Against Hypecasting: Music First, Other Stuff After
There’s this odd phenomenon occurring in pop music of late. While many seasoned veterans continue the noble and good fight to get their musical talents across to the public, there arises this “other thing”. You get a bunch of twenty-somethings that are well connected through say modeling, or acting, or famous songwriting fathers and they’re in a band that gets a major label release supported by a LOT of media coverage. Yet in the end, it’s the strength of their music that sustains them once all the spinning hype dies down.
In 2001 it was an East Coast thing, as many swore by The Strokes’ brand of updated Velvet Underground garage rock. In 2002 it may just be a West Coast thing, as we get the sophomore effort from Phantom Planet. The resemblances are uncanny. Sure, there are plenty of show-biz stories that surround the cast (more on this below)—yet ultimately the strength of the music will be the key to any popular triumph. The Guest offers enough musical talent and diversity for sustained allegiance beyond the flurry of TV appearances and cute magazine articles headed your way now.
That being the case, let’s concentrate on the music—we’ll get to the other stuff later. It has been a long drink of water between releases for this Los Angeles-based quintet. The debut album 1998’s Phantom Planet Is Missing on Geffen didn’t make a big splash sales-wise, though it was tuneful and well produced (by Lee Popa and Mark Endert), at a time when several band members were still in their teens. They offered up 11 songs of mostly upbeat powerpop, with nice flourishes. It was a happy Planet, where everyone was singing about love and relationships in tuneful ways.
Though slightly derivative at times, this debut was far from amateur hour (in fact, it’s still a very good CD worth your discovery and eartime) and understandably the band developed a healthy following of rabid devotees. Now lo, these many years later, after much touring (opening for the likes of Morrissey, Weezer, Third Eye Blind, Pete Yorn and American Hi-Fi), a more-seasoned group emerges, this time aided by the production wizardry of notables Tchad Blake (Pearl Jam, Peter Gabriel, Sheryl Crow) and Mitchell Froom (Tom Waits, Crowded House, Cibo Matto, Elvis Costello, Paul McCartney), who as producers seem to know just when to step back and give the music the space it needs.
The Guest is not about pressing world issues, rather it’s merely about brilliantly lighthearted melodic pop. As such, it’s a strong collection of a dozen songs that are cleanly executed, likeable and fun. Still The Guest might leave you asking for a more pronounced direction overall from Phantom Planet—in many ways, the band still seems a work in progress, able to cover a variety of styles and sounds in the quest to find what one day will comprise their inimitable own. Yet, there is solid music here—classic rock/pop played well as an ensemble—a feat that is a big step ahead for these guys and no small accomplishment in this often wanting world of modern music.
Phantom Planet, though eight years old (at a Pizza Hut in 1994, the band formed and took their name from a 1960s sci-fi flick), still is in its relative musical infancy, very much actively in the process of becoming. As they play and explore in fields of diverse elements and references from others (often managing to master them), it never gets in the way of one’s enjoyment of the songs Phantom Planet creates.
Most of these songs rely on the agile vocal skills of Alex Greenwald (lead vocals/guitar), backed by the lead guitar work of Jacques Brautbar (guitar/vocals), the rhythm guitar of Darren Robinson, the bass of Sam Farrar (who also offers up vocals) and the drums of Jason Schwartzman. Greenwald is something of a chameleon, displaying an impressive range of colors and emotion as voice, guiding the music with a confidence that belies his age.
“California” opens the CD with a contagious melody/piano hook that you’ll be whistling in the shower. Lyrically, it’s a bit of a tired retread relating the group’s excitement about making their way back home from out-of-state touring: “On the stereo, listening as we go, nothing’s gonna stop me now / California here we come / right back where we started from”. This Greenwald/Schwartzman song, featured on the soundtrack to the film Orange County, is good fun—yet with stronger lyrics, it could have been even better.
The same duo wrote “Lonely Day” which builds slowly to a sort of rocking ska/boogie rhythm, guitars nicely accentuating and reflecting the moodiness of the lyrics, relating how loneliness can more than counter sunny happiness. Guitarist Jacques Brautbar lends his writing talents along with the other two band-mates for “All Over Again” in which Greenwald delivers a prime Joe Jackson-style vocal about wanting out of a suffocating relationship.
Greenwald penned the equally catchy “Always on My Mind”, which has a looser sort of bar-band feel to it, calling to mind a pleasant Old 97s sound, as it nails the hapless optimism behind unrealistic romantic obsession: “I turn pale when she walks by, I am lost in her eyes, she is always on my mind / She glances over but she keeps on walking down that street, all I can do is hope that she is thinking of me / If I could blink, if I could breathe, if I could get my legs to move, well this could be the day I get this girl to love me”. Musically, check out the Hooters-like mandolin middle bridge.
Greenwald’s solo compositions dominate the album, displaying a wide range of styles. In “Turn, Smile, Shift, Repeat” we get Phantom Planet doing “Radiohead lite”. The song uses moody electronic tones and a slower tempo quite effectively, as Greenwald does his laid-back Thom Yorke vocal turn here, attacking the insipid robot-like vapidity of modern corporate culture.
