This French band's first album, United, could've been horribly hollow. A combination of influences from disco to Steely Dan to Hall and Oates to Toto (yes, Toto!) to European post-house might've sounded like a schizophrenic mess of over-ambition combined with an awful sense of direction and, well, Toto. Despite the fact that it included a song titled "Funky Squaredance" and that its vocals were vocoded, Phoenix's 2000 debut was filled with sweet, synth-laden dance-pop (and often endearingly indecipherable English) that had been injected with a much-needed shot of melancholy. When the house lights came on at closing time, they weren't as bright as you remembered. But the bittersweet nostalgia that had burrowed its way into your chest cavity sure felt good. Besides, what good are rose-colored glasses at 2:00 a.m.?
For the band's third album, the 10-song It's Never Been Like That, guitars have replaced most of the keyboards, and the group's way-back machine has parked itself on the FM dial's '60s and '70s pop-rock station instead of the dance floor. Any preciousness, if it ever existed, has been supplanted by a bit of a swagger. And again, as with the band's first outing, such a leap could've resulted in an entire album of embarrassing Funky Squaredances. Instead, songs like "Consolation Prizes" and "Sometimes in the Fall" are well-crafted, summery, make-your-legs-shake tunes that put the band's more fashionable nostalgia-peddling counterparts to shame, while the cooing "One Time Too Many" and the addictive "Long Distance Call" recall the jangly blue-eyed American soul that made Phoenix so interesting in the first place.
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