The self-titled debut LP from this Wisconsin band shimmers and flows with a delicate intimacy that probably should have come from the hands of a producer who has crafted the autumnal folk of Bon Iver or Aimee Mann. Hence, despite its musical breeziness and date of release, it’s not your standard indie-pop summer soundtrack. Having nixed the car commercial catchiness that is de rigueur for current indie-pop acts, it’s clear from the start that PHOX is not particularly concerned with how they’re perceived. Their unpretentiousness, which resonates just as powerfully in their music, is attributable to their discernible lack of any sort of frontman. Instead, the band is more or less comprised of six high school buddies who, by chance, reconnected as adults, moved into a house together and began making music as a sort of incidental experiment. That nonchalance only makes them a more likable septet, and their seeming inability to grasp what all the fuss is about surrounding their LP is arguably the best part about them.
The self-deprecation may just be a ploy though. One listen through their stunning debut and it becomes clear that PHOX is something of a breath of fresh air amidst a mass of comparatively stale and predictable post-Vampire Weekend offerings. The album’s opener, Calico Man, serves as a perfect introduction to lead singer Monica Martin’s exquisite vocals. While her plushy croons immediately bring to mind confessional singer-songwriters in the vein of Feist or Cat Power, making flippant comparisons feels like a disservice. While Martin’s vocals come with a sense of implacable familiarity, her deceptively soft voice consistently obscures the darker nature of the band’s lyrics and rhythms. Take “1936,” a borderline-lullaby that chronicles a reluctance towards accepting one’s roots, or Evil, which deals with an unfaithful ex, but sounds like something you’d drunkenly dance to at your cousin’s bat mitzvah.
Not that PHOX begs easy interpretation. The subject matter of their songs is not always clear, but that’s okay—it’s easy enough to feel it, even if you can’t understand it. With Laura, a standout six-minute dedication to a girl struggling to be herself, the band stretches itself to its full instrumental capacity. It’s the type of song that builds, and then falls, and then rebuilds itself again in an a foggy and unpredictable cycle of heartbreaking refrains. It’s wider sweep, among more understated tunes around it, serves to remind listeners that there are six members to this band, each of whom’s contributions are equally essential.
The most exciting part about PHOX is that they, unlike hordes of others in their genre, have not offered an LP that feels like a mass of songs that ultimately become an indiscernible heap of softly strung folk jams. Rather, each track is its own isolated island of standouts that, together, sound similar, sure, but not blandly identical. This becomes most evident on the standout, Slow Motion, that comes complete with whistling, banjo picking and occasional twinkling refrains. The song is the perfect encapsulation of their overall inviting attitude: by existing at their own preferred pace, PHOX’s wonderful inability to conform to anyone else’s standards is what forces listeners to slowly digest their subtly multi-layered sounds. PHOX may be self-sufficient enough to do without your love, but it certainly deserves it.