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THE GUEST REVIEWS
Idealism, Emotion, Success and Guitars
Scattered around Room 20 of the kitschy-glamorous Phoenix Hotel (where all the best bands stay), the members of Phantom Planet unburdened their souls into my tape recorder. They've got a lot on their minds (and an album coming out in February, they'd like to remind you). Alex Greenwald (vocals, guitar) likens the difference between their 1998 release, "Phantom Planet Is Missing," and the upcoming "Phantom Planet Was Here" to "your relationship with a girl in high school and your relationship with a girl in college."
The Los Angeles-based band took a year and a half to make their first album, trying too hard to perfect their raw sound. The second was recorded in three weeks, with much less effort required. Their mature sound is more defined, and the band has become more cohesive. Phantom Planet is made up of Alex, Jacques Brautbar (guitar, vocals), Darren Robinson (guitar), Sam Farrar (bass, vocals) and Jason Schwartzman (drums, keyboards). They're all in their early 20s. Greenwald and Schwartzman have known each other since grade school, and the rest of the band met a few years ago in high school. Touring isn't causing problems between them yet. As Schwartzman said, "We just threaten to sue each other."
Phantom Planet's sound recalls Travis and Pete Yorn, with some Oasis guitar moments: fitting, since they've toured with some of these artists. Several songs have overblown buildups, which may relate to their idealistic, youthful lyrics. The expansive emotion that pervades the anthem does not come across as fake, but perhaps unmodulated.
Play their first single, "California," on the first leg of a road trip and you're setting up some good memories. Play it on the radio too often and people will definitely hate it. Several of their songs require a suspension of disbelief, so this is not an album for cynical people. "Anthem," in particular, falls into this category. Break out the lighters. "Cause this whole world / needs an anthem / and I'm hoping everyone will sing along." There are some good harmonies here. Although the lyrics need tightening the song's spirit is infectious. This is also true of the bouncier "Always On My Mind," the song your girlfriend wants you to write for her. "If I could blink, if I could breathe, if I could get my legs to move, / This could be the day I get this girl to love me." There's a touch of roots-rock in some of the guitar solos, making the song feel like a classic.
"Turn Shift Smile Repeat" is a much more atmospheric piece. The band members recorded the song individually, each adding a layer. Darren couldn't think what to do for his part, but "then one night I just went home and got f--cked up..." The secret is revealed. The monochrome piece is Alex's conception of a high-stakes Wall Street worker, stuck in the business cycle. "So the whole song's kind of trapped in this loop," said Greenwald, a feeling intensified by the looped sample in the background.
"All Over Again" gets a little screamier, as it deals with a suffocating relationship. "You're pushing me / and I just wanna get out / This is the end / all over again." The guitar intro has drive, but the song ends unfortunately, with a senseless little techno beat tagged on. "Wishing Well" builds to peaks in clichéd melodic lines, with melodramatic, quasi-Beatles strings and horns effects underneath. This over-polished track highlights the band's tendency toward grandiosity. The last song, "Something is Wrong," should spotlight Greenwald's poignant vocals and the simple campfire guitar, but the trilling background keyboards distract from these. Toned down or perhaps used less, keyboards could have bolstered the emotional impact of the piece, but they ultimately do no more than irritate.
I asked the band what they thought of the "college track," since none of them are taking it and most of my readers are. Alex said that plugging yourself into a track to success means keeping your mind open to options around you, "a combination of finding and being found." I think he's getting used to coming up with sound bites. The hopes of Phantom Planet are mostly to continue to do what they love and to "always strive for the angel nookie," as Jason said. Jacques expressed the concentration that probably helped to get the band to the point they've reached when he said, "If you want to do something, you need to do what it takes to get there."
Phantom Planet's official website coyly declares: "These boys will become pretentious, ego-driven, magastar deadbeats." They might stand a bit far from that lofty goal, but with the delicate ear of Travis and the post-punk energy of Green Day, Phantom Planet might just be the perfect antidote to Creed's over-bloated brand of testosterone rock. From the feel-good hand-claps of "Always On My Mind" to the sunny, piano-driven "California," the band's sophomore effort, The Guest, is a colorful mix of intelligence and youthful exuberance. And if their catchy hooks and infectious melodies weren't warm and fuzzy enough, the lush production of tracks like the off-kilter "Wishing Well" (courtesy of veteran producers Mitchell Froom and Tchad Blake) will surely induce cotton-mouth. Lead singer Alexander Greenwald exudes playful dynamism on the high energy "In Our Darkest Hour" and sweet guilelessness on the simple "Something Is Wrong." The stand-out "Turn Smile Shift Repeat" critiques corporate existence with a particularly non-callous eye, building from an intentionally lifeless arrangement into a flurry of jangly guitars and saxophone. In this rare moment, the band is as smooth as Sade and as sardonic as Radiohead. Elsewhere, Greenwald is excruciatingly optimistic: "This whole world needs an anthem/And I hope that everyone will sing along." Indeed.
