A Greek teammate of mine once took me to a post-practice dinner in his tiny Audi. On the way, I asked him to play some of his favorite music.
He considered my request for a few seconds and then put in a CD. What poured forth was music I would have associated with 1950s-era Greek immigrants in Chicago -- ones who were clinging desperately to their shared cultural heritage. It was not music I would have expected to have played for me by a fast-living 22-year-old Greek basketball player who was wearing $200 jeans.
I asked my teammate if what we were hearing was an accurate representation of what young Greeks listened to. He picked up on the incredulity in my voice and answered, "Of course! What else would we listen to?"
I responded, "Something a little ... darker, I guess."
He shot back, "We'll leave that to you Americans. What do we have to be angry about?"
He had a point. Greeks are happy people. In Europe, they're not alone in their happiness. After several stops in the Old World, I've come to understand that Europeans are generally happier than Americans. (Russians notwithstanding, of course. They're consistently miserable.) There's only one problem that I can find with all this contentedness: With the obvious exception of the United Kingdom, and with a provisional exception given to the Scandinavian countries, European music -- for lack of a better word -- sucks.
Good art and, therefore, good music, is often born of suffering. People in Europe work less than Americans do. They're closer to their families. They don't fill their stomachs with garbage. And they don't have to worry about whether a meeting between the sole of a foot and a rusty nail is going to leave them bankrupt because of skyrocketing health care costs. They don't have as much to be mad about, so there is no Spanish Nirvana. (The band, not the paradise. There is a Spanish paradise; it's called San Sebastian.) Nor is there an Italian version, a Swiss version, or even a German version. Europe has rock bands, of course, but they're not as inspired as their U.S. counterparts.
Because of my completely unproven and wildly speculative theory on the lack of angst in Europe, I'm skeptical of European bands. (Again, this doesn't include you, United Kingdom. After Led Zeppelin, The Rolling Stones and The Go! Team, you have a lifetime pass.) Forgive me, then, for being slow to adopt the French band Phoenix.
I was introduced to Phoenix by a girl who gave me the band's debut album, "United." I was mildly impressed, but banished it to the depths of my iPod when the relationship flamed out. Two more Phoenix releases came and went before I started paying attention again. I read rave reviews of this year's release, called "Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix," but dismissed them because of my unpleasant memories associated with the band. Then, while in the midst of a set of lunges at the physical therapy clinic where I work out, I heard "1901" without knowing who was singing.
I don't spend much time looking forward in life. I think it's a better philosophy to enjoy the moment; we never know if there will be another one. However, I make an exception for music. Whenever I feel hopeless about the future, I recall the number of times that I've been pleasantly surprised by a piece of music I never would have imagined possible. I'm able to maintain that optimism because of songs like "1901" and my accompanying reaction: I ran to the satellite radio in the break room that adjoins the area where I was working out because I had to know who was performing such an incredible song.
I bought "Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix" that afternoon.
Listen here to "1901" while you read more.
Keep in mind that, if you don't like "1901," you probably don't like puppies, homemade ice cream or the concept of romantic love, and that our relationship as writer and reader might be over.
"Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix" could be the best album I've heard this year. Many albums are simply collections of songs. "W.A.P." is different. There is a method behind its arrangement. There are ebbs in the energy, but they're buttressed by pick-ups in tempo. There are emotional moments, but they're given time to breathe. The songs are built -- at least to my ear -- to go together. For example, tracks four and five are two parts of the same song, called "Love Like a Sunset." The five-minute-long "Part I" sets up the two-minute "Part II." "Part II" sends chills down my spine nearly every time I hear it; I've literally been near tears on several occasions while listening to it.
And then, just when "Part II" is finished, a respite -- a song called "Lasso" that requires almost no emotional attachment. It serves as a welcome return to the light and accessible flavor of the first three songs on the album.
If you have time, listen to what I'm talking about here. It'll take seven minutes, during which time you can craft a damning indictment of either my fragile emotional makeup or of my pretentious song-by-song analysis of a rock album.
You might be asking, "That's all well and good, Paul, but what the hell does any of this have to do with Europeans making bad music?"
I'm getting to that, Mr. Device I Used To Provide Myself A Segue.
I spent 10 days in France last summer. My brother and I drove a rental car from Barcelona to Paris, where we met my girlfriend and her sister. We shared several days in Paris -- seeing the Kings of Leon and MGMT in the process, incidentally -- before taking a winding route home that took us to the Atlantic coast and to Bordeaux wine country. I'd been to France before, but only briefly with a basketball team. Last summer's excursion was my first real chance to soak up the culture.
France takes more than its share of abuse from Americans. Strangely, France is the one place I've been in Europe that reminds me of home. It's not exactly like the United States, but it's a lot closer than most European countries. The roads are nice, trains run on time, and the people are mostly friendly, if not overly so. More importantly, there's a vague feeling of competitiveness in the air. That competitiveness breeds a sort of tension that makes life seem more real. I need a little of that tension. I appreciate that everyone in Europe is happy, but after a while it gets, well, boring. I relate better to middle-class people who have nothing to be mad about, but who are mad about something anyway. Sure, I'd be a better person if I saw kindred spirits among Zorba the Greek types. But I don't. I'm neurotic, prone to anxiety and woefully unthankful for the opportunities I have. In other words, I'm American.
Phoenix (and two of the band's French contemporaries, Daft Punk and M83) is proving my theory correct. As France becomes more America-like, so does the country's music. And while we Americans may be terrible at things like providing health care for everyone and stopping ourselves from eating junk food, it is impossible to dispute our vice-like hold on popular music, the best of which is spawned in the minds of imbalanced young people who ought to be perfectly happy.
That the French are making better music is welcome news for music lovers like me, with almost no downside to be found. No downside for me, that is. I do feel sorry for the French. With further American-ness comes expanding waistlines, Cialis commercials and the occasional school shooting.
At least they'll have good music to help them deal with the problems on the horizon.
Paul Shirley has played for 13 pro basketball teams, including three NBA teams: the Chicago Bulls, Atlanta Hawks and Phoenix Suns. His book "Can I Keep My Jersey?" -- which is available in paperback -- can be found here. He can be found at Twitter (Twitter.com/paulthenshirley) and you can e-mail him here.