Somewhere up there is a band called Phoenix.
If you've ever heard a song by Phoenix in a TV commercial or on your iPod boombox, you don't need to shell out the money to see them live. It's basically the same thing. Except without the entertainment value of watching Cadillacs cruise around winding highways (professional drivers on a closed course-- do not attempt!) or being able to skim your RSS reader while you listen without looking like a jackass. 

That's based on the French pop group's show here last night. Phoenix's rise to TV soundtrack and commercial-break ubiquity has been another tale of triumph for internet indie-music geeks, and getting a band with their level of cachet to Des Moines was a pretty huge deal, one more sign of a small Midwestern city's ongoing revitalization. The 1990s alternative rockers you might hear alongside these guys on Ames-based 105.1 FM (The New Rock Revolution) definitely weren't coming to town in their own day, you know? When organizers switched the venue from 7 Flags Event Center in Clive to the smaller People's Court downtown, I was ready for another sad, Devo-esque lack of ticket sales. Turns out I shouldn't have worried: The band was the only real disappointment.

I'm on the ground, so pick me up.
In fairness, I was probably more personally excited to see openers Toro Y Moi. That's the Columbia, S.C.-based recording project of Chaz Bundick, who was backed on stage Tuesday night by a bass player and a drummer. A kindred spirit of former fellow Columbian Ernest Greene, who records as Washed Out, Bundick drapes his woozy synths and delicate vocals in reverb, much like the other artists currently lumped together by dudes like me as "chillwave." I don't think people give him enough credit for the physicality of his music, though, which has more of an r&b element to it than some of its peers, and I think all the dreaminess makes it easy for people to imagine there aren't actually songs underneath. I reviewed his debut album, Causers of This, for SPIN, and there's supposedly another one on the way later this year-- new 7" "Leave Everywhere" and last year's Body Angles cassette show Toro Y Moi can raise some interesting ruckus with guitars, too, so we'll see where he goes next. Last night's set was a super-brief 30 minutes of hypnotic electronic drones and mellow but danceable beats, though hardly anybody but a hippie a few bodies in front me was dancing. On "Blessa", Bundick sings about being young and creative and brought up to believe you can be anything you want to be in these days of recession and aging empires ("I found a job/ I do it fine/ Not what I want/ But still I try"). On "Low Shoulder", he shyly tries to convince someone he loves to stay the night-- out of safety concerns, of course ("If you rest for me tonight/ I'll let you drive off in the morning/ I don't want you in the shoulder/ Where no one comes around"). Toro Y Moi played some newer songs, too, and at times sounded like a much better fit for Phoenix than I would've imagined-- I'm really bummed I missed them when they were touring with Caribou, the Canadian genre-hopper whose latest, Swim, could be described using a lot of the same adjectives (dreamy, electronic, hypnotic, etc.)-- and it was cool to see Bundick dancing up there a little bit. The live drummer brought a different feeling, probably one more appropriate for a concert setting. Still, the all-ages crowd was generally lifeless, and the set mostly left me hoping I can catch Toro Y Moi again in a more conducive atmosphere.

This is also Phoenix.
 Phoenix came out and played four of my favorite songs by them in quick succession: "Lisztomania" and "Lasso", both from last year's Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, the band's fourth album (I reviewed the supplementary remix collection for Pitchfork), followed by "Consolation Prizes" and "Long Distance Call", both from third album It's Never Been Like That, released in 2006. I really thought I really liked those songs. But seeing them live, I kind of don't ever want to hear them again.

It's not that Phoenix were bad, exactly. Their performance was well-rehearsed, and the sound sparkled just like on the recordings. It's just that, watching these guys-- who for some reason I expected to be glamorous and cool, I guess because frontman Thomas Mars has a child with Sofia Coppola, but they totally have just an average stage presence and are vaguely continental-looking but not, like, models or anything-- it didn't feel like their songs mean anything more to them than they do to me. Which I suddenly realized isn't much: This stuff is so great for commercials and TV credits because it's best when you're not totally paying attention. The little production nuances from the recordings weren't there, of course, and the band didn't add anything new to compensate if you'd already heard the records, not even a spark of charm or personality. The lyrics, though I felt like I knew all of them, suddenly seemed like something I would never want to sing along with-- "Lisztomania/ Think less but see it grow/ Like a riot, like a riot, oh!/ I'm not easily offended/ It's not hard to let it go/ From a mess to the masses"? Does anybody genuinely have a meaningful connection with that? Mars was singing in the crowd on the second song, so even that nod to crowd interaction seemed rote, lifeless, uninspired; he didn't stop to say anything until after the fourth song, and that was only the requisite thank-yous and I've-never-been-here-befores. File under Not Phoenix's Fault: The stage lights kept shining in our eyes, so even when I could see over the tall people (it was a young crowd, but how come all the young people are ridiculously tall?) I found myself blinded. And the packed space was pretty hot, not like I hear Val Air Ballroom was for Black Keys on Sunday night or anything, but not exactly comfortable if you're finding yourself wishing you were watching old Chappelle's Show on Netflix Instant Queue or something like that. So a buddy and I retreated to listen from the bar area, where it was about 10 degrees cooler and it still sounded almost exactly like the recordings. It's just-- I wouldn't tolerate such meaningless, not-fun professionalism from any other band on the radio, so why do we put up with it from these guys? Because a bunch of smart people I like and respect say they're good? I dunno, man. The chilled-out electro-funk of "Fences" helped explain why they might be touring with Toro Y Moi, "Girlfriend" and "Signed Armistice" and "Rally" were still unobtrusively catchy, and psychedelic two-parter "Love Like a Sunset" sounded painfully boring from where I stood, but maybe they were doing something stimulating on stage that I couldn't see. The set was over in slightly more than an hour-- "1901" was the encore, natch; I'm told Mars went into the crowd again-- and I wish I'd been in bed by then. Maybe I was just grumpy from these insane thunderstorms keeping me awake the past few nights, who knows.

