The Devil Is Six And God Is Seven

January 1, 2009 at 6:42 am (Best of 2008)

Just to break things up a bit…

7. Phantom Planet, Raise The Dead

You know Phantom Planet, of course. They’re the overly-blessed L.A. sweeties responsible for that annoying theme for TV’s “The O.C.”. Or maybe you go a little deeper and know them as the band that Wes Anderson fave Jason Schwartzman plays drums in. Although they’re still pretty young, they’ve been around forEVER; the fifteen-year-old girls who originally went to their gigs are out of college now and are pricing minivans.

From that description, you know Phantom Planet, even if you sort of didn’t before. (Still not seeing their past persona? Lead singer Alex Greenwald became a teen heartthrob by being in GAP commercials; get it now?) Now forget everything you know about ’em. Max Fischer quit the band back in 2003, and since that time they’ve been trying to sort of find a way to move away from the sound they were known for. They’ve spent the years listening to a lot of music, and letting the influence soak in; as a result Planet have reinvented themselves here as a sort of heavily-produced, more radio-friendly version of The Walkmen; if that doesn’t work for you, imagine what you’d get if you sent a band to a deserted island with only The Bends and OK Computer to listen to for four years. I mean this as a compliment: this album is the best early Radiohead album to come out this year.

Greenwald, in his role as frontman and songwriter has always caught heat for being over-earnest in filling that role…so what he’s done here is to ratchet the rest of the band up to his own level of hyper-caffeinated bliss, resulting a record that ends up loud and rowdy when it wants to be (“Do The Panic” and the sublime “Dropped”) yet gives it an aura of cool intensity when things slow down (“Quarantined” and “Demon Daughters”) and he can Thom Yorke it up.

Come to Raise The Dead skeptical, of course. This disc isn’t gonna be everyone’s cup of joe….but if you’re willing to let a band who seem to have been fleeing their past engage in a little artistic awakening and give this a fair shake you may find that Phantom Planet has succeeded at making one of the best discs of the year. If you’re not sure you’ve got the time for such charity, at least give a listen to “Leave Yourself For Somebody Else” which in a just world would’ve been a chart-topper. Ironically, this is it from these fellows; they played a farewell gig in early December and have called it quits. Shame.

“Leave Yourself For Somebody Else”
“Quarantined”
“Do The Panic”

6. Prisonshake, Dirty Moons

(Forgiveness please–this review was a blog post that never was; a double-album 15 years in the creation phase deserves a few extra paragraphs. Sue me.)

Prisonshake’s first proper album in 15 years, Dirty Moons, is a record that does everything in its power to keep you at arm’s length, an album that double-dog-dares you to like it, a recording that pulls out quite a few stops to confound your expectations and even, dare I say, piss you off. It is a sprawling, snarling beast of an a record, and I’ll admit that the first time I listened to it all the way through my first thought was “Fuck this.”

Prisonshake–Robert Griffin, Doug Enkler, Steve Scariano, and Patrick Hawley–have been working on this record since ’95 or so, and since I worked with Steve and Pat and saw Doug and Robert all the time at work at Euclid Records or in the basement as Cicero’s, I remember vividly hearing details about intense practice sessions and heavy recording sessions. I remember the band going to Adam Schmitt’s in Champaign to record an early version of the entire album….and then also remember the band scrapping those sessions and starting over. And starting over again. And again. After I left St. Louis, I’d hear updates about recording and the faint possibility that the follow-up to 1993’s legendary The Roaring Third was due out “soon”. After fits and starts and more fits, I could hardly believe that the long-awaited album was finally going to see light of day here in 2008, some 13 years in the making.

And so my reaction upon first listen was this: “This took 13 years to make?” The record kicks off with a great arty, funky groove on “Fake Your Own Death”, but the song goes all over the place–at various points it has a prog rock feel, at other parts it’s heavy metal, and every time it seems to settle in on itself….the band sound as if they’re deliberately sabotaging it. This “sabotage” continues on the second track, “I Will Comment”; the song itself is built around a killer ascending rock riff and Hawley’s insane timekeeping on snare…and then codas into a sweet groove, which the band decides to mess around with by burying in phase and fadeout. “Cut Out Bin” opens with a bizarre recording of someone–a fan?–leaving a phone message about getting bit by rats at a Biohazard show and living in an iron lung.

