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Love Like a Sunset

Frenchmen Phoenix masterfully control their ACL taping with tempo, emotion and showmanship

Phoenix rarely strays too far from their formula of one part indie rock and another part French new disco. Having just released their fifth studio album, Bankrupt!, in a 13 year-long career as a band, Phoenix hit the Moody Theater to film an episode of Austin City Limits.

Artists commonly — and admittedly — feel the need to recreate themselves album over album, but Phoenix takes a different stance: The band decides not to reinvent the wheel but rather grease it with each new release. And it works. As a unit, they get stronger and stronger, planting their heels firmly into the ground of their distinct brand of layered pop rock replete with cinematic crescendos, adding only supplemental dashes of experimentation to prevent listener malaise.

Outfitted in the chic, slim jeans, oxford shirts and perfectly worn boots you'd expect from a Parisian band (Laurent Brancowitz, in particular, looking something of a present day Buddy Holly), the six-piece took to the stage with Eastern-influenced "Entertainment," the first single off of Bankrupt!, moving into "Lasso" where monster drummer Thomas Hedlund ended by thrashing out perfect, precise percussion, standing out of his seat behind the drum kit.

"Lisztomania" came as the third song in a 16-deep setlist, and served as the point at which the crowd officially loosened up and began to dance. "Long Distance Call" showcased Thomas Mars' ability to handle lyrics that basically sound like tongue twisters (and in a second language, no less), and perhaps the most fun was watching guitarist Christian Mazzalai dance during while playing "The Real Thing," knees knocking, lithe limbs flailing about — almost how you'd imagine a mime would handle a guitar.

Yet the band proved themselves consummate performers when, oddly enough, Thomas Mars laid down on the stage, head on monitor, and let the band play out "Love Like a Sunset Pt. 1 & 2," which demonstrated just how exacting Phoenix is in their ability to control a crowd's emotion with tempo and momentum. The seven-minute long mash-up ended with Mazzalai and Bracowitz bringing the audience to complete silence with their quiet, slowed guitar plucks. 

Most surprising was Mars' voice. With so much texture to Phoenix's music, it could be easy for him to, well, not sing that well. However, for the encore, he boldly entered the center of the crowd and sang, a cappella, "Countdown" into Air's "Playground Love" back into "Don't." And his voice is quite a bit better than the rest of Phoenix's songs let onto.

Per usual (and that's not an insult, remember: the formula works), Mars ended the show by continuing to comb through the crowd with a mic chord that must have been miles long, shaking hands and climbing over seats and into the mid-level balconies. And all the while, it barely appeared that he broke a sweat. 

To be a rock band's frontman is just that easy for him.

In short, Phoenix might be the one band worth calling a "class act" on the road today. Professional yet involved, they parted ways with the audience with intimate "thank you"'s, stating outright that playing Austin City Limits is the pinnacle of a band's career. Lucky for us, they'll be back for both weekends of ACL Festival in October.

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