Saturday, 29 January 2011

The Phoenix Foundation - Buffalo Album Review (2011)

The Phoenix Foundation, a six-piece from New Zealand, makes the kind of music that is perfect for a lazy summer afternoon. So it is strange that they chose a January date for a UK release; when the sun is shining the band’s hometown of Wellington, the grim gloomy cold winter grinds on in the UK. Fronted by Samuel Scott and Luke Buda, The Phoenix Foundation’s fourth album (not counting the two soundtrack albums credited to them) Buffalo, for the most part, builds perfectly upon 2007’s Happy Ending.

From the outset, Buffalo is a pleasing luxurious ride through a consciousness of stories and ideas. There are few obvious themes, people or direct references and the album is blended together into a continuous holiday, cruising the waves, stopping off to walk on white sands and pick fruit from exotic trees, and it does this through textures and sublime emotive song writing. Opener Eventually sets things off perfectly and immediately conjures images of sun-kissed waters in a sleepy harbour: “ships are yawning in their moorings…’. And on the title track, we dive into the warm waters to swim amongst the wildlife: “I’m on the sea floor…Through the ocean I do roam’. The pace builds in the second half, whirling guitars and more frantic earnest vocals right to the end.

But Flock of Hearts and Pot are easily the highlights of the first half. The former blends slick guitar-work with tinkling xylophonic keys and crooning vocals. It is one of many times the album shows signs of late Blur, when Albarn had one eye, and ear, on his future project Gorrilaz. Again the song writing is superb. Lines such as “falling asleep at the wheel of fortune’ sit effortlessly with the buzzing guitar-break. In come the handclaps for the mumbling, often wordless, vocals of Pot (a recent UK single release) that moves slowly into a swirling mass of instrumentation and electronics for the close.

In the second half, Bailey’s Beach is a sleek stylish Richard Hawley style ballad complete with stylophone-esque keyboards and delicious vocal harmonies. Wonton is more brilliance with a rolling electronic piano melody and a hedonistic theme: “It’s what you want on top of everything else you’ve got…Until your heart stops…”. And it is the closer Golden Ships, the slow dreamy arrangement and more harmonies leading into a superb outro, that steals the show. The phrase: “… fill our veins with syrup of the stars” summing things up perfectly and exquisitely completing the trip (pun intended).

If there is a downside to Buffalo it is that the things that make the rest of the album great, the music that simply glides from the record, are replaced by a misplaced trilogy at the centre. Bitte Bitte is a poor Anglo-German pun with odd hard-edged vocals and an annoying chorus. Skeleton is the album’s weakest song and completely devoid of the lyrics that are such a tour-de-force elsewhere (coupling burning with yeaning for instance). And Orange & Mango lays on the kooky charm a little too much but recovers in the second half, in spite of “…I ate the walrus… I ate ancient Grecian chorus” dropping into the mix, to deliver a wonderful looping instrumental finale. But these are minor discretions as even at their most weird The Phoenix Foundation come up with the goods.  

So Buffalo is not a complete triumph but it is the sound of a band – in spite of replacing a band member during recording – making music as a coherent cohesive unit, all pulling in the same direction. The album is often evocative and stirring and the slightly loose mid-point aside, The Phoenix Foundation prove yet again that indie-pop can be liberated, exert freedom and remain accessible. And backing up the album’s release with a European tour, The Phoenix Foundation is bringing a thick slice of Kiwi sun to an otherwise gloomy world.

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