Phoenix's Bankrupt!: When French Electro Meets Alt Rock

Daft Punk maybe set to dominate summer, but their old friends Phoenix are releasing some of the most exciting French electronica this year. So get your hipster on with some of the best French music you'll ever hear...
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Daft Punk maybe set to dominate summer, but their old friends Phoenix are releasing some of the most exciting French electronica this year. So get your hipster on with some of the best French music you'll ever hear...

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Just over 20 years ago in a Paris suburb, there was a group of men who would go on to change the face of electronic music. Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo made the first move, becoming electro icons Daft Punk, revolutionising the EDM scene before turning to synth-pop and Kanye West. They have since soundtracked Tron, become knights of the French Ordre des Arts et des Lettres and, if their latest release, a collaboration with Pharrell and Nile Rodgers, is anything to go by, soundtracking the summer of 2013. Whether intentionally or otherwise, ‘Get Lucky’ actually namechecks their old collaborators, talking of ‘the legend of the Phoenix’. For Thomas Mars, Deck D’Arcy, Chris Mazzalai and Lauren Brancowitz, it has been a slower, steadier rise to the top, but one that will see them headline the alternative stages of some of Britain’s biggest festivals this summer, including the John Peel stage at Glasto and the NME stage at Leeds/Reading.

These big stages are a reward for consistent quality over the past few years, and their claim to the headline slot can only be reinforced by new release Bankrupt! There’s no messing about, as the new single ‘Entertainment’ kicks off the album, marking a slightly dancy departure from their last album,Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, which won the 2009 Grammy for Best Alternative Album. Lively, almost oriental percussion and distorted guitars combine with synths for a classic Phoenix number, reminiscent of the energy of ‘Listzomania’, with similarly echoic vocals; it seems destined to become as much of a live favourite. ‘The Real Thing’ is as close as Phoenix are ever likely to come to a cultural call to arms, as Mars asks “Am I the only one?”, then for us to “follow me”, before ‘S.O.S In Bel Air’ returns to familiar territory; it’s probably the only track which wouldn’t have sounded out of place on 2006’s It’s Never Been Like That.

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‘Trying To Be Cool’ and the title track provide the real musical meat of the album; the former layering a huge range electronic sounds to great effect, and staying frenetic to the end, perfect to keep people dancing. This time next year it will be soundtracking full moon parties from Brazil to Bangkok. Ambiguous lyrics are a common theme for Phoenix which might have something to do with English not being their first language. Sounding like reflective critique of modern consumerism; the quartet are more left-bank intellectual than left-wing radical, but all the better for it. ‘Bankrupt’ slows everything down a bit, as the album sits down at a Parisian pavement cafe and has a good think about life. The considered response, perhaps drawing from their home turf, seems to be ‘more electro’, as the mostly instrumental track, a feature of Phoenix albums, erupts into a techno-inspired frenzy, before settling down to some typically French existentialism.

Presumably having satisfied it’s curiosity, ‘Drakkar Noir’ is another bouncy, light-hearted track; named for a famed Laroche fragrance, it has the big hooks and borderline singalong lyrics that made their previous homage to Frenchness, ‘1901’ such a hit. ‘Chloroform’ gets a bit deeper again, with Mars’ wandering up and down his vocal range in pursuit of an apparently distant love. It’s not the album’s strongest track but it is probably the furthest they stray from their admittedly broad comfort zone, and worth listening to a few times over; a headphones moment rather than an M-P-Free, in 6music parlance. ‘Don’t’ sounds a bit distainful after all the emotion. The shortest track at only 3:16, it never quite reaches the promised crescendo; listening to it you can’t quite escape the feeling that it’s there because there wasn’t anywhere else to put it.

‘Bourgeois’ is a stripped-back, tender love song, where Mars’ voice is the focal point; ‘you bet your life on a cruise ship bar telling cruise ship lies’ he laments, ‘you’ll never talk it out this time’. Not a personal loss so much as a cultural one though; ‘Bourgeois... Why would you care for more? They’ll give you almost everything’, shows that the band haven’t lost their critical edge, even if they’re not ramming it down your throat. Rounding off, ‘Oblique City’ seems like a commentary on life as a rock band, a bustling, synth-based pseudo-power ballad that name-checks Coca Cola, crowd sizes and credentials with enough in-on-the-joke sarcasm to avoid becoming egotistical.

Having have brought a uniquely French twist to the synthesis of electro and alternative rock, it’s no surprise to find the band sticking with what they know this time around. Following WAP was always going to be tricky, and Bankrupt builds on solid foundations, rooted in those same Parisian suburbs that modern electronic music could justifiably call home. Not quite a French revolution, then, but a progressive demonstration that Phoenix, far from burning out, are here to stay.