The Phoenix Foundation: Horse Power
Aug 23, 2003
HORSE POWER, The Phoenix Foundation (Capital Recordings)
Here is an album that has everything I hope for and rarely find in a pop record. Atmosphere, emotion, wit, and, most of all, great songs.
The Phoenix Foundation is a young rock band from Wellington, six pieces strong at the time of recording. But Horse Power doesn’t rely on firepower. There are moments when it could be the work of a solitary singer-songwriter, yet its sonic explorations take it way beyond the bedsit. Analogue synths, lap steels and even a viola slide in and out of the soundscape, augmenting the omnipresent acoustic guitars. Co-producer Lee Prebble also mans the soundboard for capital reggae combo the Black Seeds, and at times his mixes suggest a new hybrid: dub-folk, defined by the slo-mo instrumental “St Kevin”.
Elsewhere there is a sly undercurrent of funk. Driven by a simple drum loop, “Let Me Die A Woman” recalls Sly Stone at his Fresh finest, as does the bubbling bass line and wah-wah guitar that plays out “Sister Risk”.
Even more striking than the group’s broad frame of musical reference is the willingness of Sam Scott and Luke Buda, the band’s central songwriters, to lay their hearts on the line. Where so many of their contemporaries hide behind obscurity and nonsense or crippling self-consciousness, there’s an honesty and vulnerability here that is both rare and attractive.
These are songs about love, if not necessarily love songs. You could impose a classical construct on it and hear it as a cycle, moving from denial to acceptance, or innocence to experience. In ‘Sister Risk’, the album’s opener, Scott voices the hope ‘that you and me could get it on/ casually…‘cause you’re so pretty and I’m such a casual guy”, while everything - from the quaver in his voice to the clumsiness of the word ‘casual’ – belies the lyric.
But by the time we get to “Lambs”, near the end of the disc, he’s admitting that he “just can’t live without love” – extending the personal to the political in what might be the least hectoring protest song ever conceived.
Between those flags there’s a world of gorgeous tunes and wry ruminations, from “Let Me Die A Woman” with its meditations on mortality and corporeality to the country sway of “Sally”, with a melody Jeff Tweedy would kill for.
Of course Horse Power didn’t appear out of a vacuum. If you have had your ear to the crossover end of alt-rock these past two or three years you will easily identify what’s been on the Phoenix Foundation’s personal playlist. Mercury Rev, Pavement, Radiohead, Beck, Wilco. There are traces of all here. And yet more than anything this album makes me think of old girlfriends, single bar heaters and draughty flats.
If they sound a bit geeky at times, like students intoxicated on indie-pop, this ultimately makes you feel for them even more. Individually Buda and Scott’s voices are endearingly shaky, yet when they meet in harmony it is with the uncanny closeness of brothers.
One thing the Phoenix Foundation doesn’t do much is rock out, but that’s okay. While Buda’s “Going Fishing” achieves an agreeably chugging momentum, the other upbeat track “Bruiser (Miami 4000)” – placed right in the centre of the album - is the album’s sole misstep. With a robotically processed vocal (think Neil Young’s Trans) it feels like a failure of nerve; as though they felt they needed to show a lighter side lest they were taken too much for miserable romantics. They needn’t have worried. If any band has made a better debut this year I have yet to hear it.