For their April 2013 Billboard cover story, Phoenix were billed as Coachella's breakout kings. And that they have, though their path to success has proven just how slow and methodical a "breakout" can be.
Prior to the release of 2009's "Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix," the record that finally caused the masses to take notice, Phoenix weren't obscure, but they weren't exactly noteworthy, either. Since forming in the Parisian suburbs during the late '90s, they'd released three albums on Astralwerks. The Thomas Mars-led group, who'd assumed the role of France's rock-friendly answer to friends like Daft Punk, were the sort of band who'd regularly appear on critical "Best Of" lists, yet had hardly escaped niche status. A move to Glassnote Records -- an American indie with the pull of a major -- changed all that.
Their Glassnote debut, "Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix," showed off the band's most confident, streamlined pop rock songwriting to date and Glassnote honcho Daniel Glass knew what to do with it. Although American radio was slow to catch on, lead single "1901" -- an absolutely irresistible bit of synthrock glory -- hung around and left its mark. After 31 weeks on Alternative Songs, the single finally reached No. 1, marking the longest trip to the top in the history of the chart. Toss in the similar success of its follow-up single "Lisztomania," and the LP exceeded all expectations, selling 710,000 units to date, according to Nielsen SoundScan.
In typical Phoenix fashion, the quartet took their time readying the follow-up. After wrapping up tour support for "Wolfgang Amadeus" at the end of 2010, Phoenix spent two full years in New York and Paris studios with longtime producer Philippe Zdar, crafting an album they surely hoped to be more than a victory lap.
This past weekend at Coachella, rumors of a Daft Punk collab brought buzz around Phoenix's headlining set to a fever pitch. But instead of the robots, a much less expected collaborator stopped by. It was R. Kelly, who sung his trademark "Ignition (Remix)" over "1901"'s bubbly opening beat. The mashup worked well, proving Phoenix's own trademark song still has legs. But what about Phoenix's new material? Billboard takes a track-by-track look at the band's fifth studio album, one of indie rock's most anticipated new releases of 2013.
You know how music nerds often complain a lead single doesn't truly represent an album? For "Bankrupt!," "Entertainment" is the opposite of that. Like almost all of the LP, there's heavy pop appeal for those with an ear for glistening production. Every musical detail -- from the opening wall of keyboards to Thomas Mars' voice -- is coated in a kind of production gloss that permeates the album and serves Phoenix well. As the focus track, it's sure to be compared to "Lisztomania" and "1901" and it actually recalls the former's propulsive drumbeat and the latter's big pre-chorus buildup. It lacks a strong enough hook to top the pure bliss of "1901," but given Phoenix's increased exposure, could still match its success.
2. The Real Thing - No wonder Phoenix took two whole years in the studio (in both Paris and New York) to finalize this album. "The Real Thing" is a meticulously-produced pop track that's overflowing with little nuances, even by Phoenix's audiophile standards. Just focus on how the synthesizer sounds shift throughout the track -- from subtle little riffs answering Mars' voice to a background wail in the chorus -- and you've got a fine treat for the ears. Still, there's nagging hope that all of "Bankrupt!'s" best moments won't be so passive.
3. SOS in Bel Air - On what's arguably the album's most immediate track, Thomas Mars explores the social life, and judging by his cry in the chorus ("Put my name on your list, SOS in Bel Air!") things aren't going so well. The track's all about kinetic energy, and with its peppy drumbeat and picture-perfect fast-to-slow-and-back-again chorus. It's another prototype Phoenix song on an album full of prototype Phoenix songs. Around this point, you realize, whether you like it or not, Phoenix are still perfectly content to work the "Wolfgang Amadeus" template.
4. Trying to Be Cool
Continuing the apparent theme of the previous track, the Phoenix boys return with a more mid-tempo number that goes "I'm just trying to be cool, it's all because of you." But they're friends with Daft Punk and shot their Billboard cover story in a gallery -- just trying?
5. Bankrupt! - Five albums into their career, we're starting to catch onto the fancy tricks Phoenix like to pull -- like reminding us they're into more than four-minute rockers by dropping shape-shifting seven-minute songs in the middle of their records. They did it on "Wolfgang Amadeus" with "Love Like a Sunset" and they do it again here with the title track. In fact, the two sprawling songs were spliced together at the band's recent Brooklyn gig. The mostly tranquil track works mainly like an interlude between the album's rather congruent halves, though it does peak with a thundering synth buildup around the 2-minute mark. If it sounds familiar, it's the same sound byte used on an early "Bankrupt!" teaser on the Phoenix official site.
6. Drakkar Noir - Thomas Mars kicks off the album's second half by doing something he's good at: being cooler than you! It's all in good fun, though, as he bemoans the titular men's fragrance saying "you could do it better, Drakkar Noir, cheap fixtures…" It's a good-natured album cut for glancing at the lyrics in the liner notes, but not among the album's standouts. Mars' message? Don't settle for less than the best!
7. Chloroform- The amusing song titles continue, with one that suggests the band paid attention in high school chemistry class (chloroform is a slightly hazardous organic compound). Whatever the connection (Mars' toxic love?), "Chloroform" is a side b highlight, with its warm, fluorescent keyboards giving off a balmy, tropical feel in the vein of Delorean or Tough Alliance. It's a sound that might not translate well to a rock club, but would sound right at home permeating a summer festival at sundown.
8. Don't - Musically, the rather nondescript "Don't" isn't much of a standout, save for the rapid-fire drum sequences that close out the choruses. Mars' lyrics do touch on his fear of serious love and relationships, a theme found on much of the album: "Whatever, we're so close to serious. Whatever promise you made -- I have no problem to say 'No.'" Let's hope this doesn't reflect strife with his very famous wife, Sofia Coppola.
9. Bourgeois - Thomas Mars offers a bit of social commentary here, singing, "Bourgeois, why would you care for more? They give you almost everything, you believed almost anything." A mid tempo pop song about the mediocrity of a middle class girl could be a bummer, but fortunately, the music's warm, reflective feel settles in nicely towards the end of the album. Here you'll find more delicious subtleties in Phoenix's production with a gradual fade-in and fade-out bringing a great sense of symmetry to the song.
10. Oblique City - We don't learn what city Mars is speaking of, but he's pretty bummed about its commercialization. "I wanted out of the biblical bets," the song opens, as Mars laments the brand-worship of icons like Coca-Cola, which is also name-dropped. Again, Phoenix show off their sense of symmetry, ending the album with a peppy, uptempo song that probably could've been a decent opener.