Goddamn, I've got too much time on my hands.
I caught most of the Delta Mirror's set at Vaudeville Mews on Friday night. Before the show, the lead singer managed to charm some young women off the sidewalk into coming in for his show. The thing is, if you were able to charm young women off the sidewalk to see your shows, you'd think you'd play music that was more instantly crowd-pleasing. I would, anyway. Why not? But every song on the band's album, Machines That Listen, is set in a different room of a hospital, for Pete's sake. It's big, gloomy, synth-based rock. They were actually solid and everything, but they played the song I knew best first ("He Was Worse Than the Needle He Gave You"), and my attention span waned from there. I caught most of the set by opening locals Golden Veins, too, who keep gaining confidence and refining their Factory Records-inspired post-punk sound. Anybody at the Vaude for Netherfriends on Tuesday night?

Is this going to be a "thing" now?


Keith Urban. Friday, Aug. 13. Iowa State Fair.

The Battle Royale. Saturday, Aug. 14. Vaudeville Mews.

** Richie Daggers Birthday Party with Gadema, Young Tripp, others. Saturday, Aug. 14. Vaudeville Mews.

** Vanilla Ice, with Tone Loc. Sunday, Aug. 15. Iowa State Fair.

** Tennis, with the Land of Blood and Sunshine, Maid Marian, the Seed of Something. Tuesday, Aug. 17. Vaudeville Mews.

** Little Gold. Tuesday, Aug. 17. Vaudeville Mews.

Tegan and Sara. Tuesday, Aug. 17. Hoyt Sherman Place.

Pat Benatar, with REO Speedwagon. Tuesday, Aug. 17. Iowa State Fair.

Broken Spindles. Wednesday, Aug. 18. Vaudeville Mews.

Darius Rucker. Thursday, Aug. 19. Iowa State Fair.

** Tapes 'N Tapes. Friday, Aug. 20. Vaudeville Mews.

Sugarland. Saturday, Aug. 21. Iowa State Fair.

Sheryl Crow. Sunday, Aug. 22. Iowa State Fair.

Why Make Clocks. Saturday, Aug. 28. Vaudeville Mews.

** Christopher the Conquered, with the Poison Control Center and the Atudes. Sunday, Aug. 29. Des Moines Social Club.

Canby. Sunday, Aug. 29. Vaudeville Mews.

Sarah Jaffe. Monday, Aug. 30. Vaudeville Mews.

American Idol Live Tour. Tuesday, Aug. 31. Wells Fargo Arena. 

** Pavement, with the Poison Control Center. Saturday, Sept. 11. Uptown Theater, Kansas City, Mo.

Hot Hot Heat. Tuesday, Sept. 14. Vaudeville Mews.

** Best Coast, with Male Bonding. Friday, Sept. 17. Grinnell College.

All Tiny Creatures, with the Autumn Project, Blutiger Fluss. Friday, Sept. 17. Vaudeville Mews.

Maxilla Blue. Friday, Sept. 24. Vaudeville Mews.

** Scout Niblett, with the Land of Blood and Sunshine. Sunday, Sept. 26. Vaudeville Mews.

** David Dondero, with Darren Hanlon, Derek Lambert. Tuesday, Sept. 28. Vaudeville Mews.

** The Strange Boys, with Gentlemen Jesse and His Men, Natural Child, the Jitz. Friday, Oct. 1. Vaudeville Mews. 

Band of Horses. Friday, Oct. 1. Val Air Ballroom.

Passion Pit. Monday, Oct. 4. Val Air Ballroom.

Joan of Arc. Thursday, Oct. 28. Vaudeville Mews.

Electric Six, with the Constellations, the Jitz. Tuesday, Nov. 2. Vaudeville Mews.


  1. Too bad. I would think there is loads of potential to be great live from what they sound like on record. I'm glad I didn't spend the money to find out otherwise.

  2. Yeah, I'm sorry now I was such a cheerleader for getting people to come to the show! I thought I really liked the records, too. But now I wonder if I've been giving them breaks I wouldn't give other bands who make similarly polished-but-what's-the-point music. I mean, plenty of radio bands play People's all the time, right? Did I let myself get tooken?

  3. No. You are way too smart for that.

  4. "...it's best when you're not totally paying attention"

    Ha! That is what I have thought about them for a while. I was always like "Have you REALLY listened to that album?" Catchy - sure, but I never thought it was as good as everyone else seemed to think.

    I think the whole problem with Devo was the ticket price...$50 seems to be a limit where people really think hard before buying. I also heard many people say things about it being so expensive because a copy of the new album was included and that made them think that A) it must be a horrible album to be forced to give it away, B) they were getting screwed because they were forced to buy something they didn't want. If I was in town, I would have been there...but I know it was very tough to get others to go.

  5. Marc, you're not alone on the Phoenix thing. My girlfriend and I stayed for the first two songs and then left. It's good to hear that I didn't miss much. I really like them on record, but sometimes there are bands who work on record and just don't live. Guess we can file Phoenix in that category.