For its fifth album The Phoenix Foundation has clearly enjoyed creating some of the best music of its career. There’s a lushness that’s never vapid, never too detached as they create yet another lovely dream-pop opener in Black Mould. And many of the best moments on Fandango (a double!) recall the pastoral prog-lite of Pink Floyd’s great late 1960s/early 1970s albums, as filtered through The Flaming Lips via Wilco.
In that sense Fandango is no great stretch from what The Phoenix Foundation has been stewing and serving since 2005’s Pegasus. But this album is a stretch. It’s clearly aiming to be the big-serve record of the band’s career. And it’s probably also a statement – Coldplay and Elbow and any of the awful bands bouncing around referencing within that scale would never make a double album. Not a decent one anyway. The Phoenix Foundation is keeping itself separate from that pack just by having a go. If there’s a message (within/alongside the statement) it’s that the band will honour its indulgences; will take the chance to stretch out and try things; won’t just aim for the hit single that defines the record, that goes on to bury the rest of it. That’s not their style.
But there is a hit single here, ready, waiting. The Captain is camp and lovely and feels as much like a Ruby Suns creation as anything the Phoenix Foundation has done before.
The really good stuff here builds on Buffalo, songs like Thames Soup, Black Mould and Modern Rock and later – way down on disc two – Sideways Glance.
But Fandango is not without the odd dud. Evolution Did seems a bit too pleased with itself, it’s okay to be lyrically daft but don’t then be smug about it. And that’s how this song feels to me. But there’s always a throwaway song (or two) on any Phoenix Foundation album and Thank God (or, given this song’s theme, perhaps it’s a case of Thank Dawkins) it’s not as dreadful as that Orange & Mango song they knocked off while listening too closely to Flight of the Conchords and hiffed up in the middle of Buffalo.
Buffalo was a superb album – even with Orange & Mango, and disc one of Fandango survives Evolution Did, rolling on into Inside Me Dead which is a bit of a downer to end the disc on. In both a good and bad way. It doesn’t quite go where it thinks it goes across its six minutes. It doesn’t (quite) feel like its sonic journey is enough. But hey, we’re halfway. And the best bits have been as good as the band ever has. And then some. The worst bits? As good/bad as the best mediocre-bits from their other albums.
It’s disc two that bugs me.
Or the second half – if you’re listening to it all the way through in one go every time, which you can – since it’s really only just longer than a long-serve single-disc.
Supernatural is another lovely opener, Phoenix Foundation doing what it does best, a hop-skip-and-jump groove skittering along with the daft-ish lyrics working so well because of the rhythm/rhyme/wordplay – lyrics/vocals working as part of the groove, as propulsion for the song. And all those subtly spacey textures that just seem to get conjured up – they’re there on this track. Little bits of loveliness, trinket-like, ticker-taped about the place.
They do such a good job of stretching out the pop song – their six minute trackss are, for the most part, just very good three-minute pop songs with a nice long textural instrumental/noodly-jam bit to elongate. And though it’ll now seem like I’m writing it up as if it is one, it’s never quite just a one-size/one-fit formula. They make it different every time. Which is why Sideways Glance really succeeds – it actually stops, false-ending like, then starts up as what could almost be a different song altogether. Flute parps and disco drums replete with handclaps flitting in around the prog-pop swirls.
But Walls is a disappointment. A do-do-do-do-dud that again seems overly pleased with itself. You can forgive a band for throwing in one quick knock-off but more than one is just careless. Walls feels guileless, witless. It’s a drag. It’s so sure that it’s not. But it is.
Morning Riff gets a pass. In fact it’s very good, if slight in the scheme of things. Its final minute is one of the best passages on the album. The reminders, popping up more often on Fandango than on the band’s other releases, that the Phoenix Foundation is often capable of making genuinely intriguing, beautiful, haunting music that is almost without precedent are always welcome. And this final minute of Morning Riff is a stellar example of this.
And then, after Sideways Glance, just 20 minutes into disc two we arrive at the nadir.
Album closer, the big splash, is Friendly Society. All draining 17 minutes of it. The big splash is just a belly-flop in the end. A slow crawl to the finish line, about as rewarding as the final drink you know you shouldn’t have after everyone else – everyone – has left for the night.
You might hear something in this long track beyond the gobbling of time. Beyond the gobbling of…well, a turkey. But I don’t. I can’t hear anything in it. It just feels like the track that was tacked on as some sort of cosmic joke. It is almost half of disc two’s running time, so it really drags down the other four songs with it. It will take up one whole side of the vinyl. (A side I’ll never listen to).
It feels like a cruel joke in fact. A strange decision – a let’s-see-if-the-record-company-will-let-us straight-faced band-tribute to what it’s sure is its own audacity.
If a lot of the rest of the record/s wasn’t so damn good this would be a giant fuck-up. As it is it’s just the ugly end bit of the evening that’s best not remembered since the early part of the party went off, mostly, without a hitch.
Oh, and in some strange way I want to applaud them for throwing in a shocker or two to perhaps keep them (and the music) real.
I want to…