Phoenix makes the idea of a "rock band" seem a little more distant than usual simply by being French, but the group is no more mannered than, say, The Strokes. Both make rock songs with all the deliberation of nanotechnologists, plugging in parts and preserving every precious detail. Where Strokes songs rumble over sandpaper, though, Phoenix songs gasp and gleam under plastic wrap held up as a point of pride. It's an approach well-suited to a bunch of Parisian guys fantasizing about American rec-room culture of the '70s, that era of dirty jeans and smoked-out pod chairs.
The whole Phoenix project made more sense during a recent debut tour of America. In New York, the band's love affair with sway-along anthems and slow-turning disco balls prompted ecstatic reactions from seasoned show-goers who don't generally make a habit of reacting much at all. Live! Thirty Days Ago lacks the wonders of choreographed house lights, but it does give a sense of how Phoenix sets move through moods and paces, like a high-school prom imagined by friends who skipped for something more waning and wistful. "Run Run Run" kicks off with a big rock bang, building through snarls of guitar and electric-piano, before "Victim Of The Crime" steps out for a spell of airbrushed funk. Singer Thomas Mars sounds charmingly tripped up by his English, but he knows the language of pop songs through and through. In "Too Young"a minor hit thanks to its use in Lost In Translationhe ponders a breakup he was sure he'd feel better about, trying to remain cheery over buoyant guitar clips that make it hard to brood, but easy to get sentimental.
Meanwhile, the band shuffles through stacks of '70s-radio signifiers, slipping Steely Dan and Wings cues into a set that takes time out for delicious ballads like "Alphabetical," introduced with just vocals and drippy guitar-picking. The kicker is "Funky Squaredance," a raucous would-be epic in which Mars elicits screams from all the "boys" and "ladies" in the audience, while the band behind him throws finger-horns in the air. It's over the top, but too enthusiastic to write off as anything but pure of heartthe sound of a small band living up to arena dreams that come from somewhere a little more distant than usual.