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Definitive Albums: Phoenix 'United' (2000)

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Phoenix 'United'

Phoenix 'United'

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Phoenix French Band

When French outfit Phoenix broke out big with 2009's Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, they were, for the commercial realm they unexpectedly crashed, effectively a 'new' band; it amusing to see that the Grammy website, when noting their nomination for Best Alternative Album (which they, surprisingly, won), felt the need to point out they weren't eligible to be nominated in any 'new band' type categories, given Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix was, in fact, their fourth album.

As fans would know —whether they went through it all first-time-around, or worked feverishly back to discover in a pique of "Lizstomania" mania— there was a whole, long history predating Phoenix's anointment as alt-rock crossover act. There was 2006's It's Never Been Like That, a furious rush of energy and melody, all angular riffs and rock'n'roll swagger; the band reduced to a fearsome essence that, somehow, scared away more listeners than it seemed to convert. There was 2004's Alphabetical, the mythical Difficult Second Album, which hung heavy with a breakup-record heart, and was weighed down by a labored, studio-perfectionist approach which betrayed a Steely Dan obsession.

And, first of all, back at the beginning, was United, an album sold copies in Europe, a converted a handful of fervent diehards elsewhere; it standing, before Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, as far-and-away the French band's most beloved album. For most who heard it, the album —especially taken as whole— was a puzzling curio whose reputation was unendingly aided by the presence of two peerless pop-songs: "If I Ever Feel Better" and "Too Young."

Smooth Music

Like so much of the record, "If I Ever Feel Better" and "Too Young" are songs steeped in the soft and smoother sounds of American AM Radio of the '70s. This was, on United's release, an not-particularly-common strain of influence; their saxophone stings and funky organs utterly out of place, even in a revivalist sense, in 2000. The term 'yacht-rock' hadn't even been invented; let alone the influence of smooth music adopted into the indie canon.

It seemed a particularly puzzling strain of influence for a group of guys from Versailles, France, but Phoenix's foreignness allowed them to embrace these myths of sunkissed California with an earnest naïveté; when Thom Mars sings "every Sunday/I go to Hollywood/I buy my ticket/to see the midnight show," it's almost entirely likely he'd never been to Los Angeles at the time; instead, he was working with a mythology heard on old vinyl dug up cheap, or via tinny childhood transistor, years before.

At the time —in, assumedly, a desperate attempt to sell records— much was made of Phoenix's connection to the rising tide of French filter-house artists. Phoenix had served as Air's backing band for UK shows, guitarist Laurent Brancowitz had been in a band with the members of Daft Punk, and Daft Punk's Thomas Bangalter played keyboards on United. But aside from the nuts "Funky Squaredance" —a mutant melding of country hoedown with French house and stadium-rock— Phoenix were doing something all their own.

In many ways, that something never changed: writing awesome pop-songs. Beyond "Too Young" (a piece of slick disco-pop harboring secretly profound sadness-at-the-party lyrics) and "If I Ever Feel Better" (a genial, jaunty taut, funky jam filled with lyrical lamentations), there's the brassy "On Fire" ("baby!" holler the female backing vocalists) and the countryish, steel-guitar-swiping, melancholy-nostalgia of "Summer Days." These are all pieces of fantastically penned, performed, and presented pop; the first in what would, years on, turn out to be a celebrated career of it.

Record Label: Source
Release Date: June 13, 2000

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