Which world is scarier? The one so angsty and dysfunctional that its kids grow up to be Eminem and let us know what a nation of Jerry Springer guests is really thinking and its crystal-meth-addled metal youth put on masks and jumpsuits to channel their anger into smackdown rock called Slipknot? Or the one so Old Navy-ad angst-anemic that the kids form bands that sound like nobody’s ever heard of Slayer and think N.W.A.’s an airline?
The latter is the goreless glory of France’s Phoenix and Mexico’s Titan, two bands with new albums out who come to rockdom via the most un-rock path of all: the dancefloor. Besides Phoenix and Titan, England’s Badly Drawn Boy and Doves also fall into this ilk that, while not dance acts, share an affinity with the more catholic dance scene, from audience to production. Badly Drawn Boy (a/k/a Damon Gough) is the best example, having become an indie-rock mascot in U.K. dance clubs with his The Hour of Bewilderbeast, a scruffy take on the same naive ideas dance music has (obviousness, simple melody) as manifested in songwriter form, backed by the occasional warbly electronic backbeat. Doves, on the other hand, were dance guys (Brit collagists Sub Sub) who’ve made the retreat back into rock via big Massive Attack drum loops. Their bleak Lost Souls album sounds like American Music Club’s Mark Eitzel fronting Catherine Wheel a decade ago, and is so wonderfully anachronistic only dance producers could come up with it.
But where BDB and Doves are old farts with roundabout dance pedigrees, Phoenix and Titan are frighteningly young bands sprung from the same edgeless good-time pulse of the modern dancefloor. Aesthetically, you could argue, that’s where the problems begin. Dance music is traditionally about refining down to core elements to sustain a vibe, whereas rock is about shaking, rattling, and rolling. There are, of course, a million exceptions to this (Can, etc.), but Phoenix’s compressed, Steely Dan-ish AOR-disco and Titan’s Esquivel-cum-Ecstasy breakbeats and Beck-cum-Beasties funk have sidestepped the detuned pummel of modern rock altogether, which is why each band is equally capable of inspiredly riff-free songs and rootless run-on rock dependent on the same stretched logic and forced happy endings as Mentos commercials. But where Radiohead try to defy and subvert rock’s vain conventions, Phoenix and Titan are, like dance music itself, blissfully premodern, unaware that conventions exist even as they revel in them. And who wants to defy or subvert when there’s fun to be had?
Phoenix live together in Paris à la ABC’s Making the Band if it starred a bunch of French teenagers trying to mount a Stealer’s Wheel tribute. They have long been mascots of the Parisian neo-disco scene, serving as Air’s backup band. Their flair for the un-rock was first heard on 1998’s Source Material compilation, where they turned in “Heat Wave,” an alarmingly unironic disco track. On United, the dancefloor seal of approval is evident in Phillipe Zdar, half of house duo Cassius, handling all the mixing chores (which explains the compressed, egg-carton drum sounds), while Daft Punk’s Thomas Bangalter plays keyboards on a sappy Pet Sounds-style instrumental called “Embuscade.”
United begins rock enough, with guitarist Christian Mazzalai stuttering away on “School’s Rules.” But the riffing quickly unravels into the disco picking and flat 4/4 beat that eventually yield the melancholy “If I Ever Feel Better,” a moody jam that starts off like Paul Simon and ends up like Joy Division playing on a cruise ship. “On Fire” smolders confidently with its ELO “Bay-bay!” hook and Leo Sayer “Don’tcha know it’s gonna be all right” falsetto crooning. By “Summer Days,” singer Thomas Mars spells it out: “Changing’s no fun if you don’t want to/I need a good day sailing”; other verses talk about feeding horses at dawn and going truffle hunting. Like the dance scene Phoenix comes out of, United is best at its most utopian and unashamedly reactionary, a succession of good times hopelessly dependent on recalling other good times, right down to the band reaching back into discredited if not forgotten music made before they were born.
Titan, on the other hand, revel not in dance’s utopianism but in its kineticism. The trio comes out of Mexico’s experimental electronic scene (Plastilina Mosh, etc.), but where earlier incarnations demonstrated more sampling time than talent, now Titan specialize in quirky instrumentals like some Zappa-obsessed Ventures who’ve made the revelation that sampling time is talent. Secondhand enough that they think chase scenes and opening-credits montages are plot enough for their movie, their “Sabotage”-homage videos are often better than their songs. The shtick and resulting sound propel their album Elevator into a subtitled variety show of sample pastiches. It can’t figure out if it wants to sustain a vibe or shake, rattle, and roll, but it does do a lot of smug mugging, from the faraway funk of Carole King’s “Corazón” to the kitsch interpolation of the Starsky and Hutch theme retitled “C’mon Feel the Noise.” With more punch lines than setups, Titan want to be a rock band but are in a dance world because the only lyrics they can come up with are things like “Squeeze my balls very tight.” When they do get something more going on than cheeky guitar twangs and bumpy beats, as in the Ask the Ages-era Sonny Sharrock melody of “King Kong,” they just hit repeat instead of doing anything with it, content to let the chase-scene funk be an end in itself—like a Clinton-less Mothership. Or a band making dance music, but more eager to dance than make music.