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Coachella Blues

The not-quite-rising Phoenix, the reunited Postal Service, and the diminishing returns of the music festival industrial complex

This Friday marks the unofficial start of summer music festival season, with the launch of one of the biggest events on the calendar, the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Annual Festival. The following weekend, the exact same festival will take place at the grounds in Indio, California. And it will occur again in June and then again in August, only then it will be known as Bonnaroo and Lollapalooza. I realize the big three annual U.S. rock festivals have their own distinct characteristics: Coachella is distinguished by the ineffable beauty of the California desert, Bonnaroo is situated amid the rustic splendor of a 700-acre Tennessee farm, and Lollapalooza has the diaperlike climate of downtown Chicago in late summer. But the bills at these à la carte musical buffets seem increasingly interchangeable. Coachella’s mix of talent this year — composed of moderately anticipated reunions (Blur, the Stone Roses), groups from the ’80s and ’90s that could benefit from breaking up for at least a few years (Red Hot Chili Peppers), and lots of indie bands and DJs who already visit major markets several times a year — is another staid reiteration of the status quo.

But what do I know? I’m just a whiny rock critic. The real experts, the people who run these festivals, clearly know what they’re doing. When tickets went on sale for the first weekend of Coachella back in January, they sold out in 20 minutes. Tickets for the second weekend survived just one day longer. Single-day passes for Lollapalooza also moved at warp speed, selling out in one hour. (Three-day and VIP tickets were cleaned out last week.) Passes are still available for Bonnaroo, but those eventually sold out in 2012, and precedence suggests it could happen again this year.

That’s not to say there wasn’t some sniping about this year’s ho-hum Coachella headliners. (The Rolling Stones came and went as a rumored booking; perhaps Brian Jones will still make a cameo in hologram form.) But, ultimately, I’m not sure how much the lineups really matter when it comes to ticket sales. The festivals have a stronger brand name than 98 percent of the bands. It’s like PEDs in sports: There will always be fans willing to overlook the shortcomings of their favorite pastime because this is the bedrock of our summers. Be it bands or baseball, it’s all just noise between slugs of overpriced beer.

A byproduct of the summer-festival cycle is the coronation of a semi-popular rock band with vaunted “festival headliner” status. Given how most signifiers of success in pop music — the “no. 1 album,” the “platinum seller,” the “national television debut” — have lost much of their luster, “festival headliner” arguably has the most juice, certainly when it comes to affecting a band’s bottom line. How this designation is handed out doesn’t always seem organic; every so often, a perfect storm (a newish album, a career arc precariously stuck between “indie band” and “radio-friendly staple,” the bottomless appetite of the festival machine for more stars) conspires for the powers that be to call a second-stringer up to the big leagues.

In 2010, that band was Phoenix, an engaging French guitar-pop group whose hit album released the previous year, Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, wound up selling nearly eight times more than the band’s second most successful record. This was due almost entirely to the singles “1901” and “Lisztomania,” which infiltrated the culture like guitar-pop songs rarely do anymore, slinking seductively out of car stereos and car ads well into the spring and summer air. When these foxy hommes performed a Coach-Bon-Lolla hat trick in 2010, those songs were more famous than Phoenix, whose pedigree otherwise consisted of three largely ignored full-length studio albums released since 2000. Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix hardly seemed like it was intended to turn Phoenix into rock stars; a Cool Whip ‘n’ Smarties soufflé of lightweight, sugary pop delights, Wolfgang was a good record blessed with two perfect singles. “1901” and “Lisztomania” made them headliners; without them, Phoenix would still be pulling 5 p.m. festival shifts.

On the new Bankrupt! (which arrives April 23, shortly after Coachella’s second weekend), Phoenix comes to terms with its place at the top of the great festival food chain. The record’s 10 songs are shiny, airy beach balls made to be bounced across several acres of food stands and T-shirt vendors by tens of thousands of people slouching at 60 percent attention. Bankrupt!‘s first single, “Entertainment” — notice the winking, utilitarian title — opens with some uncharacteristic bluster from this otherwise criminally tasteful band, with a fanfare of Far East string flourishes giving way to some surprisingly heavy (for Phoenix anyway) drone. Perhaps this is Phoenix’s idea of a “rock” song — it sounds like a low-watt Muse parody. After 31 seconds, “Entertainment” settles into Phoenix’s comfortable formula, with singer Thomas Mars purring over a complex algorithm of delicately interlocked guitars and keyboards, driving bass, and metronome drums. It’s a sound that says, “We’ve returned, and we’re somewhat different, but not really, and that’s totally OK.” The chorus is good, not great, but that probably can’t be assessed accurately right now. The best Phoenix songs are designed to sound great on the hundredth listen, when you’ve already heard them in at least three different commercials.

