Tuesday, January 6, 2009

All Over Again: the Phantom Planet Story

Compilation (single artist)

This is something I've been working on for the better part of the month for another publication, but I thought maybe some of you guys might get some enjoyment out of it. For those that want to bypass the essay and just get to the music, here's the links:

Phantom Planet - All Over Again (disc 1)
Phantom Planet - All Over Again (disc 2)

For the brave (or those with a lot of free time on their hands) please read on!


by Jason Penick
December, 2008

(Note-- Due to copyright restrictions, regrettably no actual Phantom Planet music videos could be embedded off of YouTube. In their place I've been forced to substitute fan-made and live videos of varying quality.)


I was more than a little saddened to find out just the other day that the group Phantom Planet had quietly posted a message to their official blog, declaring that they would be going on an “indefinite hiatus” after more than a decade of rocking out together. Though they’re still primarily known for being either “Jason Schwartzman’s band” or for their ubiquitous theme song to the popular teen drama The O.C., “California”, the group has nevertheless carried on in dogged fashion even after their popular drummer jumped ship and O.C.-mania turned to O.C.-backlash.

Phantom Planet wasn’t a band you often heard on the radio, at least not here in Northern California, and that’s probably because they weren't all that easy to pigeonhole into one particular genre. With a sound often mis-categorized as either pop punk or emo by the press, the L.A.-based Planet really didn’t fall neatly into either subdivision. “indie pop” might have been a better description of their sound, though throughout their career they've certainly maintained an affinity for both the anthems of the bygone classic rock era as well as the more bizarre, experimental textures of today’s indie artists. The band’s albums almost always received warm reviews in the press, but the loss of Schwartzman, coupled with the rampant overexposure of The O.C. and its accompanying theme song, meant that the group found it necessary to re-invent themselves, even at the height of their career.

Rather than cash in on their new found popularity, however, Phantom Planet fought the good fight-- consistently challenging their audience by adapting new moods and approaches to their sound. And despite never attaining the household-name status they were most likely aiming for, the boys did release a slew of creative and rewarding music throughout the years.

First emerging onto the L.A. club scene in the wake of groups like Weezer, and sounding a bit derivative of their influences at times (the aforementioned Weezer, Radiohead, Elvis Costello, The Strokes and The Beatles to name but a few), over time the group's sound became wholly their own. All Over Again, a posthumous two-CD tribute compiled by this fan in tribute to the group’s lasting legacy, chronicles their entire recorded history-- from the teenage garage-pop upstarts of 1998's Phantom Planet Is Missing to road-hardened rock warriors heard on 2008's Raise the Dead.

With Jason Schwartzman's royal Hollywood bloodline (his mom is actress Talia Shire, his uncle Francis Ford Coppola, his cousin Nicholas Cage) and movie career, most assumed Phantom Planet to be a Schwartzman vanity project at the outset. Yet despite the democratic "All Songs Written by Phantom Planet" byline on their inside of the first CD, the lion's share of the group's songwriting would actually come from the pen of their singer, Alexander Greenwald. Greenwald, already a successful Gap model and aspiring actor (he would go on to play school bully Seth Devin in the 2001 cult hit Donnie Darko), was a near-perfect frontman even at this early juncture.

Devilishly handsome and possessed of a fantastically expressive singing voice, Alex could also turn out memorable, catchy songs on a prolific basis, and he was positively reckless when it came to his on-stage stunts. (For example, Alex could regularly be seen at concerts swinging upside down from rafters or scaffolding, or jumping off of speaker cabinets directly into the crowd.) The original Phantom Planet line-up was rounded out by top bassist Sam Farrar (son of composer John Farrar, who penned hits for Olivia Newton John and the Grease soundtrack), and dual lead guitarists Darren Robinson and Jacques Brautbar. The band was signed to Geffen around the beginning of 1998, and shortly thereafter sessions for their first album began in ernest.




Though the group had been playing together since 1995, it wasn't until three years later that their debut album, Phantom Planet Is Missing, was released on Geffen. The record was something of a hit-or-miss affair, with each of its two sides helmed by a separate producer. The first side in particular is bogged down by excessive use of the Chamberlain keyboard (similar to a Mellotron) and other dated production touches that now seem quite out of place for the band’s overall sound. (The version of "So I Fall Again" included here is a rare alternate mix, minus the Chamberlain overdub.)

Nevertheless, despite inconsistency in the both the production and songwriting domains, the debut album is redeemed by several memorable songs, ranging from the cute 'n' classy "Local Black and Red" to the gently orchestrated "Sleep Machine" to the Weezer-lite riffage of "Lisa (Does It Hurt You?)". The better moments found on Is Missing clearly demonstrated that this was a group of youngsters (all 18 or 19 at the time) with a bright future in the music industry, if they could just break out and find a national audience.