In “Nobody’s Fault” we get Tchad Blake and Mitchell Froom’s expert treatment on what is a very blatant tribute to “No Action”-era Elvis Costello. This compact little gem clocks in at a mere 2:35, and it does a great job of capturing injured pride in a marriage: “Never had the patience, never had the time / never knew that working hard was such a crime / Oh I thought I could make you happy down the line / but I guess it’s been over since you hurt this heart of mine / On your mark get set go, this little boy is running right back home / I guess it’s nobody’s fault now but my own”. Any doubts as to whether these gents are actors first and musicians second, I suggest you give a good listen to Phantom Planet as The Attractions. To their credit, Jason Schwartzman does an amazing Pete Thomas and Sam Farrar manages a very credible Bruce Thomas.
“Anthem” is a wonderful fantasy-as-song about creating a massively catchy song that serves as a panacea for all that ails us: “‘Cause the whole world needs an anthem, and I’m trying to put the words where they belong / Yeah this whole world needs an anthem and I’m hoping everyone will sing along”.
“One Ray of Sunlight” might be my favorite here, a really pretty ballad with lovely guitar ornamentation (and well-placed strings that don’t overwhelm). Greenwald is at his best lyrically, nailing the sad yet wonderful futility of trying beyond relationship’s end, hoping beyond hope: “If I get one ray of sunlight to hold in my hand, maybe we can be happy again / I’ll try for one ray of sunlight to hold in my hand, and I’ll guess that this isn’t the end, maybe we can be happy again”.
Adam Schlessinger (Fountains Of Wayne) writes with Greenwald on the incendiary “In Our Darkest Hour”, creating an opus of anxious desperation that can hold its own with any Strokes song. The group is tighter than ever here, and the emotive vocals put it over the top. “Hey Now Girl” is a lighter turn, starting with Casio-like electronic blips into a Cars-type opening, then into engaging Big Star/Weezer territory. Lyrically, it captures how a few teen years make all the difference in matters of attitude: “Well let me you I have seen / a monster age of seventeen”.
“Wishing Well” is sort of an Eric Carmen-type ballad, with orchestral accompaniment that borders on the type of thing Phil Spector did to “Long and Winding Road”. There’s a definite latter Beatle/McCartney feel to this poetic song and the vocals also call to mind Jay Clifford of Jump, Little Children (to cite a more modern reference point). This is a big dramatic wall-of-sound complete with electronic noises and loops that build to a sort of “Day In The Life” cacophony, almost to the point where I tried spinning the CD backwards to see who buried Paul.
“Something Is Wrong” ends the CD on a romantic acoustic guitar note, a soft and short two-minute ballad in the mold of “Mother Nature’s Son” or “Julia” (choose your Beatle reference preference). All told, this is a big step forward musically for this band.
Now that I’ve discussed the music, we can talk about all that stuff the other writers tend to stick up front. First off, there’s Jason Schwartzman, perhaps best known to the public at large as Max Fischer from Wes Anderson’s film Rushmore. Schwartzman also was featured in the recent Slackers, and will have a starring role in the upcoming film Spun. He is the son of actress Talia Shire, nephew to Francis Ford Coppola, and relative to Nicolas Cage, Sofia and Roman Coppola and that whole extended celebrity brood. Alex Greenwald has worked on a slew of commercials (The Gap, Twix), did some modeling in Europe, and starred in the movie Donnie Darko. Most recently, he also produced a song by the band Rilo Kiley.
Jacques Bratbar currently is pursuing a degree in music at a very prestigious program at U.S.C. (only seven students are accepted into this program annually). Darren Robinson has been honing his ProTools skills and tending to the band’s website. And Sam Farrar has just finished producing an album for the L.A.-band Rooney. Farrar’s dad John penned and produced a number of hit singles for Olivia Newton-John (including “Have You Never Been Mellow”) and wrote two of the songs from the film Grease (“You’re The One That I Want” and “Hopelessly Devoted To You”) that now are forever part of our popular culture.
These are the five collective well-educated Southern California talents that mesh into Phantom Planet. In spite of the various activities of its individuals, Phantom Planet remains the primary focus, a solid musical unit. Brautbar knows many people dismiss the band as less than serious since they come from L.A. and have members who do commercials and/or movies. “The bottom line is that we’re all musicians first,” he refutes. “Once someone comes to see us play or hears the record they’ll know that we’re not just actors who want to be musicians. They’ll know we’re musicians who just happen to have some acting gigs.”
These musicians went from playing in a garage to gigs appearing on TV’s “Sabrina, The Teenage Witch” and the short-lived “Get Real”. Even when Geffen Records put their debut album on hold without any promotional support, the band kept on touring and getting better.
This new release rewards that tenacity, with the band really having grown into a tight entity. You can hear that in each and every song, aided by the subtle warm production values of Blake and Froom (it’s clean without being slick, with lots of professional touches alongside imperfections that only add to the charm of the sound).
This is smart pop, with good old-fashioned craftsmanship to the songwriting and much merit in its diverse offerings, great vocals and fine musicianship. This is the musical equivalent of a fun sunny day, a sweet confection of sounds that won’t fill you up and maintains its flavor amid a bevy of outside influences. Phantom Planet isn’t sure what their ultimate sound is just yet, but they offer no apologies as they find their way.
Greenwald has noted that “what the modern pop or rock scene lacks is bands that put records out as often as they can, and I think that’s what we’ve got to do”. Let’s hope it’s not another four years before the next musical installment from Phantom Planet. The Guest may be a stopover en route to ever better things to come, but this musical journey is one worth many a good listen, sure to delight current devotees and likely to widen their fan-base considerably. Bottom line: Greenwald and company already deliver memorable punchy power-pop, and all of them still are under 25. As such, The Guest arrives without reservations for what should promise to be a long enjoyable stay.
// Notes from the Road
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