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|Written by Mike Cullen|
|Friday, 20 November 2009 00:00|
Everyone has a favourite band that nobody else knows about. It's the type of band that, when mentioned in polite conversation, elicits blank stares from friends and colleagues. For me, that band is Phantom Planet.
Phatom Planet has only had brief brushes with mainstream success, and they are currently on an indefinite hiatus, but they remain my favourite underrated band for two key reasons: their ever-changing sound and incredible live shows.
Formed in Orange County, California, in 1994, the band began as a teenage pop-punk group featuring the vocal talents of Alex Greenwald. Greenwald would eventually become a one-time model for Gap, a sometimes actor, and collaborator with DJ Mark Ronson. Also in the band for the first ten years was Jason Schwartzman, now well-known for his successful acting career playing such roles as Louis XVI in Marie Antoinette alongside Kirsten Dunst.
None of Phantom Planet's albums sound alike. Greenwald has noted that his plan has always been to emulate or create a new sound with each album, while remaining distinctively their own band. He cites The Beatles' ability to evolve as inspiration.
Their debut album, Phantom Planet is Missing, released in 1998, features Beach Boys-esque tunes. Some might call it pop-punk, but, in the case of Phantom Planet's debut, the songs are a lot less 'loud' than other contemporary pop-punkers. Lyrically, the album is very strong, but the music does not match the same level of maturity. After the release of their sophomore album, The Guest (2002), featuring a more mainstream pop-punk sound, material from the first album was all but ignored by the band.
The Guest defies all logic as a sophomore album. Most bands struggle with the dreaded sophomore slump, whereby their second album fails to match the commercial or critical success of their debut. But for Phantom Planet, The Guest not only gave them their first taste of mainstream exposure, it was also a watershed of sorts. The album is a damn good collection of tracks, including the breakout hit "California" (used as the theme song to The O.C.), but also "Hey Now Girl," "Always On My Mind," and "Lonely Day." Musically, the band has caught up with the maturity of the lyrics, and nearly eight years after its release, The Guest still holds up well when compared to contemporary sounds in the genre.
The band's third and fourth albums took them into new areas musically, but also thematically. 2004's self-titled Phantom Planet left the pop-punk sound behind, instead embracing garage rock with an electronic undertone, thereby producing my favorite Phantom Planet album. The lyrics are refined, but the music is loose and almost messy, as evident in songs such as "Making a Killing" and "Big Brat." At times, it feels as though the band recorded the tracks during a jam session, and then cleaned them up in post-production. While not their strongest release commercially, Phantom Planet demonstrated for the first time that they had significant artistic merit.
Raise the Dead was the final album released before the group went on hiatus in December 2008. The album features a return to the pop-punk genre, but incorporates the knowledge and expanded styles the band had been cultivating for the last few years. A concept album, Greenwald has said Raise the Dead explores the experience of being a member of a (musical) cult through songs such as "Leader," "Raise the Dead," and "Do the Panic." There is, of course, an acknowledged irony to an underground band writing an album about being a member of an exclusive musical club. While Raise the Dead does not necessarily break new ground musically, thematically it pushed the group in new directions.
It isn't just the studio albums that draw me to Phantom Planet's music, but also their ability to put on high-energy live shows. While opening for Paramore last year, their seven songs left me eager for a lot more. Greenwald is not so much a rock star, or a showman, on stage as he is a performer. He's not over the top, yet knows how to get a crowd in a frenzy. I've seen many live shows, but Phantom Planet's opening slot performance still sticks out in my mind as one of the best I have seen.
There are, of course, hundreds (if not thousands) of great underrated bands out there, yet I keep coming back to Phantom Planet. When I'm looking to introduce a friend to something new, or just wanting a great album to listen to, I reach for Phantom Planet. Their diverse and evolving sound provides a variety of great tunes, and their incredible live show still sticks with me to this day. They may be underrated by most, but for this listener, Phantom Planet remain a favorite.
An Ottawa native, Mike Cullen is a government worker by day, and a self professed music and comic book junkie the rest of the time. He considers music to be more important than water or air.
Tags: alex greenwald, jason schwartzman, live music, music, phantom planet, pop punk, rock, the o.c.