We thought we knew Phantom Planet, but it turns out we didn’t. The band we thought we were familiar with, featuring ”Rushmore” star Jason Schwartzman on drums, is heard on Fox’s ”The O.C.,” which uses the thrusting ”California” as its theme song. ”California” is typical of the band’s 2002 album, ”The Guest” (reissued last month, with bonus tracks and a new cover, to further capitalize on the TV tie-in). Although they’ve been around for a decade, Phantom Planet come across as emo-come-latelies with an affinity for harmony-driven power pop, mopey lyrics, and the occasional earnest ballad.
Another Phantom Planet are on display on the band’s new album, Phantom Planet, which sounds like the work of a different group of musicians. One of them, Schwartzman, actually is gone, having returned to his acting career, but the changes are heard in more than just new drumbeats. Phantom Planet once wanted to be Weezer with less irony; now they yearn to be the Strokes with meatier production. The songs on this jarring disc are scrappier and more slurred and discordant than those on ”The Guest”; winsome romanticism has been replaced with cynical jabs (”Big Brat,” ”1st Things 1st”). The guitars are scuzzier. For an L.A. band, Phantom Planet sound as if they haven’t seen the sun in months.
Phantom Planet is devoid of anything as bludgeoningly tuneful as ”California.” But in its clunky manner, it’s a fascinating throwback to the days when bands would creatively wander without regard for the marketplace: Think of the shift from the monolithic ”Led Zeppelin II” to the acoustic ”Led Zeppelin III,” or from the beery rap of the Beastie Boys’ ”Licensed to Ill” to the more challenging hip-pop collage of ”Paul’s Boutique,” to cite just two examples. Last summer’s reissues of out-of-print Neil Young albums – which ranged from the woozy honky-tonk of ”American Stars ‘N Bars” to the metallic overdrive of ”Re-Ac-Tor” – were especially vibrant reminders of once-common stylistic detours.
These days, a few musicians, notably Beck, still adhere to this follow-your-muse approach. But they stand alone. Many acts, be they Korn or Jay-Z or matchbox twenty, seem content to raise a fence around their piece of turf and stay put. Except for the most minor variations, every disc sounds pretty much like the last one. Forget monkey wrenches: These acts aren’t even interested in owning a toolbox. Part of the reason may be the artists’ limited imaginations, but economic factors surely play a role too. In a scenario where CD sales are shrinking but companies still need to meet their quarterly earnings quotas, risks must be minimized. So it’s best to stick with what worked the last time, and the time before that.
Two of last fall’s anticipated hits, Kid Rock’s self-titled latest and Pink’s ”Try This,” bucked this trend by offering up Southern rock and poppier punk, respectively, in place of the singers’ normal fare. For their gamble, both acts paid the price: The discs are sinking fast. Were the shifts too abrupt for fans? Maybe. Will the CDs’ indifferent receptions have repercussions? Surely. ”I’m waiting for the happy ending,” moans singer-guitarist Alex Greenwald on ”Phantom Planet,” and we’ll see what fate awaits his band’s own radical departure. The album is absurdly derivative – songs like ”You’re Not Welcome Here” and ”By the Bed” could be Strokes outtakes – but something about its restless energy and sense of what-the-hell surprise is commendable. If ”Phantom Planet” is ultimately a B-, it still gets an A for effort – especially these days.