Sadly their first album didn't make much noise or move too many units, and the band was summarily dropped during the big Geffen/ A&M/ Interscope merger.

Selections: Local Black and Red, So I Fall Again [Polaroid mix], I Was Better Off, Lisa (Does It Hurt You?), Sleep Machine, Recently Distressed

-POLAROID (1999)-

Perhaps somewhat remarkably, the band did not abandon ship at this point. The fact that they remained a sizeable draw on the Sunset Strip club scene meant at least some money was coming in, though according to Greenwald it wasn't very much. Schwartzman, of course, would star in his breakthrough role as Max Fischer in the movie Rushmore in 1998, with his band-mates appearing alongside him (in signature form on Max’s petition to save the school’s Latin class!)

Meanwhile, Phantom Planet would also contribute new songs to the soundtracks of Not Another Teen Movie and Drive Her Crazy as they summarily went to work recording their sophomore album. Sessions for this new record—which ultimately never really made it to stores-- were ultimately released via the Phantom Planet Fan Club under the title of Polaroid. (The finished release contained some outtakes from the first album as well.)

One of the more disappointing chapters of the Phantom Planet saga is that Polaroid would go unheard by most, for it amply shows marked growth from the catchy yet somewhat precocious material found on Is Missing. The group was now playing remarkably tight and in the pocket, even at this relatively early stage, with snug ensemble instrumentalism evidenced on the taught interplay found on songs such as the funky "Break It Off". Better yet, the group were taking risks with their songwriting and hitting pay dirt on spacey, introspective numbers like "Candlewax" and "Lava Light". No longer simply a breezy pop outfit, Phantom Planet was beginning to develop some real depth as they matured.

The total extent of this depth would go unrevealed to listeners until the 2004 release of Greenwald's home demos from the era (on Negatives 1 & 2), but Polaroid was chock full of good material, including such memorable Phantom Planet classics as "Bust a Move" and "Please Apply Yourself to Me Sweetly".

Selections: Bust a Move, Candlewax, Please Apply Yourself to Me Sweetly, Break It Off [from Polaroid], Somebody's Baby [from Not Another Teen Movie OST], Is This Really Happening to Me? [from Drive Her Crazy OST]


A band as talented and well-connected Phantom Planet couldn't remain unsigned for long, and roundabout the turn of the new millennium Sony Music Entertainment, Inc. signed the group to a multi-album deal. The opening salvo was fired when the boys released their first single in three years: the gorgeous, McCartneyesque ballad "Lonely Day", backed by the heavier "In Our Darkest Hour" which was co-written by Greenwald and Fountains of Wayne leader Adam Schlesinger.


As an added value to fans, a “Lonely Day” maxi-single was also released with three live bonus tracks, under the title Phantom Planet Live. It's not known exactly where these live numbers were recorded, but obviously it was a well attended show. Greenwald initially thanks the fans for selling the venue out, right as the band kicks into a spooky new number entitled "Shadows". This is followed by live takes of two yet-unrecorded songs: the raucous crowd favorite "Nobody's Fault" and a new, anthem-like ode to their home state, simply titled "California".

Selections: Shadows (live), Nobody's Fault (live)

-THE GUEST (2002)-

On the heels of the Live EP came Phantom Planet's first full-length CD for Sony; The Guest. This was a well-produced and uber-commercial record-- an apparent bid for mainstream success, and on those terms it works quite well. Overall the album has a poppy and optimistic vibe, though it certainly could have turned out differently. During the period leading up to The Guest’s release, Greenwald had kept busy by experimenting at home with material that was darker, more ambient and less commercial than anything his band had recorded for either Is Missing or Polaroid. Yet for the most part, The Guest eschews Greenwald's more ambitious song ideas in favor of attaining nothing short of pure pop nirvana.

The result is what you might expect a Badfinger album to sound like, were that band in their prime during 2002 rather than thirty years prior. Relentless, hooky slabs of California power pop juju like “Always on My Mind”, “One Ray of Sunlight” and the aforementioned “California” easily co-exist alongside somewhat tougher rockers such as “All Over Again” or “In Our Darkest Hour” and gentler acoustic showcases with titles like “Something Is Wrong” and “Anthem”. However that somewhat pedestrian description is not to indicate that the album is so formulaic as to be completely is void of artistry. For one, Alex Greenwald was now beginning to incorporate some of his innovative home synthesizer experiments into the band’s sound, which in turn added even more colors to their ever-changing palate. These new textures are most apparent on one of The Guest’s finest tracks, “Turn Smile Shift Repeat”.