Phantom Planet The Guest
Before he played Max Fischer in Wes Anderson's Rushmore, Jason Schwartzman was playing drums in Phantom Planet. The fact that he earned his celebrity from the film rather than the band is no coincidence: The Guest is merely OK, a power-pop record whose songs seem catchy while they're playing but don't make a lasting impression. It's hard to believe that the results aren't better. Five pretty young lads in their early twenties, Phantom Planet do so many things right on their second album. For starters, The Guest is gorgeously produced by Mitchell Froom and Tchad Blake: Its sounds are clean but not slick, big but not bombastic. Even when superfluous strin parts muck up the proceedings ("One Ray of Sunlight," "Anthem"), the group retains a garage band's sloppy jouissance. Ballads such as "One Ray of Sunlight" tend toward the insipid in the same way that Travis' do: syrupy yet satisfying. Singer Alexander Greenwald has strong pipes and a theatrical style that lands somewhere between Thom Yorke and Elvis Costello. Guitar parts layered three deep jangle and buzz through tight ditties such as "Hey Now Girl" and "Nobody's Fault." A lazy boogie rhythm and explosive chorus on "Lonely Day" echo Teenage Fanclub. And "California" -- whose comedic video was directed by Schwartzman's cousin Roman Coppola -- turns a simple one-handed piano melody into the album's strongest hook. The Guest is a letdown, but it's only Phantom Planet's second effort; they could yet do something to merit the attention that Schwartzman's fame will bring them.
PHANTOM PLANET: The Guest
Curse you, Phantom Planet! Don't you know that bands with popular actors in them are supposed to suck? What's a music cynic to do? The headline for this band has been that its drummer is loveable screen imp Jason Schwartzman (of Rushmore and Slackers fame), but once the opener of The Guest, "California," hits you, you know right away that there's so more to this story. Quite simply, it's been far too long since a classic-sounding pop record that delivers from tracks one through 12 has come along. Those hip to the Live EP from 2001 know the band can pull this rich power-pop off in concert as well. The Planet's strong suit is pounding out nervy little rockers like "Darkest Hour," where guitars, vocals and drums all burst the seams of a neatly-tailored pop songs. Even on the most sugary of tracks such as "Always On My Mind," with it's handclaps and Bay City Rollers harmonies, there's still an edge to the band's attack. "Nobody's Fault" reveals the band's affection for vintage Elvis Costello, as the entire album displays a similar knack for sharp songwriting that relies as much on energy as it does craft.
Phantom Planet : Guest
Almost four years after its long-hyped Geffen Records debut fell on deaf ears, alt-rock poster boys and part-time movie actors Phantom Planet (whose members have co-starred in Rushmore and Donnie Darko) return with a new label and a much more focused new album.
The Guestlaunches itself with "California," a poppy and near-perfect roadside romp. From there, a catchy collision of infectious hooks and breezy, '60s-inspired melodies ("Lonely Day," "One Ray of Sunlight") set to a soundtrack of contemporary guitars and an occasional studio bell and whistle make the first half of the album a pleasant enough companion.
On the latter half of The Guest, the band strays from their proven pop formula ("Turn Smile Shift Repeat," "Wishing Well"), and things don't go nearly as well, though The Guest is ultimately an impressive return for a band which could have let budding Hollywood careers stand in the way of musicianship. Instead The Guest, for all its flaws, is wise beyond the years of the musicians who made it.
Phantom Planet "The Guest" (Epic)
"The Guest" arrived at my desk bearing all the hallmarks of bad taste - custom stationery, a bio touting "Phantom Planet is going to be huge ...," trendy cover graphics, cool producers and an actor for one of its members.
I wanted to hate Phantom Planet so bad. Then I listened to it.
"The Guest" is prime, tough power-pop, and actor Jason Schwartzman ("Rushmore," "Slackers") is a credible drummer. Phantom Planet is going to be huge. The band definitely doesn't break new ground here, but the guys do what they do well, mixing and matching classic power-pop and contemporary influences with guitar tones, harmonies and killer hooks that are impossible not to like. Lead singer Alex Greenwald sings like Elvis Costello being tortured, especially on the noisy Weezer-like "All Over Again." Although the comic video for lead single "California" has been receiving heavy rotation on MTV, the song pales in comparison to the acoustic-based "One Ray of Sunlight." Other standout songs are "Lonely Day," the Smithereens-like "Hey Now Girl" and the haunting "Turn Smile Shift Repeat."
