OTE: The following is an open letter to the members of the Orange County, CA based band, Phantom Planet (guitarists Jacques Brautbar and Darren Robinson, bassist Sam Farrar, guitarist/singer Alex Greenwald, and drummer Jason Schwartzman [of “Rushmore“ and “Slackers” fame]) regarding their second album The Guest, in stores February 26th.
So here it is. Four years after your debut album (1998’s Phantom Planet Is Missing, released by DreamWorks), you’ve finally prepared a second offering for us. You’ve come a long way since that album, it seems. You have a video getting some good airplay on MTV2 (the first single, “California”), and your fan base has grown considerably. Not to mention that you’re on a new label (Epic) that has the resources to open a lot of doors for you. You know, I really enjoyed your first album, and still do. But something always bothered me about it. Half of it showed you guys to be a strong musical unit, writing great pop songs, and showed a lot of promise (not to mention that Alex‘s voice is one of the more refreshing to surface in in recent memory). Then the other half showed you to be what I thought you weren’t: a demographic band. The songs lacked the buoyancy and melodicism of the first bunch, while the lyrics descended into Dawson’s Creek-esque tripe. While it left a bit of a bad taste in my mouth, it wasn’t enough to make me give up on you, because I knew that there was a promise that you guys could yet fulfill.
I’ll admit, you kind of dropped out of my sight in the years that passed, but by some fateful occurrence, I decided to check out your website a few weeks ago. A new design heralded the coming of a new album and single. Eager to see what direction you were going in, I checked out the video for said single, and was abruptly blown away. The grandiose, sugary melodies remained, but an obvious maturation had taken place. The musicianship was more creative and intricate, but what pleased me most was the edge that the band had acquired. There was something about you guys in 1998 that seemed too.....glossy, too tailored. However, the video finds you wearing thrift-shop clothes, sporting long hair, and demolishing the stage with the vigor of a band like At The Drive-In or The Wrens. It seemed like you guys finally found what was missing. Then, I heard the rest of the album.
It’s not that it’s bad, really. In fact you stand high and mighty amongst your contemporaries (American Hi-Fi, Pete Yorn, Alien Ant Farm....no big feat, I know), but you’ve fallen into the same 50/50 rut as your debut. While half the songs on the album come oh, so close to fulfilling that promise, the other half just sink further and further into that ever-widening TRL canyon. It’s just that this time, instead of the weaker songs being sequestered to the second half of the record, they are woven into the otherwise shimmering fabric of The Guest.
“Always On My Mind”, with it’s keyboard bits and chorus hand-claps is a welcome throwback to the smart, carefree Top 40 pop of the eighties (Blake Schwartzenbach, take note), and would make a nice second single. What’s more, songs like “Nobody’s Fault” and “In Our Darkest Hour” kick the intensity up to a quite acceptable notch. These tracks have the fury and urgency that is abundant at your shows, but seems to be lacking on record, most notably on “Lonely Day”. The main problem with the album is that no matter what stylistic leap forward you make, it seems like there’s something else there to contradict it. On the glitchy, somber “Turn Smile Shift Repeat”, you guys seem to be truly challenging yourselves, a true rarity in the complacent musical stratosphere that Phantom Planet seems to (unfairly) inhabit. However, the next track, the bouncy-but-empty “Hey Now Girl“, is simply below you. While some bands can get by on the stock “it’s pop -- it’s supposed to be dumb” excuse, you guys just plain can‘t. You just have too much potential to underestimate yourselves like that. Sure, lots of money can be made from what you are doing, but unlike so many other acts today, that isn’t what you care about, and it shows.
Beyond the music I can offer only this advice: tone down the production. Despite the grand leanings of a song like “Wishing Well”, you guys have a rawness to your sound that isn’t allowed to revel in its complete glory on this album (the drum-machine-y sound effects and gratuitous strings peppered throughout the record don’t help this). Instead of hiring two big-time uber-producers (Mitchell Froom and Tchad Blake), keep it simple and let some of the mistakes and blurred edges shine through. Phantom Planet, I offer my criticisms because I care, and because I know that under that Lincoln Continental, there’s a roaring, kick ass Trans Am.
PS: Jason -- “Slackers“??!?! What the hell was that?
Reviewed by: Colin McElligatt
Reviewed on: 2003-09-01