Thursday, May 11, 2006

Phoenix @ Bowery Ballroom (5/10/2006)

Phoenix's second album, Alphabetical, is one of my all time favorite albums, ridiculously smooth, warm keyboard based dance rock. Every song on there is great, so I was rather annoyed when I missed the shows they did for the album because I was up at school. So, I was really happy that I was able to get to yesterday's show, and it did not disappoint. About half of the show was really good, and the other half was one of the best performances I've ever seen.

What was responsible for this divide? It's the fact that about half the songs they played were off their new album. I don't want to be that guy, but in this case, the new album is significantly weaker than their previous stuff. It's still good, but much less unique. United or Alphabetical are albums no one else could make, the keyboard textures and warmth of the music were something I'd never heard before. It's Never Been Like That is more standard rock. It's still good, but compared to the greatness of their previous stuff, it was a bit of a letdown. I think the primary reason for that is that I was attracted to the band because they were like a more rock version of Air, but with this album, they drop most of the electro, and become more like countless other indie bands out there.

If I'd heard the third album first, I'd probably like it, but wouldn't have the extreme love that I did for Alphabetical. A lot of bands seem to stumble with the third album. On the second, you can usually get away with just developing ideas from the first, but with your third album you've got to do something different, and that can either cause a good band to leap to greatness or a great band to stumble a bit. I'm hoping they bring back the keyboard for their fourth album.

But, enough on that. The songs from the third album sounded pretty good live, particularly 'Long Distance Call,' 'Lost and Found,' and the closer, 'Second to None,' which was extended into a lengthy jam session. All the third album stuff was solid, but nearly every song they played from the first two was a mezmerizing experience.

On the album, most of the songs are pretty lowkey, smooth, controlled and short. Playing them live, they turned to extended jams, moving effortlessly between heavy and softer sections. The second song they played was 'Run Run Run,' which was probably the highlight of the night for me. It's one of their best songs and it was pushed in a really different direction from the album. Other highlights were 'If I Ever Feel Better' and 'Funky Squaredance.'

I like the concert experience to be different than the album, and I don't think there's much virtue in just playing a tight version that replicates the record. I prefer the messy, sprawling approach they took, drawing different nuances out of the song. Because the audience already knows the song, it's smart to play with expectations of how things will go, and the longer versions of the songs allowed them to do that. Most of the songs they treated this way were the older ones, and I'm hoping that at future shows, they'll do more improv and variation with the new stuff. I'd be curious to find out if at the first Alphabetical shows, they played things pretty much straight ahead, or if they did the long improv versions then as well. The fantastic 'Second to None' showed that the new songs could be as good as the old stuff if they were transformed in the same way.

The crowd at this show was one of the most invovled at any show I've been to. There was a lot of dancing in the crowd, and a lot more women than at most shows. They all seemed to be gazing up adoringly at Thomas Mars. I was hoping that Sofia Coppola would be at the show, since she's dating Mars, but there was no sign of her. Rumor has it that she's pregnant, and their kid may have the ultimate indie genes. If their kid was to direct Maggie Gylenhal/Peter Sarsgaard's kid in a film, the indie universe would probably implode, it would just be too much.

While Mars was certainly the center of the show, I was a huge fan of their drummer. He was doing some really heavy drumming, but it always remained melodic and danceable. He also seemed to be having a lot of fun back there, tearing things up.

While I would have liked a bit more from the first two albums, the show was still fantastic, and Phoenix definitely lived up to their live reputation. They took their songs in a different direction live, and that was rivetiing to watch. At a lot of shows, by the end, I'm pretty much ready to go. Here I was wishing that they'd drop one more song, and I didn't want the epic finale, 'Second to None,' to end. That's the sign of a great show.

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