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Phoenix 

It's Never Been Like That (Astralwerks)

The French are known not for the raw fury of their actions so much as the smooth operation of their passions. The Versailles quartet Phoenix maintains that impression, with a breathless, calculated spontaneity that feels as if it's evolving in real time even as it's rooted firmly in tradition.

Uniting Spoon's rhythmic insistence, the Strokes' mussy stride, and the sassy strum of Wham!, Phoenix makes songs that are more concerned with staying power than the joy of a quick tumble. No longer tethered merely to the filtered, steady beat, as on 2000's United, Phoenix confidently flits through songs of exultation and frustration while maintaining a succinct, immediate style. Neither the impeccable atmospherics of Air nor the sinister funk of other French contemporaries informs Phoenix's soft-focus malaise. Reverb remains the aesthetic antithesis, even in Phoenix's more verve-infused incarnation, but the parched production of 2004's Alphabetical has at least been given leave to breathe outside its concept.

From the ringing opening riff of "Napoleon Says" (as much of a clarion call as the group's likely to achieve), the band yearns and "churns" through many highlights -- "Consolation Prizes," "Long Distance Call," "One Time Too Many," and "Sometimes in the Fall" -- which, though emotionally lightweight, get by on irrepressible jangle-pop charm.

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