- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix

The dryly allusive title of the newest record by the longtime Parisian alternative rockers in Phoenix, “Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix,” doesn’t mean anything. But as non sequiturs go, this one makes all the right moves, giving the impression of being simultaneously arty, self-referential and clever. The record is all of those things, and immensely accessible, too.

On their fourth studio album in their nine-year career, the dashing French foursome have refined indie-pop hook-making into a sly and delicate art. In just nine tracks, they provides a master class in catchiness.

“Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix” is the band’s most polished and technically accomplished record to date. The group has always had a perfectionist streak, but on this record, the studio-smoothing comes across as borderline obsessive. Unlike 2006’s “It’s Never Been Like That,” this album has nothing even remotely edgy left in it. It has been sanded and glazed over for maximum appeal.

As on previous records, Phoenix borrows from everyone and everywhere - Dire Straits, the Strokes and ‘70s arena rock - but also from disco and soft rock. The sheer number and variety of influences ought to produce an incoherent sound, but thanks to Phillippe Zdar’s deft mixing, it’s cooly coherent, with nary a note out of place.

In some ways, Phoenix’s band mates most closely resemble the Brit-rock superstars of Franz Ferdinand. Both bands play groove-laden lad-rock with a distinctly Euro vibe - slick, synthy guitar tunes for clever boys on the prowl. It helps, of course, that the band members have the requisite dash and good looks to pull it off. Singer Thomas Mars’ high-profile relationship with cinema scion and art-film director Sophia Coppola only adds to that formidable aura of stylishness.

Yet musically, Phoenix never comes off as a band of posers or lightweights. In the battle between hooks and attitude, Franz Ferdinand fronts the latter; Phoenix never wavers from its devotion to the hook.

This makes for a record that’s consistently easy on the ears and effortless in its sense of entitlement. None of the songs demands attention; rather, they all assume it. The easygoing attitude perhaps helps explain the band’s long career - nine years is a lifetime by the standards of rock ‘n’ roll - and its slow-growing success.

Phoenix isn’t quite famous yet - its upcoming U.S. tour has the band playing in sub-1,000 seat rock clubs - but it certainly sounds as if it could and should be. With a record as smart and instantly likable as “Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix,” one has to assume it’s only a matter of time.

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