Friday, October 18, 2013

Sonic Sandwich: The Icy Poetry of Phoenix and the Stuffiness of White Lies

This is just to remark on the difference between Phoenix's 2008 album, Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix and their 2013 effort, Bankrupt. I was slow to come around on Wolfgang Amadeus... it was one of my first reviews and I was still sussing out my voice as a critic, so I was more reticent to give it praise, and more keen to take it down for minor flaws. It's one of many pieces of writing I've done that I consider embarrassing to have written. My current opinion of that album is that there's a real beauty to it, a humanity that evades a lot of synth-based music (usually by design,) a certain nuance and icy poetry. Every little bit has its place, and there's a soft touch to it. When I was younger I thought they were maybe aiming too high and missing, but as I've gotten more experienced I've learned that they were right on target. I like just about every track on that album very much.

The follow-up, Bankrupt!, is a different creation. It's much bolder and brasher, noisier, in the mold of Foster the People or Passion Pit. They've filed all those fine points down, and filled in the gaps with, well, whatever sounds. I object to it, in the sense that I liked the earlier product much better, but it's clear they're trying something different. And sometimes it works. Not enough to get a thumbs up from me, but I can adjust my head, I think, to say "Okay, they did this, and assuming it came out like they wanted, it is what it is." There are moments on Bankrupt that really do think are great, like "Oblique City," the closing track, which feels like a good midpoint between the two modes. They are good enough at being a big, hooky band, as on "Entertainment," and "Trying To Be Cool," that they deserve continued success, and they still have ideas as on "S.O.S. In Bel Air" and "Bourgeois," that make the album into a fairly consistent product. I just think they excelled on the previous album.

Another album that I reviewed early on was White Lies' second album, Ritual. I found it such a serious, stiff affair, a bit silly and oversized. But there's a charm to that, the deadly melodrama of the musical backdrop and the severity of the delivery, the way the singer just can't seem to loosen up, like your college roommate who's really into New Order. Unlike with Phoenix, who made a conscious alteration to their sound, White Lies appear to have merely ironed out some of the kinks in theirs for 2013's Big TV. They've found a balance of all the attributes in their sound that appeals to people. Everything about this album seems to have leveled up, in conception and execution. It just clicks more.

And I think, objectively, it's a better album, but I miss that weird stilted stuffiness of the earlier one. It's one of those quirks of personal taste, that I prefer the one that is a bit gangly and lumpy, compared to the slick post-success affair. There was a life to it, if a neurotic, utterly mannered one. It was nakedly itself. I would recommend Big TV first, to a new listener, but I'll listen to Ritual more often on my own.

These cases reminded me of each other, so I sandwiched them together in this article. In both cases, I liked the predecessors more, but that doesn't invalidate the later album. There are always questions in situations like this: Is it a response to success, an attempt to paly to the audience, or merely what happens sometimes after you've recorded one album: you want to record something that sounds a bit different? I can't say authoritatively in any direction, and I'm wary of people who presume to. Mine isn't to suggest why Bankrupt! or Big TV sound the way they do, after Wolfgang Amadeus and Rituals. Mine is just to listen, if I like them, and see if I can bring them to others who might.

So here's the bottom line: Phoenix and White Lies are both bands that use a synth-heavy approach rooted in 80s pop music. Whereas Phoenix's is hooky and intended for the dancefloor, White Lies' is contemplative and in its way, romantic. Both albums feature some solid hooks and really well-done tracks, although both bands have recorded albums I like better. Sometimes, you've just got to lay your stance bare.

One of my little pet peeves in other reviews is when the critic simply cannot get over their opinion of the earlier CD enough to judge the new one on its own merits. And that may in fact be the case here, but I'm willing to cop to it. I like Wolfgang Amadeus a lot, and this is a different thing that I don't like so much. But hey, I didn't always like Wolfgang Amadeus that much, so maybe in time I'll come around.

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