Phantom Planet's self-titled third album finds the group turning its backs on the manicured pop of The Guest, which spawned the hit (and theme song for Fox TV's The O.C.) "California," in favor of a sound influenced by garagey New York bands like the Strokes. Alex Greenwald's formerly earnest croon is now a surly, slurry sneer, and the rest of the band follows suit, adopting a scuzzy sound as effortlessly as donning battered jean jackets and skinny ties. Phantom Planet's production is particularly striking, and strange: its cheap, compressed sound seems like it should be the work of someone like Strokes producer Gordon Raphael, but it's actually sonic mastermind Dave Fridmann behind the knobs. Why the band used one of rock's most intricate producers to emulate one of its most basic is something of a mystery, but Fridmann brings as much care to making Phantom Planet sound like they recorded this in the garage as he does to making other bands sound like they recorded their music on other planets. It's difficult to determine just how savvy the band's garage rock makeover is, but Phantom Planet isn't a bad fusion of noisy rock and the kind of music they were doing before. It works especially well when the band hangs on to the melodic sensibilities that made The Guest's best moments memorable: "The Happy Ending" kick starts the album with equal amounts of pummeling drums and bittersweetly ragged vocals; "1st Things 1st" is a model of aggressive, economical melody; and "The Meantime" rivals almost anything that appeared on Room on Fire. But while songs like "Badd Business" and "Jabberjaw" might be tighter and rock harder than their previous work, it's at the price of the melodies that used to be the band's strongest asset. These melodies return on the second half of Phantom Planet, which is nearly as pretty and atmospheric as the first half is raucous and dense. This sequencing tends to work against the album -- keeping the loud side loud and the quiet side quiet results in an album that is, on first listen, alternately over- and underwhelming. Nevertheless, both Fridmann and the band have some of their best moments on "By the Bed," "After Hours," and "Knowitall," all of which have as much impact, if not more, than the loudest songs and reaffirm that Phantom Planet really are a pop band at heart. The late-blooming acclaim for Guster and Fountains of Wayne, and of course, Phantom Planet's own success with "California" shows that there's always a place for well-crafted, unapologetically pop music. But this willfully noisy, messy album is ultimately just as contrived as the band's glossier sound was, and the shift from The Guest's winsome pop -- which was also a shift from their debut's heavily Weezer-influenced sound -- makes it difficult to get a grip on the band. Their O.C. fan base will probably miss their previous sound, and those who follow the garage rock bands may not accept Phantom Planet as that kind of group. Phantom Planet is by no means a bad album, but it is a slightly strange and frustrating one. Heather Phares, Rovi
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