The French Kicks did something remarkable last year, although few people were aware of it. "We call it the slow climb to zero," laughs vocalist-drummer Nick Stumpf.

He's joking about his band's gradual ascent to notoriety as forerunners of a neo-romantic sound that embraces fey pop grandeur-and we're talking foppish synth-bop merged with slithering soul lothario crooning here-without a touch of irony and self-conscious hipster attitude.

Rather than rely upon garage-rock grit as its escape hatch for indie credibility, the New York quartet accomplished with its sophomore release, The Trial of the Century, what like-minded artists the Walkmen, the Strokes and Greg Dulli of the Afghan Whigs/Twilight Singers have sought for years: to make soulful pop music seem punk.

"Punk, as it's known by most people, is so over now," Stumpf says. "It's the least punk thing you could do to dress like the Sex Pistols and play loud guitar rock. I feel like it's more punk to hint at, um, almost 'adult contemporary' music." And, in many ways, the French Kicks-Stumpf, along with his brother bassist Lawrence and guitarists Matt Stinchcomb and Josh Wise-take a headlong dive into neo-easy listening, arguably outshining its garage-folk "brother band" the Walkmen, which also issued its sophomore album last spring. There isn't any conscious competition between the bands, but in the eyes (and ears) of fans, The Trial of the Century has been unfairly ignored while the Walkmen's Bow + Arrows found itself on many 2004 top-10 lists. The evidence is found in small pockets, from music message boards to customer comments.

Stumpf shrugs off the notion, saying, "I don't think there's really any competition between us. Particularly in the area of songwriting-I've never written a song with the idea of competing with someone else."

Whether or not the band is conscious of competition, the French Kicks certainly are trying to set themselves apart. When I interviewed Stumpf three years ago, the band was contemplating its escape from the overly ballyhooed Williamsburg scene it had helped create, but it ultimately opted to remain in New York. "We were interested in distancing ourselves from that scene," the singer explains. "Not because we didn't have respect for the other bands, but we wanted people to acknowledge that we were doing our own thing."

At that time, the band's songs shared much of the same angular guitar and rigid mod-dance rhythms associated with the "Brooklyn sound." But its pop heart defied easy categorization. The French Kicks' previous album, One Time Bells, sounded like a band caught in mid-transition, but few expected what was to come: a sound as coolly soulful as Marvin Gaye's, as intimately intellectual as Bob Dylan's and as unabashedly melodic as New Order's. Musically and lyrically, their latest comes across as a heartwarmingly desperate yearning for happiness amid utter depression rather than smug contrivance.

"I think very few of the musical choices we make are conscious on that level," Stupf says. "We try to combine elements that many people don't combine. It can backfire very easily, too. [Indie-rock songwriters] are afraid of the 'soul' influence sometimes, because it can get into embarrassing territory if you're not careful."

Fortunately, the band's daring is met with tasteful composing skills. The sweet, mellow soul slink of "Oh Fine" sounds as warm and heartfelt as a long-lost Marvin Gaye tune, while "Following Waves" is as lilting and laconic as early Talk Talk.

Stumpf's lyrics are very personal but vague enough that they could be applied to anyone's life. On the album's title track, he sings, "The hours go in front of me, reminded how it used to be/ you down in the grass with me, the hours a choking century."

It's personal, but not entirely confessional. "Most songs that I like do that," Stumpf explains. "I feel like there's a voyeuristic theme to the lyrics."

The French Kicks further emphasize the album's voyeurism in the video for its title track. "We shot it all with a military night-vision camera, shooting in complete darkness in our apartments," the singer says. "All the lighting was done with little laser pointers."

It's a haunting effect, but certainly befitting the French Kicks' surreptitious nature-something to keep in mind whenever the vocalist downplays his band's crafty rise to popularity. Sooner or later it will catch us all by surprise.

The French Kicks play with Dios Malos (formerly Dios) Thursday, Jan. 20, at the Doug Fir, 830 E Burnside St., 231-9663. 9 pm. $10-$12. 21+.