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And so another scribe finds himself left in a jam over the distribution of arbitrary numbers. In 2009, chirpy New Zealanders The Phoenix Foundation made a bit of a splash with an at-the-time wet-behind-the-ears Drowned In Sound writer who hastily chucked an eight out of ten at them without the merest of second thoughts. The trouble though was that Happy Ending – their third LP but first on these shores – was hardly clicked upon again after that review, its surface gloss and shimmering indie pop was certainly affable but ultimately proved to have a short shelf life. In truth the six-piece breezed in and out of consciousness with nary a returning glance, and this reflected in the generous score, as I was initial dazzled by its light and colour only to feel it soon faded fast.
Yet the good points about that album shouldn’t be forgotten: the buoyant appetite for life that flashed through its cheerful veneer, and the group’s willingness to explore beyond their basic template of orthodox song writing structures. It’s these familiar attributes the group bring with them to Buffalo, though this time they’ve added to it a sense of maturity and poise. Where Happy Ending dove head first into upbeat whimsy with a silly grin smeared across its face this LP feels more self-aware, as though the South Sea Islanders have been told to temper down their joie de vivre and fall in line with a more popular dream-pop aesthetic. Indeed at times you can’t help but picture lead singer Samuel Flynn Scott suppressing a giggle as he attempts to deliver his lyrics in a more composed state. For the most part, though, this change seems to have been actively pursued, and if this tempering of whimsy means the lack of clunky similes like “your heart is cold like a box of beer” (from Happy Ending’s ‘Bleaching Sun’) then it is perhaps all the better for it. Indeed, this gut feeling is only strengthened when the gorgeous opening scene setting of ‘Eventually’ glides into sonic view; a majestically languid opener, its widescreen atmospherics become the backbone to the entire album.
This isn’t to say that The Phoenix Foundation have lost their playful side completely, it’s just that it’s harder to find, appearing in snippets and within parts of songs. ‘Orange & Mango’ skiffles along on a downright jaunty acoustic guitar, Scott supplying another none too profound simile that “it takes two to tango, like an orange and a mango”, but then erupts into a much more exciting, expansive torrent of loops and overhead guitars. ‘Bitte Bitte’ meanwhile is a deceptive slice of bittersweet pop, with choruses of oohs and sun-flecked sliding guitars providing a glossy soundtrack to the rather darker message that “we’ve finally reached the stage of super saturation”, it’s not the only time the Foundation lace their sugary sound with a rather more sour undertone. Cream of the crop though is the title track, a lolloping canter of a song that centres round a steady bass line, the constant pulse attracting more and more elements towards its nucleus until bolstered by the arrival of thundering toms.
This isn’t quite there yet for The Phoenix Foundation; there remains the nag that they haven’t quite satisfied the need for more infectious hooks, although to their credit efforts have clearly been made. By track eight or nine the mind does start to wander, much like the perpetual background haze that lingers right from the opening track, and only the presence of ‘Golden Ship’s poignant farewell balladry stops it from slipping off the edge. Yet Buffalo is a success, a clear and cohesive progression from a band who, despite their more reflective approach, haven’t lost the exuberance that so endeared them last time out. With our own guitar-wielding collectives currently rather more dour and predictable, it’s a sort of joy that’s sorely needed.