[19 May 2008]
On its 2004 eponymous album, Phantom Planet sullied the O.C.-approved beach-pop image of its sophomore release, The Guest, with songs whose vitriol was matched by Dave Fridmann’s in-the-red production aesthetic. It was an artistic, if not commercial, success for the Los Angeles band; the music-as-bombs approach complemented the standoffish, teeth-baring brand of power pop that singer/songwriter Alex Greenwald was writing, not to mention the gutsy manner in which the band itself was performing. There was one song in particular, however, which took the newfound sonic muscles a little too far: “You’re Not Welcome Here”, a soft-loud-soft barnburner, is so overloaded with wall-crumbling heat that it quickly becomes nothing more than a gratuitous exercise in aural melodrama.
For its fourth and latest full-length, Raise the Dead, an album of increased paranoia and cynicism (and first without drummer Jason Schwartzman, who left the band to pursue acting full-time), Phantom Planet dives deeper into the melodramatic whitewash of the Fridmann Principle. Though there’s a new producer (Tony Berg) behind the board, it may as well be Fridmann—each of the record’s dozen songs are ‘roided up and overexposed, a sort of Styrofoam-crunch caricature of an overdrive pedal applied to the guitars and the rhythm section, to Greenwald’s spongy tremble-to-a-scream voice. Each of the album’s promising characteristics ends up buried beneath the category five gusts of aesthetic hot air: the tight Devo-esque electric keyboard and guitar riff in “Dropped” is hijacked by an overzealous refrain, while the escalating shuffle “Leader” devolves into a sing-a-long (with a children’s choir, natch) so saturated with peaking signal that it becomes impossible to discern the various layers of instrumentation. “Do the Panic”, the album’s first single and a witty inversion of a Top 40 dance craze, is able to stand on its own as a great power pop track, but it does so with maximum freak-out nipping at its heels.
There are great modern power pop songs hidden beneath Raise the Dead‘s post-modern production values. Greenwald’s giddy melodic sense propels the lurching rock ‘n’ roll rhythm of “Ship Lost at Sea” and the lurking hook of “Leave Yourself for Someone Else” and the aforementioned “Dropped” benefit from double-tracked vocal performances that (for the most part) resist the urge to go full-tilt gangbusters. “Geronimo” cleverly inverts its rip-off of AC/DC’s “Hells Bells” with a sudden shot of acoustic guitars, turning the plodding riff into something much more palatable.
There are just as many promising set-ups on Raise the Dead as there are muddled conclusions, which I suppose is what ultimately makes for such a frustrating listening experience. Greenwald’s songs are urgent, aggressive, and, occasionally, ironically distant, so it only makes sense that they be rendered in an atmosphere with similar qualities. But one can’t help but think that Raise the Dead pushes the intersection of style and substance too far—a product so distant that you can’t tell the songs from the throbbing headspace of the mix.