Review: Phantom Planet’s “Raise the Dead”

Apr 21, 2008 5:16pm

Phantom Planet are most definitely most known for two things – the theme to the “O.C.” (the ubiquitous “California”) and for having Jason Schwartzman as their former (founding) drummer.  The truth is, the band has a pretty consistent catalogue of occasionally rollicking power-pop, and they deserve to be known for more.  Their 2002 breakout album “The Guest” showcased lead-singer Alex Greenwald as a keen pop-smith.  Before “California” opened “The O.C.” it made the rounds on radio.  In early 2004, the band released a self-titled record which I believe to be their true masterpiece.  Shedding the delicately-crafted nature of “The Guest,” the band delivered a 35-minute garage-rock assault which out-did the achievements of both the Hives and the Strokes.  If it weren’t for Green Day’s “American Idiot,” that would have been my favorite record of the year.  It was on that album where Schwartzman bid farewell (in order to focus on his acting career) and the band welcomed new drummer Jeff Conrad.  Last year on Mark Ronson’s fantastic covers album, “Version,” Greenwald helped deliver a killer horn-infused cover of Radiohead’s “Just.”  The track actually had been recorded a year or so before for a Radiohead tribute album and essentially became the stepping point for Ronson’s whole record.  Until that point, all had been quiet in the Phantom Planet camp for a while.  So, “Raise the Dead” is the band’s first album in four years.  It’s also their first recorded for Fall Out Boy bassist, Pete Wentz’s Fueled By Ramen label.  I’m glad the band has a home, but this makes them unmistakably the best band on the label.  Phantom Planet are leagues ahead of Fall Out Boy and Panic at the Disco in their song-craft and their performance.  (Plus Phantom Planet aren’t prone to songs with run-on sentences as titles, insane amounts of punctuation or irritating emo/poppy, feaux-punk tendencies.)  “Raise the Dead” is a good album on the first listen, and a great album by the tenth.  It isn’t quite the immediate massive rocker its predecessor was, but it is still worthy.  It effectively fuses the polished sound of “The Guest” with dustier, creakier moments reminiscent of the last record.  Let’s begin with the single, “Do the Panic.”  The song should sound familiar to longtime fans considering that a live version of it was featured on the bonus disc packaged with the first pressing of “The Guest.”  It’s nice to see the song revived especially since it always seemed to me to have hit potential.  The song is every bit as good as “California,” and I can imagine its catchy guitar-riff and “ba-ba-ba-bop-bop-sha-dooby-do” refrain in the background of many future movie trailers. Equally appealing is the hand-clapping go-go fueled number “Dropped.”  Greenwald double-tracks his vocals in different octaves to a great effect. Another highlight is “Leader,” a tongue-in-cheek look at life in a cult, complete with a playful children’s chorus. Greenwald sings, “We’ll put you in a uniform, / Everyone will be reborn, / Wear us over where your heart is, /Now you’re new life with us has started.”  It would make a good single if it wasn’t a little sick.    In fact, much of the music on “Raise the Dead” is rumored to be fueled by a fascination with cult activity and the music of cult leaders.  Greenwald is definitely on an odd jag here. Hopefully this started with some sort of innocent fascination with cult behavior and its causes.  I would like to think there was some brand of academic-style study going on here, considering the uncomfortable nature of the subject.  Sickness is a recurring topic. On “Quarantine” Greenwald tries to “keep the sickies out.” The songs sound sunny but this is a dark record. References to mortality are everywhere, whether on the troubadour-like, anthemic title track, or on the keenly drum-tastic “Too Much Too Often” where Greenwald sings, “out of the cradle and into the coffin.”  “Geronimo” is either about a suicide pact or a diabolical madman about to push a victim off a cliff.  It throbs and screams with visceral tension.  It’s among the record’s most punked-up moments. “Confess” is written from a similar point of view. “I’m out of touch,/ You’re out of breath. / Have you got something to confess?”  This very well may be the cult leader asking a suspicious (non-Kool-Aid drinking) follower “Do you think I’m crazy? I’ll show you crazy!!” “Demon Daughters” is a moody number about majestic witches.  Again death and destruction are everywhere.  Unpredictable rock squalls appear and recede as tension rises and falls.  Thankfully near the end of the disc, the thread gets a little lost, with the Byrds-ian/Monkees-esque guitar riff on “Leave Yourself for Somebody Else,” and the jaw-droppingly fantastic closer, “I Don’t Mind.”  On the latter, Greenwald proves to be a master of the slow-build.  So often on the record, you find him screaming as if he’s demanding to be heard.  Here, he delivers his lines in an intimate near whisper.  It’s reminiscent of “By the Bed” which was a main highlight of the last album.  More than before, this quartet of musicians (Greenwald, Conrad, bassist Sam Farrar and guitarist Darren Robinson) have become an expertly-honed vessel. They have recovered well from the recent departure of guitarist Jacques Brautbar. With each one of their four records, Phantom Planet have added a new dynamic to their sound.  This album brings forth a lyrical level of detail and darkness which wasn’t as present in their previous work. “Raise the Dead” is a uniquely twisted and likeable record, far, far removed from “California,” but nevertheless well worth your attention.

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