California has long been considered the center of upbeat, pop-driven rock sounds; from the Beach Boys to No Doubt, the California sound is one easily defined. Phantom Planet originally found itself in this category of pop rock. They even wrote a song about the state, how could they not fit into the category? Their preceding releases sounded like they should be blared out of your topless Jeep Wrangler as you drove along the Pacific coastline down Highway 101. Well folks, put your ragtop jeep in the garage because Phantom Planet has reappeared with a new sound that may make you forget they ever wrote that little ditty about the Golden State.
The band decided to travel cross-country for their latest self-titled release. They didn’t just physically leave California to record this album in New York; they also left behind the sunny state’s sound, opting instead for guitar shrilling Gotham rock. Comparisons to the Strokes are being shelled out left and right, but don’t initially brush this record off to be the next Is This It, because they honed this garage sound into their own.
The group’s first single, “Big Brat,” is a loud thrashing song with lead singer Alexander Greenwald unleashing a raspy growl that he has been impeding the last few years. One of the paramount assets of this entire album is the way Greenwald manages to flux and change his voice to strengthen the music. He has sharpened the sound of a garage band king, and manages to sound distinctly different than he did on the previous releases. When listening to this record it could cause a person to question whether it was really the drummer who left the band.
Lyrically the album is not remarkable or unique in any way, but the words do have a great flow against the music. “Jabberjaw” is a great example of this because of the way Greenwald unleashes his singing in a faster, more urgent way that coincide with the up-tempo beat of the song. The end of the tune is even equipped with a little screaming that only drives the point home that much better. In “Know It All” the vocals are merely mumbled against quiet background music until the chorus of the song when the drums are let loose and the vocals follows suit.
The real difficult decision to make is whether Phantom Planet sounds better flexing their rock muscles or singing mellower tunes. The first half of the album is basically a mix of different tempo rock songs that pays homage to the likes of Elvis Costello, Led Zeppelin, and yes, even a little to The Strokes. The record starts off by slamming right into a drum solo by drummer Jeff Conrad in “The Happy Ending”. It seems fitting the album start off in such a non-conventional way considering this record is distinctly non-conventional for the group. The one thing that really sets them apart from typical garage sounding bands is that each song on the record sounds completely different from the others. Another stand-out on the album was how Conrad uses completely different drum beats in each song, but still triggers the same reaction in the listener: to tap their feet in an almost uncontrollable manner. The songs speed-up, slow down, and then at the end of the record really mellow out for a nice quiet ending.
This album is one big sing-a-along with catchy choruses and beats that will stick in your head days after you’ve stopped listening. It seems that Phantom Planet has tried on a new style and it fits them like a pair of perfectly worn-in Levis. No need to throw out your copy of The Guest yet, because the urge to listen to “California” may occur, but this record will hold you off for quite some time.
Berwanger – Watching a Garden Die
Josh Berwanger continues to evolve as a songwriter
At the height of Vagrant Records’ early success in the late 90s, the label was buoyed by the incredible draw of their two biggest names- The Get Up Kids and Saves the Day. And while those two bands took a chunk of the notoriety, there were plenty of great bands that called the label home. One of those bands was The Anniversary. The Lawrence, Kansas band shared musical similarities with both TGUK and Saves the Day, but were unafraid to branch off into slightly more synthesised terrain that gave their songs an added element. Coupled with their super easy to digest harmonies and fantastic male/female vocals, songs like “The D in Detroit” still has a place in countless “favorite playlists” all these years later.
Since their initial break-up, guitarist and vocalist Josh Berwanger has been busy writing and recording a bevy of music under the moniker Berwanger. His recent discography is a talented kaleidoscope of songs that traverse genres from folk and indie, to more rock and straight forward singer/songwriter fare. There was plenty to like on his 2016 album Exorcism Rock, an album that delved into a little bit of psychedelia and fuzzed out indie rock. His 2017 album And the Star Invaders saw a gradual move away from the more electrified to the imaginative kind of singer/songwriter we’ve seen from the likes of Devendra Banhart. True to form, Berwanger continues to evolve as a songwriter, and his latest, Watching A Garden Die, is the next chapter in his thriving songwriter cabinet.
The gloomily titled record is mostly upbeat and diverse. While he may have shown a kinship to indie/folk songwriting of the Banharts and Obersts of the world previously, Watching a Garden Die features the kind of seasoned and more classic toned work you’d find on a Crosby, Stills & Nash record, or even a Paul Simon record. Songs like the softly, almost whispered “Even the Darkness Doesn’t Know”, and quietly moody, introspective “Paper Blues” (until that electric guitar solo hits) harks back to a time long ago of unfettered hair and soulful folk music. The album’s best moment is probably a combination of the wistful, pedal-steel toned Americana of “When I Was Young” and the equally effective, spacey indie rock of “The Business of Living”. The latter giving Grandaddy a run for their money in that music department. These two songs in particular showcase an artist fully aware and capable of his abilities to craft music that’s personal but exhibits the kind of draw you want from a record this close to the heart.
The album doesn’t have the more ruckus moments Berwanger exhibited in his earlier work (outside of perhaps, the more upbeat power-pop, new wavy “Bad Vibrations”). At times the album takes just a few listens to grab you. But when you listen to songs like the spritely “Friday Night” and the somber reflection of the twangy “I Keep Telling Myself” a few times more, you find the depth of the record. There are elements that reveal themselves on the second, third, fourth listen, and that’s rewarding.
Berwanger’s songwriting ability was never in doubt, and his new material continues to expand his songwriting reach. Watching a Garden Die, while not a frantic effort, is quiet composure.
Fences – Failure Sculptures
Failure Sculptures is a steady outing
Christopher Mansfield, under his alter-ego, Fences, has made himself well known through the collaborations with Macklemore and Tegan & Sara. It’s set him up with well-deserved excitement for his new album Failure Sculptures. The genre of pop scores a good reputation with artists like Fences. I wouldn’t necessarily categorize this album as pop, but Failure Sculptures has catchy songs that will appeal to a large scale, however it keeps the integrity of accomplished music. Each song provides a story that allows you to drift into your own thoughts. He also uses idioms like there is no tomorrow.
“A Mission” is a lower-toned song that launches the album with an echoing sound of voice and guitar, and it sets an example of the whimsical type of music that is shown throughout the album. Mansfield has a way with words and was definitely listening in English class. A+ for storytelling. OK, you twisted my arm, I’ll point out some idioms: “body sways like trees in a storm” sung in “Paper Route” and “lately I just pass by like a cloud” heard in “Brass Band”. It’s a great way to paint a picture in your listeners head.
“Same Blues” exposes a folk side to Fences. It has a lovely addition of cello in the background. It is enchanting and flows so well, which makes a terrific inclusion to the album. The plucking and acoustic sound of “Wooden Dove” has a powerful effect, and suits the song well. It follows the theme of echoes and storytelling. Although “War Kid” is a song about divorce, it is a pleasant way to end the album, and it features more idioms; “tears falling like bombs“.
This type of music allows you to drift and flow in and out of your own thoughts. It’s a friendly haunting and emotionally driven set of songs (and don’t forget about the idioms), and while it is quite predictable in a pleasant way, Failure Sculptures is a steady outing.