[Image Courtesy of Epic]
Welcome to Anniversary Records, a column where we reflect on records that meant the world to us way back when, and what they mean to us now.
Anniversary Records: Phantom Planet’s Phantom Planet
by Chad Jewett
Some records are just destined to grab you, when they do, from the unexpected depths of the used-record bin. Eventually enough silt and debris from years of near-misses will be worn away, taking with it all of the context, all of the contemporary preoccupations surrounding the music, and you’ll find that gently-worn copy of some forgotten release priced at $1.99, with an even two dollars in your pocket. For Phantom Planet’s self-titled 2004 album — a major label follow-up that should have capitalized on both the success of “California” (and its album, The Guest) as well as the boom of both garage rock and dance punk, but which didn’t quite manage either — forgetting all of that stuff just seems to be the price of entry. The Guest came out in 2001, a weird year for rock and roll that constituted a valley between pop punk’s late 90’s boom and the ascent of The White Stripes, The Strokes, and The Hives in 2002 (and characterized by the all-time-low of Limp Bizkit, Staind, KoRn, et al.). Phantom Planet’s sophomore LP was eminently likable pop rock, paired nicely with the novel presence of an affable indie-movie star in Jason Schwartzman, who drummed for the band through the early tracking of Phantom Planet. The Guest was a low-fuss forty minutes of Elvis Costello and Weezer instincts — and indeed, given the ways in which Weezer, on its own 2001 self-titled album, appeared to be bowing out of its once-high self-expectations, you could squint and see Phantom Planet as heir apparent.
Phantom Planet, depending on your own way of hearing the album, either followed through or abandoned that trajectory entirely. A cynical ear would hear the album’s choppy fuzz, all minor key slabs and jolts, complete with Sonics-style organ, and assume that this was just an incredibly adept Hollywood band who ably capitalized on the rise of The Strokes and The Hives the way they had once smartly filled a gap left open by an absent Rivers Cuomo and the general unpleasantness of nu metal. If you’re predisposed to this version of Phantom Planet, the album’s early going won’t disagree with you. “The Happy Ending” has plenty of hacked-up White Stripes grit-and-groove, starting off with pawn-shop overdrive and floor-tom stomp before playing with a back and forth ping pong of drums-only thud and sheets of sharp guitar that can’t help but recall Jack and Meg White’s particular brand of addition and subtraction. And that’s before a big-tent hook that sounds a hell of a lot like something Julian Casablancas would come up with, even if all along singer Alex Greenwald’s most salient skill was just this kind of chorus.
And this is exactly why the best way to hear this record is whenever you next find it used and cheap. Because, and this may sound like blasphemy, Phantom Planet actually got this stuff to gel in a way that has aged considerably better than say, White Blood Cells. If boom-era White Stripes did everything they could to limit the effects of the years following 1968, then Phantom Planet seemingly did everything they could to metabolize these new-old sounds into 2004. Is This It came with a pre-fab layer of dirt and trebly pre-history that sounds unnecessarily small and even shrill in 2014; “The Happy Ending” hits all of The Strokes’ marks, but in 3D. It’s a charming kind of tone-deafness that Phantom Planet seems incredibly excited by the prospect of rocking with the abandon of those garage revival bands, but doesn’t see the point in making anything other than a Phantom Planet record – immaculately produced and expertly arranged. It reminds me of the way the Beatles would try to write Motown songs and somehow come up with “Drive My Car” – it always ended up being a Beatles song; or in this case, a Phantom Planet song. The misguided, trend-spotting perspectives that assumed cynicism in the way Phantom Planet embraced the groundswell surrounding The Strokes or The Hives seemingly missed that what we ended up getting was just a more fun version of Phantom Planet.
Ironically, Phantom Planet actually wound up lapping these same bands in finding honest to god rhythm on this album, something both The Hives and The Strokes would eventually embrace with mixed results (though both were at their best in the extremes of anti-rhythm on Tyrannosaurus Hives and Room On Fire). “Big Brat” is the best example of this strange animal – call it Garage EDM, House music if the house were haunted by deceased members of Paul Revere & The Raiders. Combining dangerously maxed-out programming with live drums and a drunken scrawl of distorted bass, “Big Brat” was and is a loony party starter, a major/minor rave-up that sounds better in 2014 than it did ten years ago. Put it on a Faint album and it’s your favorite Faint song (indeed, the Faint gave us their version that same year with “I Disappear,” a gothier take on this same bass-first disco punk). Release it in 2002 and we end up talking about the other revival bands in the context of Phantom Planet’s shadow. The album’s best songs follow this lead; tunes like “Badd Business,” “The Meantime,” and “1st Things 1st” are impossibly blocky, almost cubist versions of pre- and post-punk shimmy, sounding like dance rock played in designer suits, soaking wet. Word had it that Universal rejected The Hives’ first draft of Tyrannosaurus Hives for being too blocky, too mathetmatic, too Devo. I can only imagine what Epic thought of a record as gonzo in its broken-down-robot version of garage rock as Phantom Planet. For a band of lifers and industry pros, you have to admire the novel way Greenwald and bassist Sam Farrar approach their instruments on this record, the guitar and bass routinely switching their positions of prominence (the bass on this record; my god!), jagged notes always striking just a bit late or hopped-up early.
You can also hear the ways in which their enthusiasm for neon-light punk and used-vinyl scuzz bleeds into their power pop instincts. “By The Bed” sounds like something Nick Lowe could have written, a major key, by-the-books nerd-core swoon, but plastered with strobing drum machine bloops, rusted-out strums, and cranked (and cranky) organ. You get the feeling Phantom Planet was afraid of lulls between the more freaked-out stuff; the drum fills are just a bit sloppier, Alex Greenwald’s accents slur just a bit past charming and a step closer to sloshed, leaving behind some Paul McCartney charm for a bit more of Iggy Pop’s lurid charisma. “Knowitall” is a cool down, but its electronic drums feel slightly decomposed, and even if Greenwald’s near-effortless way with melody leaves these songs never less than confectionary in their sweetness, it’s the bitter accents of ‘verbed out feedback and icy bass tremble that complicate the record, that tempt you to call it something simplifying like “smart.” Phantom Planet was never exactly “cool,” but we’re talking about a band of actors, guys who know how to play a role, but who also know how to rend a script. Phantom Planet was them ripping up a lot of stories you’ve heard before and then playing with the scraps like confetti. In fact, take a look at that cover, a phosphorescent crazy quilt of uncanny geometry – not a bad way of thinking about the music itself, all neon accents and oblique angles. 2004 was a pretty unfair year to Phantom Planet, but 2014 is probably just about perfect.