Phantom Planet – Reflecting on the 15th Anniversary of “Raise the Dead” | Under the Radar Magazine Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
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Phantom Planet – Reflecting on the 15th Anniversary of “Raise the Dead”

The Album First Came Out on April 15, 2008

Jun 12, 2023 By Austin Saalman
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Phantom Planet’s first album not to feature drummer and founding member Jason Schwartzman, who departed the group in 2003 to focus on his acting career, Raise the Dead finds the versatile Los Angeles-based power pop outfit treading far darker water than on its previous three releases. Though retaining its sugary Beach Boys- and Zombies-inspired retro pop roots, Phantom Planet opted to steer the follow-up to its 2004-released eponymous breakthrough away from such expected topics as beachside romance, adolescent angst, and SoCal trendiness and into fresh conceptual territory. This time around, frontman/lyricist Alex Greenwald cited the respective histories and music of major American cults—namely the Manson Family, People’s Temple, and Branch Davidians—as the album’s primary sources of inspiration, instantly rendering Raise the Dead—a loosely structured concept album depicting Greenwald’s own immersion into a fictitious religious cult—uncharacteristic of the popular group best known for its 2002-released hit—and O.C. theme song—“California.” Here, Phantom Planet blends its signature West Coast pop sensibilities with the earnest art-rock experimentation only explored occasionally on earlier releases, providing a consistently intriguing soundscape for the album’s ambitious concept. Rich in witchy paranoia, surreal brutality, and, above all else, spiritual exaltation, Raise the Dead remains Phantom Planet’s major artistic achievement.

“The dark is plaguing our hearts,” sings Greenwald on the album’s mystical opening title track, “Pumping through us and collecting in our deepest parts.” On its surface, the track—among the group’s greatest—serves to introduce the album with a nocturnal chant of unholy resurrection, the sort of ghoulish goings-on immortalized in countless horror films and urban legends, setting the often morbid and ritualistically focused tone. However, “Raise the Dead” may also serve as a letter of appreciation to Phantom Planet’s fanbase, with its instruction to “wave your hands and summon the spirits up” resembling a friendly greeting to those listeners who had spent the past four years loyally awaiting the band’s next effort. Its triumphant closing declaration reiterates this possibility: “We’re all together now,” suggesting Phantom Planet’s grand return. This is followed by the lasciviously nefarious rocker “Dropped,” which finds a delirious Greenwald begging, “Tell me that you want me/Tell me that you need me/Tell me ‘cause I’d like to know.” His frantic desperation, however, subsides upon the arrival of the cult’s charismatic guru, as documented on the sublime sunshine pop extravaganza “Leader.” Here, accompanied by a joyous children’s choir, Greenwald begins the indoctrination process, declaring, “There are so many signs the end is nigh/Our Leader told us so beside.” Rich in the expected doomsday theology, the track successfully embodies the blind faith and apocalyptic paranoia which so often permeate the cult environment, Greenwald’s insistence that “on and on, the hour’s upon you/It won’t be long/I feel it coming” sounding increasingly sinister as the track moves toward its conclusion.

“Leader’s” deceptively luminous festivities, employed by cult members in preparation for an eagerly anticipated day of judgment, are swiftly concluded upon the arrival of the frantic faux doo-wop/garage rock hybrid “Do the Panic,” which frames Greenwald as a witness to—and perhaps a participant in—brutal, Mansonoid chaos. The album’s most recognizable track, the irresistible “Do the Panic” had existed in various forms prior to Raise the Dead’s release, with its earliest incarnation dating back to 2001. Earlier efforts eschewed this version’s morbid lyrical content, with the rough demo found on 2004’s Negatives owing more to Fast Times at Ridgemont High than “Helter Skelter.” “But it’s her head they want on the wall/Right next to the screeching owl,” sings Greenwald as demonic debauchery ensues, “And I don’t like this party/Or the sound/Of people walking across you when you’re down.” With such lyrical depictions, one recalls the ritualistic bloodletting and shocking visions of slaughter associated with Charles Manson and his demented acolytes, as well as the resulting wave of anxiety that swept Southern California in the aftermath. Voted the 71st greatest song of 2008 by Rolling Stone, “Do the Panic” remains one of Phantom Planet’s essential tracks and has enjoyed a degree of mainstream exposure—it is even featured in season one of Gossip Girl—rendering it an essential staple of late 2000s indie rock.

Subsequently, the somber, Radiohead-esque “Quarantine” explores themes of paranoia and alienation, with Greenwald adopting the persona of an introspective hypochondriac as he insists, “I heard you let some little flea/Give you that contagious disease/You let him climb right on you two/And it’s been plaguing me, too.” It is on “Quarantine,” which feels disconcertingly relevant in 2023, that Phantom Planet makes clear its natural desire to expand and shed the “teen pop” image acquired with the likes of “California” and “Big Brat,” as the group summons the level of musicianship required to be taken seriously as a legitimate art-rock act. Simultaneously devastated and entranced, Greenwald’s delivery pairs exceptionally well with the track’s bleak soundscape. Likewise, the rollicking “Ship Lost at Sea” and ominous “Demon Daughters”— the latter of which may, in hindsight, be Raise the Dead’s key cut—find the band pushing boundaries. Steeped in occult imagery, “Demon Daughters” advances the album’s narrative, following its titular witches from “high school to high class to higher than highnesses.” The group crafts an enthralling “horror film” atmosphere here, perfecting the album’s satanic indie pop persuasion and delivering chills with such vivid lines as, “Demon daughter, they’re all partners/Heads together/Summon their fathers/And all Hell’s fury/Judge and jury.” The wrathful “Geronimo” follows, with Jeff Conrad’s thundering drums and Greenwald’s furious vocals steering the album in a heavier direction. This decidedly more intense pace is maintained throughout much of its second half, especially on glam rockers “Too Much Too Often” and “Leave Yourself for Somebody Else,” which see Phantom Planet exploring its obvious David Bowie influences. Ultimately, though, the group winds the album down on a tranquil note with the melancholy acoustic closer “I Don’t Mind,” a vulnerable homage to longing and desperation which finds the singer “on all fours on a hotel floor,” his “closest hand” “halfway ‘round the world.” This is a fitting conclusion, as Raise the Dead’s overarching themes of alienation, sorrow, and anxiety all appear to come to a head here, with Greenwald ultimately proclaiming, “Either I bleed dry or keep the sun at my side/But I don’t mind.”

Phantom Planet’s only release through Fueled by Ramen, Raise the Dead was relatively well-received, if underrated in the shadow of more prominent indie and alt rock offerings released that year. Despite the artistic barriers broken, however, Phantom Planet disbanded shortly after the album’s release and would not produce another until 2020’s mildly underwhelming Devastator. Accordingly, Raise the Dead stands as a fascinating snapshot of a wildly talented group reaching its creative zenith, its undeniable pop accessibility and often nightmarish lyrical concept distinguishing it as a disarmingly creative and intelligent musical offering, successfully allowing Phantom Planet to express a remarkably mature musical vision. Like its titular spirits, Raise the Dead can be continually resurrected, its eerie glow and affecting energy flowing like an eternal spring 15 years on.

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