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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, May 19, 2006

My View: 'It's Never Been Like That' by Phoenix

By Joshua Masayoshi Huff
Special to The Advertiser

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The ratings

5 Outstanding: Add it to your collection now. A must-have.

4 Great: Buy it or rent it definitely listen to it.

3 Good: Worth listening to despite some flaws.

2 Fair: Unless you're a fan of the group or singer, don't bother.

1 Poor: Save your money (and your ears).

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CD: "It's Never Been Like That" by Phoenix; Astralwerks

Release: May 23

Style: Pop rock

Phoenix may not be a household name in the United States (they're French), but that doesn't mean you haven't heard its music: its song "Too Young" was featured prominently in the films "Shallow Hal" and "Lost in Translation."

The Euro-favorites got their first big break from fellow French band Air, which used Phoenix as its backing band at live gigs. The French electronic dance-rock group Daft Punk named a song in homage of Phoenix.

While Phoenix's first album, the 2000 pop gem "United," went underappreciated in the U.S., things picked up for the band after people heard "Too Young" on film soundtracks. "United" and Phoenix's follow-up "Alphabetical" would fit in on a light AM radio station guitar-led dance tracks and mellower songs featuring deliciously cheesy synthesizers. Think disco meets Hall & Oates.

With its new CD, the band has changed directions it's, uh, never been like that. The opening track, "Napoleon Says" has an American "indie rock" flair, in the vein of Longwave and the Walkmen. "Consolation Prizes" brings to mind The Strokes' sunny "Someday."

But is it good that these comparisons can be made? Phoenix had its own trademark sound. Now, the band comes off as a bit of a rehash of other bands.

The first single, "Long Distance Call," is the album's standout track. The cheesy synths are back, and the chorus, "It's never been like" repeated over and over, harkens back to the simple lyrics on earlier albums. It's a fun, refreshing tune that meshes the group's '70s soft-rock sound with its newfound love of American college rock. "One Time Too Many" is vintage Phoenix, with shades of America (yes, they of "Sister Golden Hair).

Going on a road trip through the Midwest? For your soundtrack, include "One Time Too Many" its dusty feel evokes visions of sepia-toned photographs. The song's title may be self-deprecating wit are they hinting that it's the last time we'll hear their echoes of soft-rock?

And, indeed, after "One Time Too Many," the band resumes its new sound.

As a music fan, I speak frequently about the necessity for bands to evolve. I constantly write off sophomore albums as being "too similar to a band's first." I never thought that I'd pan a band for trying something new, but I proved myself wrong.

The derivative sound of "It's Never Been Like That" may be new for Phoenix, but it falls under a genre that has overstayed its welcome. People are not going to buy Phoenix's third CD instead of buying the Strokes' first. With Phoenix's shift, the two once-incomparable bands are now almost in direct competition the French band's "Sometimes in a Fall" even sounds like Strokes frontman Julian Casablancas is singing.

"It's Never Been Like That," sounding nothing like the band's two previous albums, pales in comparison to what Phoenix has been like.

Joshua Masayoshi Huff, a graduate of Moanalua High School, attends George Washington University in Washington, D.C.