New Zealand indie outfit The Phoenix Foundation have been around since the late ’90s, but Buffalo, their fourth full-length and first offering for UK-based Memphis Industries, has the feel of a well-conceived and brilliantly incubated debut. The Wellington six-piece aren’t breaking new ground – far from it, in fact – but they do what they do with the sort of offhand vigour that makes each song here feel important and immediate.
The Phoenix Foundation (presumably named after McGyver’s place of employment) are perhaps best known in some circles from their soundtrack work for Taika Waititi’s excellent 2007 film Eagle vs Shark, which featured a pre-Conchords Jemaine Clement falling in love to the rhythms of The Phoenix Foundation’s Apples And Tangerines. But in those days, The Phoenix Foundation rocked a bit harder and injected their tunes with an undeniably straightforward sticky-sweetness that was certainly catchy, but ultimately not so memorable.
Buffalo, on the other hand, is populated with sparse, atmospheric indie pop built on simplicity and fragile arrangements. At the fore is Sam Flynn Scott’s subtly twee – but ultimately bemused – tenor, singing through thick reverb lines like: “Well, this is no joke. I really am broke, and all that you can say is ‘Look at that birdie’” (Bailey’s Beach). There are plenty of moments in which The Phoenix Foundation risk fading into the background, such is the quiet gentleness of their aesthetic, but close listening reveals Buffalo as a showcase for a sort of song-craft brilliance.
The album opens with the slowly wafting Eventually, which serves to lull the listener into the album’s atmospheric dreamscape. “And this is the line, walking in our raincoats,” Scott sings about a whimsical trip up Mt Victoria, surrounded by soaring harmonies and layered but spacious embellishments. Lead single Buffalo opens sounding a bit like something The Magic Numbers may have come up with in their heyday. “I am the buffalo. Through the ocean I do roam,” Scott sings of a mythical creature who wanders the Pacific floor.
Pot is simply an excellent tune with its lush acoustic strumming, lazy handclaps and tribal-sounding harmonies (reminiscent at times of Wings‘ Mrs Vanderbilt). It builds to dizzying expanses before fading into the album’s standout track, Bitte Bitte. This is indie pop at its indelible best.
“And all of the squats have been turned into gallery spaces, and the punks on the corner, what’s that looks on their faces,” Scott sings. “It says what do we do now that all the yuppies replaced us?” The interplay of bounding acoustic guitar, lilting electrics and distorted falsetto wailing are sure to inspire a grin from even the most cynical listener; it’s music made for sunny summer Sunday afternoons.
Buffalo as a whole is a summer album released in the dead of winter, and only ten days into the new year, it’s already one to beat. Certainly, The Phoenix Foundation are the sort of band who fly well below the mainstream radar, but their brand of songwriting deserves to be celebrated on a wide scale. Until they’re discovered by a big primetime television programme – and that day will surely come – those who know can rest assured that Buffalo is another strong entry in their impressive catalogue.