Monday, July 15, 2013

Phoenix's Bankrupt!

I'm not sure what's up with the peaches, but that's cover art for you
 The French band Phoenix (obligatory mention that lead singer Thomas Mars is married to Sofia Coppola) put out their 5th studio album in April, and I finally got a chance to listen to it. I've been following Phoenix for a while—I was able to see a live performance of the band while I was in Switzerland as part of the tour for their last (and most popular) album Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix. The concert was good, despite the lack of effort for audience participation. So I had fairly high expectations.

Bankrupt! got better the more I listened to it, which I can also say about its predecessor, Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix. Bankrupt! has catchy melodies, well-constructed into songs, with some unpredictable and exciting chord and texture changes. Though I can't prove it, I would bet that there was some influence from minimalist Philip Glass, especially in the expansive, mostly instrumental title track, "Bankrupt!" The revival of Glass's Einstein on the Beach played in France in March 2012, and it's just possible the band would have caught it there. Of course, musical minimalism has been around for a while. While Bankrupt! is not as "experimental" as the band touted, it was still a step in new direction.

Lyrically, although some reviewers praise Phoenix for their message in Bankrupt!, I think this album features a similar lyric approach to their other albums—the copious words only slightly make sense, enough so that that songs are cohesive, but not enough that someone can definitively say what's going on. Sometimes, I think the words are chosen for their sounds instead of their meaning. This approach is simultaneously charming and disappointing. But in my opinion, words aren't the point of a Phoenix album.

My main complaint about this album is the same complaint I've had about Phoenix since their 3rd album, It's Never Been Like That—the songs are too similar to each other. First, the band has a way of immediately repeating musical and lyrical phrases; while sometimes this is quirky and endearing, at other times it tries my patience. Second, while each song's hook keep the different tracks separate and memorable, I keep wishing that texture and timbre (or sonic palate) changed more from song to song. For example, I think the strong, oriental-sounding synthesizer in "Entertainment" was fine, but it kept creeping back at odd times throughout the album.

I do think that the compression (an audio engineering process to raise the relative volume levels of the quiet parts, making song sound louder) does not help the album. On the whole the sounds are less than clear, sometimes annoyingly fuzzy. Compression also leads to flat dynamics, which describes a fair amount of this album.

If I had to rank Phoenix albums, I'd place Bankrupt! 3rd, after Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix and their 2nd album, Alphabetical, the album I think did the best of exploring new sounds and textures (Alphabetical also has the best Phoenix single,  "Everything is Everything," which you should check out if you haven't heard). My conclusion? If you liked Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, you should like Bankrupt!, too—but listen to it a couple of times before making a call.

What did you think of the album?

Vocab: hook, compression

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