I once asked a Parisian what was up with the high French chart placings during the mid ’90s of the veteran California hard rockers Suicidal Tendencies. He yawned and said that although Suicidal Tendencies were “guitar-loud,” their appeal rested in “serious little songs we can sing along to.” Phoenix, a quartet from the Paris suburbs who backed early Air, offer those, too, except Phoenix are not just guitar-loud: That’s only a part of their objectively time-blind pop. Yet on Phoenix Live! Thirty Days Ago, a concert set culled from five Scandinavian dates played last fall, guitar-loud is often the idea. As a sticker on the CD promises, here are “blasting versions” of Phoenix tunes from the band’s two treasurable albums, 2001’s United and 2004’s Alphabetical.
They’re not really blasting—the music just jams and distorts more than in Phoenix’s casually styled although well-put-together studio productions. But Phoenix still provide what they have become lonely masters of in today’s CD universe: pop-rock sorcery that doesn’t overdo the magic. Unlike so many charm merchants, Phoenix approach snappy dance songs such as “Everything Is Everything” and the supernal “Too Young” as if they were lean Chuck Berry tunes. Similarly, when Phoenix veer into the rocking (“Victim of the Crime”) or the Bacharach-esque (“[You Can’t Blame It on] Anybody”), smoke or velour never obtrudes.
Phoenix just play their varied music lucidly and with emotion, the same way singer Thomas Mars’s unclassifiable pop-rock tenor doesn’t sound French but also doesn’t affect the American or the British. Phoenix have a curatorial sensibility, yet it unfolds with no vibe-killing theory or officiousness. Phoenix are not style hounds—they’re mystics, like people who glimpse the history of civilization in baseball cards: For them, a dancebeat is just a dancebeat, a struggle is just a struggle, and singing and moving about in time only beautifully suggests that all these careful choices are, like lots of other effortless and difficult stuff, real.
Phoenix play Irving Plaza April 5.