In 2000, when Phoenix's debut, United, was released, I worked at the late Hear's Music on Campbell. At the time, Phoenix were on Astralwerks, a label mostly stocked with electronica acts, and the group's press material mentioned that guitarist Laurent Brancowitz was previously in a band with the guys from Daft Punk. So, I expected synth-heavy hooky disco-influenced dance music. While Daft Punk's Thomas Bangalter shows up to play keyboards, United is more a take on bright, hooky 80's pop. Enjoyable stuff, but nothing particularly groundbreaking.
Their next album Alphabetical was a bit better, with two great songs up front ("Everything Is Everything" and "Run Run Run") and more of the acceptably enjoyable stuff from their debut. They released a live album and I think most people would probably assume that Phoenix might end up riding off unspectacularly into the indie pop sunset.
By 2006's It's Never Been Like That, however, Phoenix had picked up some new tricks, flying though 10 songs in just under 37 minutes, with buzzy guitars moving to the front to knock the last of the synths to the size, sometimes reminding listeners of Johnny Marr's less-morose moments or the unwashed prep-school feel of the Strokes, but a little cooler, because they're French, even managing to sell a few records.
2009's Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was something else entirely, however. Phoenix found a way to hone their alternative pop sound, still nostalgic but also arty. Singer Thomas Mars seemed to abandon the idea of making sense lyrically, but it all worked, with songs like "1901" and "Lisztomania" ending up in car ads, a Grammy award win and an appearance on Saturday Night Live, and the group headlining giant festivals seemingly all of a sudden.
So, what now? Phoenix will hit Tucson (or at very least, Tucson-adjacent out at AVA) on April 9 as part of this year's batch of Coachella-fueled stop-overs ahead of the release of their new album, Bankrupt!, on April 23. In an email interview from France prior to their U.S. tour, singer Thomas Mars remarked that the process of following up the group's most successful album "was pretty much the same but the results were different."
While the group mentioned in interviews that they were aiming to be more experimental in recording their fifth studio album, after the first few months, they settled down to focus on songwriting. "Being in a band and recording album is the only thing we know how to do. We don't have the choice. Most of the time in the studio is not exciting but there are five minutes every week that keeps you going!"
The first single, "Entertainment," features some of the same frenetically cool pop from Wolfgang and is seems to signal another hit for Phoenix, but, as it stands, nearly all of the audience here Tuesday night will be unfamiliar with the still-unreleased new album. Mars promises a range of emotions ("Mistakes, clumsiness, tears of joy maybe"), but they still plan to show off their most recent material. Mars doesn't seem too concerned that much of their night could be unfamiliar to the ticket holder: "I hope people won't mind ... they have no choice, we do the setlist!"