Arts & Entertainment
3 min

CD reviews: Phoenix & Scott Walker

A music nerd love dies

Versailles-based foursome Phoenix makes harmless, well-crafted, soft-rock albums with glimpses of brilliance that inevitably falter slightly. Their third album, It’s Never Been Like That, is much like 2000’s United and 2004’s breezy Alphabetical. There are at least three addictive sweet tunes to be had and the rest, sadly, just glides by like lost Tom Thumb donuts stuck floating in their boiling fat conveyer belt with nowhere to go.

“Napoleon Says” is the opening track. It sounds like an aggressively static and warped Mickey Mouse Club theme with its consistent drum pounding, edgy 1980s-sounding guitars and vocalist Thomas Mars’ cute poser trill. “Napoleon says take off your coat/ Take off your long johns, too/ Right hand in a trench coat.”

The lyrics are full of nonsense (which isn’t necessarily a bad thing). Pop music has always been based on abstract or trend-starting wordplay. The trick is to make the words flow off the tongue in a genuine relatable context that people repeat in their heads and music- lovin’ hearts. The band excels at this.

“Long Distance Call” is the best of the lot. Guitars jingle jangle with a synth/drum heartbeat backup. “I’m far gone/ But your long-distance call” sings Mars, “And your capital letters/ Keep me asking for more.”

Phoenix has always been a little too precious and perfect. This time out they recorded the album live with limited overdubbing. US bands like the cool and sloppy Strokes and the shockingly great Shins have obviously influenced them. But Phoenix is proof that perfection and great proficient playing isn’t enough. They have to get rid of their fashionista posing and get real. They’re almost there.

Oh. My. God. Scott Walker is one of my all-time favourites. He’s an American dandy who moved to Britain in the ’60s and became a huge star as part of The Walker Brothers. Their hit song “The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore” is a classic.

He left the Brothers at the peak of their success and reinvented himself as a Jacques Brel-like balladeer. His ghostly vibrato and lush, drama-queen orchestrations are mind-altering, heart-pounding masterworks. His first four albums, Scott, Scott 2, Scott 3 and Scott 4 are music nerd staples. He sang a lot of Brel (“Jackie,” “Next,” “My Death”) and composed incredible tunes himself (under his real name Scott Engel).

If you’ve never heard “Plastic Palace People,” “The Girls From The Street” or the haunting “Montague Terrace (In Blue),” well, you really should. They’re goose-pimply good. And don’t start me on my love of “Boy Child.” Holy shit.

Suffice it to say, I “Super Big Love” Scott Walker. Well, the 1960s to ’70s Walker, anyway. In the last 30 years, Walker has only released three albums. Each release gets darker, more abstract and minimal and, dare I say it, unlistenable.

His new release, The Drift, is a real piece of work. What can I say? I’m reminded of what experimental jazz artist Carla Bley said when asked what she thought of The Shaggs (a girl trio considered by many to be the worst band that ever lived). She said, “They bring my mind to a complete halt.”

The album is depressing but, at times, beautifully poetic (his unique lyric writing is still dead-on) and full of hauntingly real wrist-slitting emotion. Depression, violence and despair are tangled in barbed wire arrangements. There are long silent pauses and Walker’s voice slithers and snakes through insect buzzes, donkey brays and catastrophic strings. It takes you places you won’t necessarily want to go. This is “real” goth, more Poe than Bauhaus.

“Clara” is a brilliant example of the disturbing beauty of the album. It takes 12 minutes and 43 seconds for Walker to tell the true tale of Claretta Petacci, who, on Apr 28, 1945 insisted on being executed with Benito Mussolini. They were shot and then strung up by their heals in Piazzale Loreto in Milan and riddled with bullets. “Birds, birds,” he sings. “This is not a cornhusk doll/ Dipped in blood in the moonlight/ Like what happen in America.”

The only song I’ve fallen in love with is “Jesse (September Song).” It has Walker portray Elvis Presley talking to his stillborn twin brother Jesse Garon Presley (which he really did) as he reflects on the tragedy of 9/11. It’s eerily effective using a well-loved, if not the most loved American icon to spout his sadness as if he was Christ. The orchestration consists of deadly cellos and spooky industrial soundscapes. Walker cries, “Nose holes caked in black cocaine/ Pow!/ Pow!/ No one holds a match to your skin.” Later he adds so brilliantly, “Famine is a tall tall tower/ A building left in the night.”

Walker has always had a dark soul but the romanticism has evolved to include intimate takes on human horrors instead of just the lust of women and the symbolic rendering of dreams and fantasies. At 63 years of age, he’s found a new inspiration — the love of every aspect of life, good and bad. I respect it. But I couldn’t listen to it all the time… yet.