Phantom Planet: The Guest
Yes, Phantom Planet features actor Jason Schwartzman ("Slackers," "Rushmore") on drums, and yes, lead vocalist Alex Greenwald was once in a Gap commercial. But Phantom Planet proves to be more than Hollywood hype. Their 1998 debut held promise, but on "The Guest," they return with stronger songs and pull in Mitchell Froom (Crowded House, Marshall Crenshaw) to produce, and Fountains of Wayne's Adam Schlesinger to cowrite a track. There is distinctly British bent to the material, despite the band being from Southern California. But those musical cues - taken equally from recent successes like Air and Pulp as from old standbys like Elvis Costello - are what keep things fresh. "The Guest" is an infectious post-"OK Computer" power-pop album that tosses arty, post-punk guitar riffs over Beatles-esque choruses with ease. It may be true that at times the band wears its influences a little too proudly - the Costello homage "Nobody's Fault" and the Radiohead pastiche "Turn Smile Shift Repeat" sound like tribute tracks - but "The Guest" is the work of five unabashed music geeks who really know their way around a memorable chorus.
Pick of the week
As every critic feels compelled to note, this L.A. quintet previously was known for its above-average 1998 debut (subsequently buried by a consolidating industry) than for its part-time actors -- drummer Jason Schwartzman scored the lead in Wes Anderson's "Rushmore" and turned up recently in "Slackers," while lead singer Alex Greenwald nabbed a role in "Donnie Darko."
In some ways ignorance of the music is just: "Phantom Planet Is Missing" had moments, but on the whole it was merely decent fun a notch above that from so many other youthful bands hoping to carve out an original niche in a Blink-182 world.
"The Guest" doesn't accomplish that, either -- it's a throwback to '70s power-pop, and you probably could slip a few cuts onto a compilation between Badfinger and Todd Rundgren and fool more than most. Yet it represents such a major artistic leap forward for the group that it hardly matters. It's early, and Rivers Cuomo is about to spring something, but with the right push this confection could be to 2002 what Weezer's Green Album was to 2001.
Some of the credit for that must go to producers Mitchell Froom and Tchad Blake, better known for austere, ramshackle work with the likes of Los Lobos and Tom Waits. What they bring this time is far more traditional -- some fuzzy doodling in the margins but on the whole a sound that harkens to the warmth of yesteryear.
But most of the applause should be directed at the Planet itself: the band for challenging itself with emotionally wrought arrangements that mix doses of schmaltz with just the right amount of Radiohead drizzle; Greenwald and Schwartzman for penning a dozen irresistible, often gorgeous songs that betray their authors' ages. The first half sticks to your gut immediately -- the soaring stomp of "California," the glee of "Always on My Mind," the divine sorrow of "One Ray of Sunlight," all expertly crafted. The second half gets slightly experimental, but even in its darkness it finds room for songs so memorable you'd swear you heard 'em years ago. The Elvis Costello cop for "Nobody's Fault," the Big Star-drives-the-Cars fun of "Hey Now Girl" -- just great stuff. To deride it is to dislike the effervescence of pop altogether. (The band plays Thursday at the Glass House in Pomona.)
Figgle: Wax Buildup
[This review followed this statement: "It's only March, and WAY too early to say this, but Always Got Tonight is one of the best albums of 2002."]
The same statement could be said for Phantom Planet's second album, The Guest. Their debut album, Phantom Planet is Missing, was released four years ago with little fanfare and disappeared rather quickly. Drummer Jason Schwartzman found a side career two years later with his breakthrough-acting debut as "Max" in Rushmore. His second film, last month's Slackers, followed the same path as Phantom Planet's debut - it came and went in a blink of an eye after being savaged by critics. Fortunately, the Rushmore magic apparently traveled with Schwartzman when Phantom Planet went into the studio. The Guest is 12 tracks of pure pop heaven. Singer Alexander Greenwald wrenches every emotion possible out of his voice, and the hooks in these tunes are big enough to snag a killer whale. There's nothing highly original here - echoes of Elvis Costello and Todd Rundgren run throughout - but if the opening trio of "California," "Always on My Mind" and "Lonely Day" don't put a smile on your face, you must be dead.
Phantom Planet - The Guest
Ok, so I am guilty of getting sucked in by mainstream media and of watching MTV2. The only thing I knew about this band was that the dude from "Rushmore" played drums. I happened to catch the video on MTV 2 and was slightly intrigued, just enough to buy this album. As I was driving from Canton to Athens, Ohio (a three hour drive), I placed this album in the CD player and gave it a little listen. After my fifth time of listening to the first track California alone, I decided to speak. I turned to my friend Dirty and said, "Is it just me or is this the bomb." Dirty replied, "No, it's the bomb. This is so good." From the opening piano of "California", a tribute to their home state, to the final lullaby of "Something is Wrong" Phantom Planet doesn't really break any new ground. But, these boys come from a school of music where soft, driving melodies, beautiful vocals, and tasteful drumming are required to make the grade...did I mention that their professors are obviously the Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Who, and Queen? Fans of any of the afore mentioned greats, UK's newer breed (i.e. Oasis), and indie rock coinsurers will eat this up. Also, the first pressing carries a bonus CD with live stuff on it as an extra incentive for purchasing it post haste.