From the beginning Greenwald, an avowed Beatles/ Beach Boys freak, had envisioned his band constantly transitioning between sounds, the way his heroes best records always seemed to do. "I love rock 'n' roll music," he stated in 2004. "I especially loved bands, like the Beatles, that changed with every single record they made. That's been our plan from the get-go. We want our records to be like experiments. We want to have fun with the music. People can hear when you're not having fun. They discover you're bored and you're boring."

Selections: Lonely Day, California, Always on My Mind, In Our Darkest Hour, One Ray of Sunlight, Turn Smile Shift Repeat, Something Is Wrong, Anthem, All Over Again, The Guest (bonus track)


Well just when you figured Phantom Planet had finally settled comfortably into the roll of mainstream power pop's boyband du jour, those sneaky cads went and took an abrupt left turn by drastically shaking things up on their second Sony release. Paired up with mega-producer Dave Friedmann (Flaming Lips, Mercury Rev, Mogwai) the group finally recorded an album that approximated their heavier live sound as first heard on “Shadows”. Explained guitarist Darren Robinson at the time, "We recorded everything (on Phantom Planet) live, with occasional overdubs if something was just too fucking messy. This album is how we sound live, and that's exactly what we wanted." The drastic change in approach was more than apparent on the lead single "Big Brat", which is probably best remembered today for its gruesome, Spike Jonez directed video which showcased band members as flesh-eating zombies (a theme that would re-occur throughout the latter part of the band’s career.)


Though the album again drew mostly positive reviews, with several critics praising the band for their hard hitting new sound as heard on such ferocious tracks as “Badd Business”, “Making a Killing” and “1st Things 1st”, others pointed out what they perceived to be a marked similarity in sound with The Strokes. While not completely off the mark, these reviews may have hurt the album's reputation amongst non-fans. Surface-wise, there is some congruence between Phantom Planet’s 2004 release and their New York counterparts’ concurrent Room on Fire. Yet one good active listen to Phantom Planet is enough for any savvy music lover to hear an obvious difference in sound between the two groups. Relative merits of Room on Fire aside, Phantom Planet’s self-titled is a different kind of beast altogether.

Phantom Planet kicks, hits and pushes the listener headfirst into a dark alley inhabited by savage guitar tones, monster fuzz bass riffs, pounding drum breaks and brutal yet oh-so-melodic hooks. The group had simply never sounded as raw as they now did on the threatening “Happy Ending” or the brain-bashing “Meantime”. The overt aggression of these tracks is nicely balanced out by gentler numbers such as “By the Bed” and Greenwald’s ode to Las Vegas nightlife, “After Hours”, while the slow-building “Knowitall” perfectly bridges the gap between those seemingly disanalogous styles.


Sadly, the release of the band’s artistic high water mark also signaled the end of the original line-up, as Jason Schwartzman and Jacques Brautbar both left to pursue full-time careers outside of the music industry. Schwartzman would of course go on to much greater acclaim as the star of such films as I Heart Huckabees and Darjeeling Limited, while Brautbar would continue on with his passion of photography, having his work showcased in Rolling Stone magazine amongst other high profile gigs.

With Greenwald now taking over second guitar duties, the band hooked up with drummer Jeff Conrad, formerly of the groups Big City Rock and Siren Six. With Conrad in tow, Phantom Planet embarked on two years of steady touring to support the self-titled album. One tour stop at Schuba's Tavern in Chicago was captured on the great if oddly titled Chicago, Chicagoing, Chicagone DVD, from which an intense cover of the Fugazi classic “Waiting Room” hails.



Selections: By the Bed, Big Brat, 1st Things 1st, The Meantime, Knowitall, The Happy Ending, Badd Business, Stiffs (bonus track), Making a Killing, Waiting Room (live - iTunes single), After Hours

-PHANTOM PLANET BOOTLEGS [Live at the Troubadour, Live 2004, Negatives, Negatives 2] (2004)-

2004 was probably the busiest year in Phantom Planet’s career. In addition to the new album, the group kicked off the short-lived phantomplanetbootlegs.com by releasing an additional 4 CDs of material that were available solely via the website. Live at the Troubadour and Live 2004 stand as the essential non-DVD Phantom Planet concert documents, showcasing live versions of many songs off of both The Guest and Phantom Planet. The main difference between the two is that Troubadour is a 2003 show featuring the original line-up with Schwartzman and Brautbar, while 2004 features the new line-up. Either way, Phantom Planet fans couldn’t go wrong.

