By MARK GUARINO | Chicago Sun-Times
Forgive the pun, but Phoenix is rising. The French pop band played to a sold-out audience Wednesday night at the Aragon in what must have been the sleekest, most efficient set by a band in that venue in recent memory.
Phoenix dates to the mid-1990s but only recently — through a breakthrough on the Billboard Top 40 chart and a media blitz on U.S. television — has the band played to its largest audiences on these shores. It helps that lead singer Thomas Mars is certified tabloid fodder as the father of a child by film director Sofia Coppola, the lyrics are sung in English and the band’s taut songs sound very much like the Strokes.
Although the band has collaborated with Euro-techno-bohos Air and Daft Punk, this tour is primarily about the guitars and power chords. New songs like “Lisztomania” and “1901,” which both kicked off the night, defined the band’s more engaging sound: sharp, steely guitar riffs, a jacked-up bounce in the rhythm and choruses that blast off like fireworks.
The key asset to this tour is drummer Thomas Hedlund who often played in double time to beef up the songs. He also had a theatrical edge, standing to accentuate his punishing beats, and joining in unison with Robert Coudert, a second hired hand who played percussion as well as keyboard. Normally a quartet, Phoenix should keep Hedlund close in everything they do.
While it’s commendable that Mars sings in English, his vocals were routinely washed out by his band. The instrumental “Love Like a Sunset” proved that perhaps this was best. Through many unexpected turns, the song became an engaging point-counterpoint between guitarists Laurent Brancowitz and Christian Mazzalai. They turned into minimalists who traded notes back and forth, gradually shaping each one, in what became the most mesmerizing segment of the night.
Mars did not leave the stage during the exchange but instead sat on the floor, his back against his stage monitor. The stance certified his slacker credentials, but also served to show he wasn’t really missed.
When Mars did take back the show, he returned it to the busy, swooning pop songs he started with, which were returned to him by the crowd singing along.
The set ended with “Funky Squaredance,” which featured techno elements combined with classic rock guitars. Mars’ vocals were processed to make them sound like coming from a croaking robot and, strangely enough, they had the most to say.
Mark Guarino is a local free-lance writer. Visit mark-guarino.com.