Relentless innovation can be exhausting, exposing you to new sounds, peculiar structure and challenging melody until you yearn for common-or-garden meat and two veg; something warm and comforting which, while not exactly boring, won’t give too much of a jolt. If that smacks of a volley of faint praise for New Zealand’s The Phoenix Foundation, then it may well be, but let’s take a moment to salute finely crafted, unworrying MOR. For this, their fourth album, they reputedly sought a departure from the upbeat pop of 2007′s Happy Ending, but ended up as glossy and carefree as before. And good thing too – you’ll clutch Buffalo to your heart.
It wouldn’t be too lazy here to mention compatriots Crowded House, whose gift for timeless hooks reverberates through The Phoenix Foundation too. Buffalo also shares the sense of space and grand vistas that suffused Crowded House’s last great album Together Alone, where Zen priest Youth’s echoing production matched the overbearing burden of loneliness, but happily the mood is lighter, more playful. The title track is so named because its drums sound like a stampede and it skips with a sci-fi poetry – “I’m on the sea floor / Closer to the planet’s core” – and anthemic drive closer to those other four-legged beasts, Band of Horses. Throughout, BoH are a fair touchstone, but the album’s nearest ancestor is Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, 70s country-rock spruced up with an electronic wash, albeit without that troubled record’s cloud of post-millennial angst. Tweedy and co creep into ‘Flock of Hearts” plush guitar solo and affectionate gloom, the soft electro interference that brings some shade to the daffy Dodos pop of ‘Orange & Mango’, and the expansive soft-rock pulse of ‘Bitte Bitte’.
There’s some enjoyable Dylanesque phrasing from singer Sam Flynn Scott on ‘Bitte Bitte’, reveling in lines like “I made a corporate mess / You did a freelance shift / And the cosmic fabric of reality split”, and he’s on equally fine form elsewhere, deftly summing up the cosy paradox of the commute on ‘Wonton’ (“Too intimate here to engage / Shuffling in our cage”), where The Phoenix Foundation resemble The Whitest Boy Alive having an earnest tilt at the charts.
Sweeping closer ‘Golden Ship’ insinuates itself into your dreams, its falsetto chorus a siren’s call, a drifting, sneaky seduction. It’s eerie, at odds with a record that’s more about a comforting stillness occasionally punctuated by bursts of pure, hook-drenched melody. If Buffalo is MOR, it’s of the calibre of Fleetwood Mac, of The Eagles at their playlist-swamping best, of Richard Hawley reanimating Roy Orbison as a crooner of granite-hewn Yorkshire sentiment. Nothing new under this sun, just impeccable grown-up pop.