Looking For a Perfect Pop Record?
Be Phantom Planet's Guest

Running a bit behind again, but seriously, have you looked outside? I’m having trouble convincing myself that any free time I have shouldn’t be spent out in the sunshine doing nothing in particular. Right now I’ve got a glass of pink lemonade here, and I’m listening to LivePhish Volume 7 (a three-hour gig from 1993 in Tinley Park, Illinois) and grooving to “Guelah Papyrus,” and I’m ready to roll, so let’s not waste the moment.

Next week is a mammoth one for music, with new ones by Elvis Costello, Wilco, Mark Eitzel, Tuatara and the Pet Shop Boys. I’m giddy with anticipation, and I already wish it were next week. But it’s not. It’s this week, with nary a great musical statement to be found. In my desperation for a column topic, I actually went scrounging for something passable, and found something remarkable by accident. But later for that.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the one major release of this week, which is Sheryl Crow’s C’mon, C’mon.

Each year, there is a moment, a song, or an album that unquestionably heralds the arrival of summer. You know the type of song I mean – those lazy, breezy, put-it-on-in-the-car-while-you-cruise-the-beach-with-the-top-down kind of numbers at which Sugar Ray excels. Weezer’s “Island in the Sun,” for example, filled the role last year. And this year, the return of warmer weather has been accompanied by “Soak Up the Sun,” Sheryl Crow’s laid-back exhortation to do just that.

The album, at first glance, seems designed to capitalize on the song’s sunny content, with a design similar in tone and style to k.d. lang’s Invincible Summer. And indeed, it opens with “Steve McQueen,” a June/July driving song if there ever was one (and likely the next single), followed closely by “Sun.” However, from there, it all goes a bit awry, thanks to Crow’s seeming need to please everybody all the time.

Sheryl Crow has always been a study in contradictions (or, less charitably, in hypocrisy). She says she doesn’t want to be a pop star, and then makes pop songs and videos for the marketing machine. She rails against the current fashion of showing skin to get record sales, and then poses for the inside cover of C’mon, C’mon wearing next to nothing. She embraces rock and pop, but never integrates them, preferring to let the styles (and audiences) battle it out.

And so it goes on the new album. “You’re an Original” brings the John Mellencamp-style rock, but it’s an overused chord progression which, ironically, supports lyrics chastising those who pinch styles from others. Later, “It’s So Easy” finds her surrounded by goopy strings a la Faith Hill and dueting with Mr. Adult Contemporary himself, Don Henley. For almost the entire running time, you get one or the other – either the hackneyed guit-rock or the MTV-ready gloss-pop, neither one performed with a whole lot of conviction.

There is one song, though, that makes me kind of glad I plunked down the cash for this album. “Safe and Sound” is an epic ballad that eschews the VH-1 trappings (even though the string section is present) and soars on the strength of melody and harmony. It’s the only song here that you’ll enjoy without thinking about where you’ve heard it before.

Crow seems to make the case for retiring the pop music form all together, as if it can’t deliver anything new while remaining steeped in its roots. As if in defiant answer to that, I also bought one of the finest pop albums I’ve heard in ages this week, and it’s one that’s been out for a while (since January, I think) and I’ve avoided buying for a silly reason.

The album is Phantom Planet’s The Guest, and I haven’t bought it for the same reason I haven’t bought albums by Dogstar and 30-Odd Foot of Grunts – the movie star factor. The drummer for Phantom Planet is none other than Jason Schwartzman, who brilliantly played acidic teen Max Fischer in Rushmore. A little research might have showed me that he was in the band first, and that every reviewer on the planet has praised this thing, but what can I say. I’m silly.

I’m quite glad I got past my mental block, though, because The Guest is wonderful. By now you’ve likely all heard “California,” the hit single, and it was that song that finally convinced me. It’s a swell number, full of dynamic switches and melodic twists akin to Fastball’s underrated pop singles. It’s also this album’s worst and most commercially aimed song, yet it sets the tone well in the leadoff position.

No, Phantom Planet have aimed a bit higher, creating a focused and solid record that balances drama and sweetness like the best pop bands always have. It’s refreshing to see a group of kids this young reaching back to the ’60s and further for inspiration, and coming up with an album so rooted in classic pop, yet so willing to reach out in new directions. Many have credited producers Mitchell Froom and Tchad Blake (who have worked with Crowded House, among others) with the lion’s share of the artistry here, but that seems cynical to me, especially considering neither one had a hand in the songwriting. You can produce a group of bad songs to death, and in the end, you’ll still be left with a group of bad songs.

And these are great songs, folks. Even the simplest of them (like the singalong “Anthem”) shines, and when they turn more twisty and complex (like on the menacing “Turn Smile Shift Repeat”), you’d think you were listening to a band twice as experienced as these boys. The Guest just keeps getting better, as well: the piano-powered “Nobody’s Fault” shimmies and shakes, and gives way to the scream-fest “All Over Again,” on which Schwartzman really shines. Full credit, though, goes to guitarist and vocalist Alexander Greenwald for penning “Wishing Well,” the closest I’ve heard to a true pop epic a la “A Day in the Life” since Matthew Sweet’s “Thunderstorm.”

Maybe it’s just that this year has been somewhat barren, but The Guest is my favorite album from 2002 so far, bar none. I suspect that Elvis Costello and Wilco will have something to say about that next week, but for now, this album is tops. For future reference, when I use the term “a perfect pop album,” Phantom Planet’s The Guest is exactly what I mean.

See you in line Tuesday morning.