Friday, August 01, 2008

Week 10: "California" by Phantom Planet

For 3 of the 5 weeks in August I have chosen to write about songs about California. The obvious reason for this is that I will be taking a trip this month to San Francisco and Yosemite National Park to perform a wedding for an old friend. I could have easily found two more songs about California and made it a whole month; in fact, both songs by the band Buffalo Tom that I have selected to write about later in the 52 songs project mention California tangentially (even though Buffalo Tom is from Amherst, Massachusetts.) The two songs I will write about this month that don’t talk about the state of California are “Stars” by Hum, my favorite song of all time, which I will write about just before my birthday. At the end of the month (at about the time that people are going off to college) I will write about Blink 182’s super-catchy song “Going Off to College.”

Every time I travel to airport I bring a copy of Phantom Planet’s album The Guest and play the first track and first single from that album, Phantom Planet’s only popular hit to date, “California.” There is an irony to this. For one thing, the song is about returning not leaving. I also play the song no matter where I am destined to go. If I were to go to Alaska or Siberia or Outer Mongolia I’d still drive to the airport listening to “California.”

It is a well-crafted pop song that makes me feel energized and buoyant. And this should really be enough, shouldn’t it? Unfortunately, I feel like I need to defend my selection of this song. Even though “California” is Phantom Planet’s breakthrough hit, the breakthrough needed a bit of help. The song didn’t catch until two years after it was released when it was used as the theme song for the teen television drama The O.C.. The other thing about the band is that in their early incarnation they were overshadowed by their celebrity drummer, the actor Jason Schwartzman, who is most famous for playing the lead role in the Wes Anderson cult-classic film Rushmore. Schwartzman went on the appear in movies including I ♥ Huckabees and The Darjeeling Limited.

I saw Phantom Planet in Lawrence, KS in 2004 after their release of an excellent self-titled album and after Schwartzman had left the band to pursue acting full-time. They played a heavier version of California in their live-show that featured their guitarist standing tall atop the speaker stack and playing the melody in such a way that it seemed the guitar was practically singing the chorus.

Phantom Planet’s self-titled album is stronger, in my opinion, than The Guest. Besides the song “By the Bed” which may be their strongest song, their self-titled album also features outstanding tracks including “Badd Business,” “Big Brat,” and “After Hours.”

You can see the music video to “California” here.
You can see the playful, zombie-themed video to “Big Brat” here.