France has given us so many wonderful things: Camembert, François Truffaut, Tintin.
iTunes, the digital media store, has offered its public over 10 billion song downloads, podcasts and annoying “Album Only” songs.
In September of 2000, France gave us Phoenix; four months later, Apple launched the first version of iTunes. Only recently has Phoenix garnered the praise and attention it has merited; their latest album, “Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix,” won the band a Grammy this past January.
Why bring up such different yet related ideas? These thoughts converged last week when iTunes released the newest session from their regular “Live from SoHo” series, featuring Phoenix playing six live songs.
By many accounts, listening to the EP is like lending an ear to Wolfgang Amadeus all over again — the six songs just happen to be the group’s most downloaded on iTunes as of yet. As such, the EP possesses no climax; it’s a rehash, albeit a wonderful one at that. Although frontman Thomas Mars’s vocals remain surprisingly unchanged, let’s not lie: one usually falls in love with an artist’s delightful studio album confection, only to go to a concert and appreciate the magic of Auto-Tune while your head droops at the sound of your out-of-pitch idol.
Regardless, we never hold our favorite artists to this standard. “Live from SoHo” sounds perfect; no doubt, it makes us assume Phoenix must be flawless in concerts. But perhaps it comes across as too immaculate, setting the bar unduly high in its perfection? There are no raw performances, no creative innovations, merely the occasional “woos” from Mars, which one should assume denote excitement. Whether you like to hear a band live only to imagine yourself singing better than them, or you actually do find pleasure in basking in unadulterated music, all it takes to buy this on iTunes is being a fan of Phoenix.
That being said, while this EP is just more of the same, the subtleties each song possesses are what make the record enjoyable and gratifying nonetheless. The ride begins with their most well known song, “1901.” Remove the electronic fidgeting in the background from the original and you will find yourself trying to guess where the song will be headed. And while the same can be said for the other 5 tracks, this version of “1901” settles listeners into a peculiar aural setting, as if they were overhearing to the band live, from the other room a couple of walls away.
As you eavesdrop a bit more, you realize “Fences” has been converted from an upbeat tune into a dejected melody, its only departure from Wolfgang: “Come roll the dice for me / Roll the dice for me” appears a plea now, rather than a bold statement.
Press your ear to the wall a bit harder, and you face a choice: skip the next two tracks, taken straight out of their origin (just adding all the abovementioned variations) or stick through them, savor them with your eardrums and arrive at “Lisztomania.” Again, a complete carbon copy from the source, same tweaks, but this time you get a fresh experience. Phoenix is now playing in your basement, and you are not disgruntled: you are tapping your feet along and about to burst from your chair and dance. Yet this live version contains a restrained, casual mood that invites you to immerse yourself in the music, not revel along with it. “Rome,” the final track, sounds and even makes you feel different — less buoyant pop, more carefree bicycle ride on the boardwalk. It does not thrill; it relaxes.
Indeed, this entire EP exists under the umbrella of nonchalance; the band members are having a good time, and so will you. If you loved Wolfgang, you’ll adore this EP. If you have not listened to the mother album of this offspring yet, go and grab a copy before you uncover this small set of live songs. It’s the only way to appreciate the paradox and then give your genuine regards to France.