at any rate, Phoenix is the exception that proves the rule, I guess, because they are fantastic, no ifs, ands, or buts about it. Plus, they sing exclusively in English. Result.
After getting a few records under their belt, including their 2000 debut United, a pretty schizophrenic record which dabbles in some exceptional electro-pop and stadium rock (?!?) -- see the song "If I Ever Feel Better," especially -- Phoenix apparently decided to turn their considerable powers exclusively to the guitar, producing one of the sharpest, smartest, most overtly enjoyable guitar records I care to remember. And I don't mean "guitar record" in a Steve Vai or Yngwie Malmsteen wank-fest way, but rather in a "pay attention to the guitars, because the guitars are really good" way. Seriously, among the ten tracks on 2006's It's Never Been Like That are some of the most thrilling, sugar-high inducing songs you're likely to hear from anyone on either side of the Atlantic.
Hooky power pop and infectious, insistent melodies are the order of the day here. It's relentless. "Napolean Says" starts off the album right away with a driving beat and dual guitars trading clarion riffs. And the riffs just don't let up, at all, ever: "Consolation Prizes," "Long Distance Call," "Courtesy Laughs" and "Second to None" are riff repositories. Phoenix's two guitarists weave their lines together to create a cool, street smart strut, skipping distortion in favor of a clean, bright tone that's on time, every time. Ted Leo once called Phoenix "the Strokes, but really good" (I'm paraphrasing here -- he said it in a Pitchfork interview a while back), and that's pretty much right on.
Thomas Mars's vocals (all he does is sing, by the way, which would usually be a strike against these guys -- I take an instant distrust to the "I only sing" singer setup -- but the tunes win out, so Phoenix gets a pass) are pretty good: he can more than carry a tune, and even though his range isn't so hot, this is rock 'n' roll, so who cares? At least he doesn't sound like some lame Euro dude. And the lyrics are clever, especially for an ESL speaker. Fun Fact: If you're interested in this sort of thing, Mars is married to Sofia Coppola, and they have a kid together. Phoenix appeared in her movie Marie Antoinette, I hear.
Like I said, I'm typically really wary of any music that doesn't come from the U.S., the UK, and lately Canada. But Phoenix do France proud, so overcome your (legitimate and often well-earned) prejudice against Euro rockers and buy this album. It's tres boss. Soopare-cool!