Phoenix, Roundhouse, London
Peter Gabriel, O2, London
Too cool for charisma? Must be French electro pop
Sunday 04 April 2010
American antipathy to all things French reached fever pitch in the Noughties, typified by the "Freedom Fries" farce.
It's hard, then, to imagine a less auspicious provenance for a band looking to crack the States. And if any French band was gonna do it, you wouldn't have put your money on Phoenix (right), known, until recently, for just one song, the 2001 single "If I Ever Get Better". After that early highlight, Phoenix's career slowly fizzled out in a long, slow, Gallic shrug of indifference.
But the beauty of pop is that it takes only one song to change your fortunes. And, with last year's beguiling "1901", Phoenix found that song. Picked up for PlayStation and Cadillac commercials, it propelled them into the Billboard Top 20 and, amazingly, won them a Grammy for its parent album, Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix.
However, watching them, it's difficult to imagine that their elegantly pretty indie pop will be filling stadiums soon. The problem, hélas, is that Phoenix are strangers to charisma. Their sound is always agreeable, blending elements ranging from nu-gaze to franco-house, and occasionally striking real gold, but their stage presence is almost zero. I'd confidently predict they'll never make the step up to the next level. But with a career like this one, you can never say never.
There's nothing so poignant as unrequited love, which is why Peter Gabriel's latest project is such a risky one. His first album in eight years, Scratch My Back, is a collection of orchestral covers of other people's songs, from dinosaurs (Paul Simon, Lou Reed, Neil Young, Randy Newman, Talking Heads) to present-day upstarts (Elbow, Bon Iver, Magnetic Fields, Regina Spektor, Arcade Fire, Radiohead), the idea being that these artists will, in turn, cover one of Gabriel's songs. Embarrassingly, one of the artists, David Bowie, has declined to take part.
Aside from an instrumental intro of "Sledgehammer", the first half of the show consists of Scratch My Back performed in sequence, from "Heroes" to "Street Spirit (Fade Out)". Assisted by conductor Ben Foster and the New Blood Orchestra, these renditions are ponderously paced and somewhat bleak, but fans' patience is rewarded in part two by a set of PG originals, including the first ever performance of "The Drop", and a genuinely uplifting "Solsbury Hill".
The coolest gimmick is a dangling camera, which Gabriel occasionally grabs, but it forces you to notice just how much this once sickeningly handsome beau now resembles Mr Mackey from South Park. I know he's 60, but it's still enough to shock this monkey.
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