Phantom Planet Is Missing
Or, Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Band

I’m currently ringing in the new year with a bout of strep throat. Basically, swallowing anything, including my own saliva, feels like trying to choke down good-sized rocks, and I haven’t eaten, slept or spoken in more than two days. My energy flags without warning, so be prepared for a thoroughly minor entry in the tm3am canon this week.

I was thinking about taking the week off, but I can’t, because I’m taking next week. My mother’s getting married, and because she’s my mother, and she never does anything small, she’s scheduled the wedding to coincide with a week at sea on board a huge cruise liner. So from Sunday to Saturday next week I’ll be out in the middle of the ocean, cut off from civilization. Who knows what catastrophes could occur while I’m gone? The thought of seven days without an internet connection is already driving me batty.

So that’s next week. I was going to launch into my massive clean-up project this week, doing capsule reviews of everything I bought and didn’t review last year, but my illness really prevents me from concentrating on more than one thought at a time, so I had to narrow it down to one. Thankfully, though, the first big release of 2004 hit on Tuesday, and also thankfully, it didn’t take too many spins through for me to come to some coherent conclusions about it, so here goes.

* * * * *

Phantom Planet seems to be bent on surprising me at every turn.

First, I refused to get into them, simply because their drummer was the kid from Rushmore, Jason Schwartzman, and I couldn’t stomach these actor vanity projects like 50 Odd Foot of Grunts taking label contracts and shelf space away from more deserving acts without a marquee name in their ranks. It didn’t help when I found out that singer Alexander Greenwald was in Donnie Darko as well – nothing like a whole band full of actors to make me put the Visa card back in my pocket.

But then I bought The Guest, their second album, and it blew me away. Here was a perfectly constructed pop album, full of memorable songs, performed with a real sense of classic pop history that I’d found sorely lacking in the efforts of Phantom Planet’s peers. I liked it so much that I named it my third favorite album of 2002, slotting it only behind Beck and Wilco. It’s simply an extraordinary album, made even more so by the young age of its creators.

And then I saw them live, and was surprised again. I was hoping for a pop show, and I got a noise-o-rama. On stage, the quintet is a loping, feedback-laced force of nature, trampling all its greater melodic instincts in a barrage of thundering chaos. Familiar songs took on new guises as sloppy explosions, and the old adage that everything should be louder than everything else was followed to the letter. The Phantom Planet I saw live reminded me of a garage band trying to cover The Guest, and missing the nuances in favor of power. But they were fun, at least.

The surprises keep coming with the new album, out this week. Phantom Planet, in keeping with the tradition of using self-titled albums as reinventions, sounds like that garage band I saw on stage. It’s raw, loud, propulsive, thudding, and almost completely lacking in everything I liked about The Guest. The first three songs in particular just steamroller over everything the band used to be, replacing sweetness with angular, jagged fury. It’s a complete reintroduction. It’s also a complete mess.

Okay, that’s a mite unfair, I’ll grant. One skill I need to learn as a reviewer is to discuss the album the band made, as opposed to the album I wish they’d made, especially when the album I wish they’d made is one they previously released. Phantom Planet has its charms, and I’ll get into that in a minute, but I want to make one thing absolutely clear – if you liked The Guest for its delightful melodies and its pure sense of pop, you will not like this album. The two have virtually nothing in common. Clear? I mean, don’t let me stop you, of course, but don’t say I didn’t warn you, either.

Phantom Planet comes crashing in from the very beginning, with the explosive drums of “The Happy Ending,” and by the time it allows you to catch your breath, you’re on track four, “1st Things 1st.” The album is almost punk in a way – it’s 35 minutes long, and only one of the 11 songs breaks four minutes, and that one only by one second. It compensates for its unfinished songwriting and sound by jamming the songs together into a continuous burst. Only when you get to the end do you ask, “That’s it?”

While The Guest was chock full of hummable tunes that took up residence in your skull, Phantom Planet is mostly made up of the inverse – songs which make a beeline out your ear without even stopping over in your short-term memory. The songs hardly have melodies at all, choruses are shouted rather than sung, and everything is sacrificed on the altar of raw guitar power. But if you can deal with all that, the album does rock, in its way. (I should mention that Schwartzman is no longer with the band, but that doesn’t seem to matter much – he played on half of this album anyway, and Greenwald, as before, wrote all of the songs.)

The better moments here come when Greenwald leads his band away from the furious noise they seem to enjoy creating so much. “You’re Not Welcome Here” is just as powerful as the short punkers, even though it’s this album’s “Turn, Smile, Shift, Repeat” – slow and brooding. The second half of the album is more interesting than the first, especially the ’80s-sounding “Knowitall” and the U2-style atmospherics of closer “The Meantime.” Even those songs, though, fall victim to the jarring production.

It’s difficult to describe this album as anything but a step back. The Guest was such a revelation, and even though I’m sure that the Clash influences here come from the same pure fan place as the Beatles references on the previous album, Phantom Planet pales in comparison. The best way to enjoy this record is to think of it as the debut of a completely different band, but even that approach has its problems, at least in my case – this new incarnation isn’t a band I’d have much interest in sticking with. If I buy another Phantom Planet album, it will be because of The Guest, not this record. Which might be the most damning thing I can say about it – by itself, Phantom Planet would never have made me a fan.

* * * * *

Next week, I’m in the Caribbean. Hope you don’t miss me too much. On the horizon are reviews of new albums by Ani Difranco, Matthew Sweet, Starflyer 59, Elbow, Indigo Girls, and a massive 4-CD box set of rarities from the Cure. Now I’m going to go take some antibiotics and lie down.

See you in line Tuesday morning.