Scene and Heard – CCXC : I Need You  –  Phoenix O’Neill (reviewed by Dave Franklin)

544229_750If Cruel World saw Phoenix O’Neill opening up her soul in a cathartic and confessional way, a slice of from the heart, honest emotion, I Need You navigates some more expected pop waters. This track from the same debut e.p. Out of the Ashes, is the perfect balance to the more considered and understated strains of the aforementioned track, riding on a more obvious commercial pop ticket but still blending her now trademark mix of tried and tested commercial elements with cutting edge and cultish approaches.

On the surface it is an infectious and accessible number one that is going to charm the pop audience, wow the indie kids and with its confident back beats and solid grooves will be a firm favourite with the more dance audience set of clubland. But as this is Phoenix O’Neill you can guarantee that the song is cleverer than it first appears. It’s main trick is out in the open, an inspired use of dynamic. It accelerates and slows in staccato bursts moving from strident drives to brooding lulls, from spiralling crescendos to sultry lows at a turn. The result is a song which at first keeps you guessing but once you have your ear tuned you can just revel in its rich tapestry of textures and tones.

It temptingly holds back when you expect it to run wild, breaks free when you thought you had it under control. It builds big sounds without swamping the song with too much instrumentation and the depth and texture it carries is the result of creating enough space to let the songs individual components breath and flow, to have time and room to let the listener become beguiled by its heady mix of restraint and drive. It also weaves subtle piano, electronic washes, delicate musical motifs and supple musical detail around the songs main sonic trust.

It hooks, it zings, it pops and it certainly grooves, it is infectious and accessible but it is also cleverly put together, sassy, soulful and groovesome, and it adds an unexpected lyrical astuteness to this often misunderstood genre, so much so that the end result is nothing less than deep and meaningful pop. In short it is pop in an evening dress, okay maybe not an evening dress but in the classy attire of an up-scale clubber, pop with an eye on the long game, pop reaching its full potential. Pop with a PhD? On first listen you may think that it is just another throwaway pop song, but before very long you will realise that its a throwaway pop song that you  will want to keep forever! Whatever will they think of next?

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Scene and Heard  –  CCLXXXIX – Cruel World –  Phoenix O’Neill (reviewed by Dave Franklin)

18835723_1880096632278001_8239687249503528669_nThe best songs come from the most honest of places. They might not always be the biggest songs, the most obviously marketable, or fall easily in line with the current zeitgeist but for the discerning music listener they are the most rewarding. You can hear the honesty dripping out of the speakers as you play Cruel World, one of the four tracks from this young Watford girl’s debut record Out of the Ashes. Pop can be about fun and sheer abandonment, escapism and a break from the rat race of the working week. But at its best it goes beyond such trivia. At its best it can be a cathartic experience for the artist behind it and an intimate conversation with each individual listener. Pop at its best, most exploratory and ahead of its time, can sound like Cruel World.

Details don’t really matter, but the sheer emotion coming off of the lyrical page, the musical soundwaves and the brooding visuals of the video leave you in no doubt that this is a song born from tough times and difficult experiences. The real beauty of this song is that  even though it is something coming from a very personal place, it is also something that is totally relatable, the experience may be singular but the feeling that it evokes is something universal.

Cruel World is also a wonderful blend of genres and eras. It is reminiscent of a number of  90’s pop divas, certainly a chilled Amy Winehouse vibe runs through the heart of the song and it also speaks to the earlier blues singers and soul stars that those artists were referencing and updating. But it also looks to the future, this is pop music walking into a bright new sunrise, changing the game as it goes, reinventing the genre and infusing it with blues and soul, electronica and dreaming soundscapes. Commercial success is not something that should be sought ahead of creativity, but stumbling over it on your way to writing the opening paragraph in a whole new chapter in the history of music is a very happy accident. This is what is happening here, the industry just needs to remove its blinkers and see this song for what it is.

As the music industry wanders further into a music by numbers situation, using templates that provide more of the same to catch the pop fan dollar, the rise of such brilliant blends of cutting edge pop and old school integrity, of artists who understand the long game and the cyclical nature of music, rather than the knee jerk reaction to this weeks fashion are the only real way forward. Welcome to a glimpse of the future.

Out of the Ashes EP –  Phoenix O’Neill (reviewed by Dave Franklin)

21731005_1925260231094974_3282336291917671465_nPop has been getting up to some very interesting things of late. Yes, there is still the obvious, high gloss, production line, pop by numbers that feeds the needs of the music industry and the chart system, but there is also a growing alternative scene, one that mixes the best of the underground with the potential of the mainstream. Phoenix O’Neill fits very much into this new movement. For whilst the music she makes falls easily into the genre, it is what she blends it with that makes it a refreshing change.

As always the song that is possibly the least obvious of the four included here is the one that intrigues me the most and Alien is a deft blend of chilled late night vibes, shimmering electronic beats and orchestral sweeps, hazy sonic backdrops and gorgeous vocals. I’ve long been an advocate of modern pop becoming influenced by older and more alternative dream-pop forces. Keep the production values and infectiousness of the modern sound but soften its edges and haze things out a bit with some dreaming musical spires and ethereality that the likes of Kate Bush and a whole host of more underground eighties acts worked with so well. Do that and you have a sound which has the ability to be both commercial and cultish, cool enough for the discerning pop fan and addictive enough to pick up the commercial pop dollar. Do that and you have a great track but one that doesn’t play by the rules.

Cruel World is probably the more natural heart of the EP, a slow burning reflection on some previous tough times that the artist experienced, a masterful example of restraint and understatement, of how to build a song out of only what is really necessary, the voice and the heart, the memory and an intimate connection with the listener, revelling in space and atmosphere as much as sound and beat. I Need You and I Feel It are more obvious approaches to the task at hand, though they seem to exist at the opposite ends of the dance floor dynamic, one the party starter, the other the wind down to chill out mode.

Phoenix O’Neill hasn’t come to save pop music, she has come to destroy it and build something new from the rubble, or at least leave a musical diagram for others to follow. Out of The Ashes is a totally infectious collection, simple, beguiling, effortlessly cool but generally sitting in the shadowed corner of clubland rather than posing under the neon lights of the dance floor. It is a vision of what might come to pass, a thorn in the side of those still trying to force pop down the same pathways and it does all of this probably without even knowing that it is doing so. You can only be this cool when you aren’t even trying to be cool. How cool is that?

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