- SPIN Rating:6 of 10
Serving as the opening act for Fox's The O.C. isn't a bad gig -- beats rocking the Peach Pit with Brandon, Dylan, and the gang. But for Los Angeles power-pop quintet Phantom Planet, the show's use of "California" (a track from their 2002 album, The Guest) as its theme song is a mixed blessing. For years, the band have struggled to prove themselves as more than a between-movies lark for actor Jason Schwartzman, who was the group's drummer until last year (and got so much attention you'd think he was Dave Grohl pinch-hitting between Foo Fighters records or the one-armed dude from Def Leppard). Now they've got a fluke hit to live down, too.
On their ambitious, uneven third album, Phantom Planet make a valiant attempt to solve both problems. With help from producer Dave Fridmann (famed for his work with the Flaming Lips and Mercury Rev), they burn through more atmosphere than a dying satellite on tracks like "After Hours" and "Badd Business." But it's the record's first single, "Big Brat," that really spells out their new game plan, piling a pilfered Elvis Costello bass riff, a strung-out sax, and an ain't-no-fun-unless-the-homies-get-some chorus into one of Gary Numan's cars -- presumably to drive as far away from "California" as possible. Elsewhere, they audition for roles in made-for-cable movies about the Cure ("KnowItAll"), Gang of Four ("Makinakillin"), and the Strokes ("Jabberjaw," "1st Things 1st").
But when frontman Alexander Greenwald moans lines like "This time, this time is tough / Well, here I am, and now I think I've had enough," his Casablancan woe-is-me-ism seems a stretch; he's more believable on the politely rocking "By the Bed," the only track here that recalls the clean-cut pop of The Guest. The band work hard -- maybe too hard -- to leave that sound behind on Phantom Planet, and while their extreme makeover may quiet accusations that they're just the alt-rock version of the Max Fischer Players, their next TV-soundtrack gig may be a long time coming.