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Album Review: Phox – Phox

4 min read

Six-piece Wisconsin outfit Phox had a pretty remarkable year in 2013. They released their debut EP Confetti which was bolstered by appearances at SXSW in Austin, Lollapalooza and even a support slot with the Lumineers at the London iTunes festival. Yet in keeping with that famous Midwestern work ethic, early 2014 saw them take to Justin Vernon’s (Bon Iver) April Base home studio in their home state and took to crafting their full-length eponymous album.

Phox - PhoxIt’s worth noting before diving into Phox that virtually every member of the band is a consummate multi-instrumentalist so their brand of inimitably soulful pop rooted in the folk traditions of the American heartland is particularly lush. It’s their sense of poise and restraint however that makes this such an astounding record. It opens with Calico Man where cautious bass and ethereal textures provide just the right amount of backing for Monica Martin’s positively sublime vocals. They’re the perfect hybrid of Nina Simone and Joni Mitchell and her range both melodically and emotionally is truly unmatched in today’s indie landscape.

The carefree, ‘70s piano pop of Leisure starts out innocuous enough before it unfolds into a kaleidoscope of clarinets, mellotrons and swooning reverbs that make it abundantly clear that Phox aren’t like most other bands. A reworked version of Confetti track Slow Motion is a gorgeously sparse pop song with a steady, deliberate groove and some really incredible dynamic builds. It’s also probably the closest a banjo will ever come to comfortably sitting on a reggae-inspired groove but it’s the cheeky mandolin stabs, rich backing vocals and harmonic sophistication that make it truly innovative.

The stripped folky shuffle of 1936 is yet another example of a band who are undeniably coming into their own. It seems as though writing uniquely beautiful indie-pop isn’t enough for these guys since at every turn of every song on this album, there’s some tiny little element of the arrangement that grabs your ear in an impressive subtlety. That being said, the intricate vocal intro of Evil erupts into an unapologetic trumpet solo before rolling on to a rollicking pseudo country climax and resolving with that gorgeous oeuvre that you’ve come to love by this point in the record.

Once again Martin’s vocals are cast front and center over a bed of piano and ambience on Laura and it’s pretty clear whose studio was used to record it. The dynamic control throughout is breathtaking though and the build in the songs second half is a force to be reckoned with. Kingfisher however plays around with a simple ukulele/flute melody to show that for all the gravitas throughout the album, there’s still some childlike wonder and adventurousness at its core.

Shrinking Violets is a similarly twee, unpretentious folk-pop tune that utilizes the space around its simple guitar line to truly jaw-dropping effect and the dichotomy of fleeting electronic textures and languid strings on Satyr and the Faun undulate and soar to some pretty unbelievable heights. Noble Heart – another of the tracks from their debut – gets a revival that starts with sympathetic piano under Monica’s to-die-for husk before exploding into an almost Motown second half that tastefully calls upon all the bells and whistles the band know how to use (and lord knows there are a few of those!).

There’s not a second wasted in the seven-plus minutes of Rasberry Seed and by this point in the album, you’re starting to wonder if there’s anything Phox can’t do instrumentally. The strings are positively haunting and the drums are not only inventive and playful, but dead on-the-money from start to finish. The album closes much like how it opened, with the sparse intimacy of In Due Time. It’s hushed and honest and the lilting harmonies are a gorgeous way to finish.

It’s hard to think of enough hyperbole to accurately describe this record. It’s almost unbelievable that six kids from essentially the middle of nowhere have such a deep and broad command of so many different kinds of music. The thing that makes Phox such a wholly unique listening experience though is how well paced the record is and how – despite having the ability to craft rich, deeply textured soundscapes every step of the way – at its core, the songwriting would (and at times, does) hold up entirely on its own. A stunning debut album by a band with some great things ahead.