Bankrupt! essentially picks up where Wolfgang left off — specifically the frothy back half of Wolfgang, after the Tangerine Dream homage in the middle. (The German electronic group also figures prominently on the billowy, sci-fi-flavored title track from Bankrupt!) The guitars have been pushed even lower in the mix, to make way for surging New Wave/New Age synths — an evolution that mirrors the steady eviction of outré rock bands from rock festivals, in favor of trendier, more danceable acts. On the coolly insinuating “Chloroform” and the ebullient come-on “The Real Thing,” Bankrupt! aims for the same middle ground between soft rock and ’80s-informed pop that lesser bands like Imagine Dragons and GROUPLOVE have mined to great success on rock radio in recent years. It’s an ideal sound for the concertgoer wandering indifferently between the stage with the retro-ish alt band and the stage with the laptop-tapping bro.

Short of replacing Mars with Wayne LaPierre, Phoenix is incapable of doing anything unlikable. And, true to form, Bankrupt! is a pretty likable record. (Ever the underdog, Phoenix even revives its self-deprecating side on the disco-strutting “Trying to Be Cool.”) There are no bad songs on Bankrupt!, and even a few near-great ones. (The near-greatest, “S.O.S. in Bel Air,” boasts three different, equally catchy hooks, by my estimation.) But, overall, I like Bankrupt! a little less than Wolfgang, which I liked a little less than 2006’s epochal It’s Never Been Like That. Phoenix has never made terribly substantive music; the sleek, smooth contours are both medium and message, enjoyable but superficial ends in themselves. Bankrupt! is the most immediate Phoenix album yet, and the least sticky. The new songs will no doubt please the throngs at Coachella — whether they remember any of these tunes by the time the next band comes on is a different story.

Ben Gibbard
Joining Phoenix on the 2013 festival treadmill — after playing Coachella, they’ll move on to Lollapalooza, with more than two dozen concert dates sprinkled between — is the year’s most surprising reunion: the Postal Service. The indie duo, composed of Death Cab for Cutie’s Ben Gibbard and Dntel’s Jimmy Tamborello, released just one album, 2003’s Give Up, that became an unexpected generational touchstone — if you were a regular Pitchfork reader between the ages of 13 and 19 when Give Up was released, there’s a medium-to-high likelihood that you cried it out at least once to Gibbard’s sketches of broken romance set against Tamborello’s low-key electronic squiggles.

While the Postal Service was ostensibly a casually minded side project for both parties — Give Up was recorded like a Robert Pollard solo record, with Tamborello mailing instrumental tracks to Gibbard, who then shaped them into songs and added vocals — it was more successful than either of their primary groups. Give Up went platinum, and “Such Great Heights” (due in part to prominent placement in a long-running ad campaign for UPS) arguably became the most enduring indie-rock song to be released that year.1 And yet the Postal Service remained a secondary concern for Gibbard and Tamborello; the group toured only once in support of Give Up, and later attempted a follow-up record that they eventually lost interest in completing.

And that was it — until now, of course, as the Postal Service’s return heralds the dawn of the “Gen Y nostalgia” era for our summer festivals. This week, in advance of the Postal Service’s Coachella appearances, Give Up has been reissued with the requisite 15-song bonus disc of rarities. As a historical document, Give Up is not without value: The Postal Service, along with other early-’00s thoughtful-teenager bait like Garden State and The O.C., is emblematic of indie’s “prestige” period, when middle-of-the-road entertainment could still appear edgy by adopting the aesthetics of indie production and fashion, no matter how nebbish or wimpy these trappings seemed even at the time. And, like the overwrought Garden State and its flashier TV cousin The O.C., Give Up is still very much a product of its time.

The wan meekness of Gibbard’s vocals and Tamborello’s rinky-dink soundscapes on Give Up suggest an untoward level of self-consciousness about appropriating what was, at the time, verboten in indie circles: the Yaz/Pet Shop Boys synth-duo template. In 2013, there’s a surplus of records working in this vein with tons more style and not so much damn shyness.2 The newly recorded songs packaged with Give Up — the Jenny Lewis–assisted “Turn Around” and “A Tattered Line of String” — solidly re-create the Postal Service’s ’03 vintage sound and illustrate how embalmed it sounds 10 years later.3 This is not to say that Give Up has aged poorly — though it hasn’t aged well — just that newcomers might wonder why all these geriatric twentysomethings cared so much back then.

Filed Under: Coachella, Events, Movies, Ted

Steven Hyden is a staff writer for Grantland. His first book, Your Favorite Band is Killing Me, will be released in May.

Archive @ Steven_Hyden