What the hell’s going on here? Rock and roll is what’s going on here. “Cut-Out Bin” snarls to life with a what sounds like Peter Buck’s “Begin The Begin” riff as played by Richard Lloyd and then becomes a total anthem. “Dream Along” follows along, sounding like The Heartbreakers (Johnny’s, not Joan’s) covering Finn’s Motel. And then there’s “You’re Obviously The One”. That song is built on the best stupid rock riff Prisonshake’s ever written, and despite the snarl of the guitars and the drive of the rhythm section, you listen to the lyrics and…what the hell? The guys who did “Precious” and “Carthage Burns” have written a song filled with sentiment and pathos and…hell, the damn thing is downright sweet! Check that line:

“Just when you think the thrill is gone
You hear in your ear ‘You’re obviously the one.'”

Yeah, right? I mean, the ‘Shake isn’t turning into John Mayer here, but that’s still a pretty awesome sentiment to hear.

Even cooler, the song finishes with an amazing instrumental bridge that starts off like vintage Motown, with Hawley popping the snare in the pocket while Scariano’s bass runs all over the place…and then Griffin’s guitars come zooming in with a great counterpoint to the vocal melody, and the whole thing just rocks out like crazy….

…and you realize you’ve been set up. Played. Manipulated. The magicians got you looking one way, and you missed the force. See, the tracks where things are allowed to deliberately run off the rails and into unknown territory that confounds your expectations set you up that such will always be the case on Moons. So when that final coda kicks in on “Obviously”, you’re expecting them to deliberately do something…unconventional. Weird. I’ll say it: you’re waiting for them to “screw up” another one of their songs just when they hit the groove. Leave it to ‘Shake then to give you the finger right back: they play it straight, and what might’ve been a “very cool” moment on the record instead becomes a transcendant one. There’s a point as “Obviously” slams to the finish when you realize they aren’t going to play around with the track, and the danger of thinking they still might and the sheer thrill of “what if they don’t, though” combine to make it one of the great rock moments of the year.

Not that the rest of the disc isn’t daunting. Most of one album side is a five-part song cycle called “Scissors Suite” that seems bent on discouraging casual CD-skimming, that seems bent on keeping itself well outside an iPod song shuffle. There’s the ten-minute “Year Of The Donk” which veers wildly from interesting to exciting to self-indulgent and then back again.

The thing of it is, if you’re the sort who listens to a track or two of a disc and then flits off to somewhere else, Dirty Moons is an insanely difficult record. It buries its charms and hides its hooks and saves them for people willing to sit and listen to the entire double album. It dares you discover the amazing-ness of “The Understudy”; it defies you to hang on for the riff in “We’ve Only Just Tasted The Wine”; it wants the casual trend-followers long gone before “Crush Me” and “Fuck Your Self Esteem” come crashing in to the party.

Does an artist create art for an audience, or create art for art’s sake and not worry over whether it finds an audience? 99.99% of rock and roll is made up of artists convinced the answer is the former (whether they’ll say so or not). The greatest achievement of Dirty Moons is that there’s no way anyone will accuse it of being anything but an incredibly personal record that Prisonshake and Robert Griffin especially made for themselves and for their own aesthetic. If it puts you off, they don’t care. If you really, really end up liking it…well, good…but again, they don’t care. Much. (I penalized this disc 5 spots because these guys are friends and there’s no earthly way I can be particularly objective about the record.)

The band’s Myspace site, where you can hear sides 1 of the disc, including “Fake Your Own Death”, “I Will Comment”, “Obviously The One”, among others.

2 Comments

  1. Whitey said,

    Good stuff, CH. Especially the last part of the Prisonshake write up. I’m reviewing it for an online mag and my oversarching thought was similar. You certainly can’t accuse these guys of trying to make a record for the masses or, hell, even gain new fans. There are some personal moments, shit, even some tender ones but there’s mostly a lot of we didn’t make this record so you could judge us and if you do we sure as shit don’t care.

  2. Chris H. said,

    “Year Of The Donk” is actually a 10-minute inside joke; various versions of that song (and I’m guessing no two versions, including live takes they play nowadays) sound alike. “The Donk” was one of our fellow clerks at Euclid, great guy but a fellow whose buttons could be pushed–and easily–by the most benign of goofy customers. I love the lack of caring over mass appeal present on this album. Love it, I say!

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