Perhaps more impressive, however, was the release of Negatives 1 and 2; two “odds and sods” collections featuring previously unheard Phantom Planet studio cuts alongside many of Greenwald's old home demos. The full band songs in particular are all pretty terrific. As with Polaroid, it's difficult to see why the group didn't just compile the best of them and release it all as a legitimate album. Thankfully, you'll get to hear many of these previously hard to come by rarities right here, including such lost classics as the emotional ballad "Building Up/ Cutting Down", the Costello-esque “The Stalker” and a sly, cynical ode to their own hometown titled "Hollywood Is Waiting to Explode".


Just as revealing are Alex Greenwald's home demos, which were primarily recorded during the dark period between Is Missing and The Guest where the band were just barely scraping by. Here we can see that the distorted, chaotic sound that seemingly arrived out of nowhere on Phantom Planet could actually be traced back nearly five years prior to that album's release. While a lot of these demo tracks are just off-the-cuff synthesizer experiments with quirky titles like “Cross Eyes”, “Come Back to Your Tomb” or “March of the Spiders”, just as often Greenwald hits the mark and conjures up something really majestic, such as the liquid “Submarine Song” or “The Galleria”, a tribute to the mall made famous in Fast Times at Ridgemont High that the band would later add to their live set list.

Overall, this unique mix of quirky synths and somber acoustic ballads demonstrates a drastically different side of Phantom Planet as compared to the handsome, almost boybandesque image presented in the music videos to songs like "Hey Now Girl" or "California". As such, the group would unfortunately continue to be bogged down by this dichotomy. The popularity of “California”, The Guest and The O.C. had served to alienate many of their original fans— only some of whom were won back by the self-titled album. Meanwhile, their bandwagon fans, while greater in number, just wanted to hear “California” or variations thereof, which is clearly not what the band had in mind for the long term.

And so Phantom Planet entered another period of indefinite hiatus, recording their next album in fits and spurts and generally keeping a low profile, with only the occasional movie or video game soundtrack song serving notice that they were still together.

Selections: The Galleria, Building Up/ Cutting Down, Peace and Quiet [from Negatives] Hollywood Is Waiting to Explode, The Stalker, I Got Love [from Negatives 2] Our House [from Chumscrubber OST], The Living Dead [from Stubbs the Zombie OST]


It took four years and a change of label (from Sony to Fueled By Raman), but Phantom Planet finally released Raise the Dead in 2008. Despite the presence of the overtly poppy first single "Do the Panic" (co-written by Greenwald and Schwartzman back in 2002, but now featuring different lyrics), the album was overall a melancholy affair; moodier and more introspective than even their self-titled, if also somewhat more restrained.


Describing the new album shortly before its release, Greenwald gave a clue as to some of his influences: "The next record is a concept record. If the Beatles had Sgt. Pepper's and the Rolling Stones had Their Satanic Majesties Request, we have our ‘Leader.’ We’re concocting it, but at the same time we’re following it."

Originally planned as a concept album based around events in the lives of people trapped in a cult, the final release played down the cult references somewhat, using them sparingly and more as metaphors for a failed relationship. Nevertheless, the band now insisted on dressing in black hoodies with matching logos designed by Greenwald screened on the front. This outward show of band unity gave the impression that Phantom Planet might be in it for the long haul, just as the taut, frantic sound of new material like “Geronimo”, “Leader” and “Leave Yourself for Somebody Else” indicated they were approaching something of a creative zenith.

Sadly, a year of high profile tour engagements, including spots on the Honda Civic Tour and an opening bid with old pals Maroon 5, was not enough to keep the band going. On or about November 25, 2008, shortly after their appearance on the Jimmy Kimmel show, Phantom Planet announced to the public that they were going on ‘hiatus, and will not be playing any more live shows or making any new records, indefinitely.’

Selections: Geronimo, Leader, Do the Panic, Too Much Too Often, Dropped, Leave Yourself for Somebody Else


Phantom Planet played their final show on December 12, 2008, at their favorite venue in L.A.: the Troubadour. During the gig, Alex mentioned more than once that the group was, in fact, “going on a hiatus, not breaking up.” Perhaps their fans will find a small bit of relief in Greenwald’s words, but a major comeback seems unlikely.

For a band that at one time or another had opened for luminaries as diverse as Guns ‘n' Roses, Sting, Elvis Costello, Incubus, Guided by Voices, Blink-182, The Zombies, The Hives, American Hi-Fi, Maroon 5, Ludacris and Panic at the Disco, Phantom Planet never seemed to make it into that top echelon of rock stardom. Now, as Greenwald contemplates making his solo album, the group must consider what direction to go as individuals after having spent more than half their lives playing together. It will be a challenging period for each of the former Planeteers, but in the end they can take a good deal of comfort in knowing that their music was worshipped by those that were lucky enough to get hipped to it. This compilation is a tribute to them.