Phoenix rising

by Nick Bollinger / 24 April, 2010
The Phoenix Foundation's early, giddy experiments with style have become part of a free-ranging musical vocabulary.

A couple of verses into Eventually, the song that opens the Phoenix Foundation's fourth album, Samuel Flynn Scott sings a line that made me stop and smile the first time I heard it. As he crooned about "damp cold flats with broken heaters", I flashed back to the review I wrote for this magazine when the Phoenix's first long-player, Horse Power, came out seven years ago.

"More than anything," I concluded in the piece, "this album makes me think of old girlfriends, single-bar heaters and draughty flats". Had the image been deliberately appropriated, or did it drift up from Scott's unconscious?

Either way, the Phoenix Foundation can still summon up familiar times and places and it's still the old Wellington evoked so powerfully in their debut. In Eventually, Scott sings of rain, wind and walks on Mt Victoria, trees, pine needles, birds and the ocean, while a rolling orchestration of mallet percussion, swelling synthesiser, slow oceanic guitar chords and at one point a roar like the wind put me right there in that storm on the hill above the harbour.

They can do a lot of other things, too: set you on the sticky floor of a student union dance with the Clean-style strum and drum-beat of Bitte Bitte; prompt a shiver of romantic memory with glockenspiels in the beautiful chorus of Flock of Hearts; make you gasp at the extravagance of the title track; or laugh out loud at the sheer silliness of rhyming "mango" with "tango".

But though this almost-filmic approach to pop has been evident since their first album, Buffalo finds the Phoenix Foundation consolidating.

What were once giddy experiments have become part of a broad vocabulary of styles through which they now range with assurance. If they sometimes come across like Wilco's Antipodean cousins, it is most likely because the two bands have a similar breadth of reference and ambition - or perhaps it's just more echoes from the unconscious.

Any messing around that went on between Happy Ending and this new record seems to have been siphoned off into the fairly absurd Merry Kriskmass EP, released late last year, and recent solo albums by virtually every member of the group have given them the chance to flex specialised musical muscles.

That means no one has brought any excess baggage to Buffalo. Here they play like the best kind of band, all their skills put to the service of the songs.

There are none of the side trips into cinematic instrumentals that gave a rambling shape to those earlier albums. Not that the group's formidable backline - particularly percussionist Will Ricketts and multi-instrumentalist Conrad Wedde - are underused here. It is their tiny textural details that bring the songs to life. But there is also no moment as intense, unexpected or defining as in Happy Ending's Pure Joy where Scott screams "I never look away" like a primal John Lennon, or as anthemic as the shouts of "It's a lie! It's a lie! It's a lie

that you gotta be the big man in this world!" that brought Pegasus to its rousing conclusion.

Instead, these new songs polish up their hooks. Flock of Hearts is the sole track that clocks in at the classic pop-single length of three minutes, but isn't the only one with an inescapably hummable chorus.

Buffalo may not have the peaks and valleys of previous Phoenix waxings, yet it climbs to a plateau and remains for all of its 42 minutes. The view stretches in every direction. Look - you can even see my old flat.

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