Friday, October 18, 2013

The Bongos - Phantom Train (2013, Jem) - A brief overview

Call it impatience.  In 2011, when I hastily uploaded an album's worth of vintage demos from one of Hoboken, NJ's most acclaimed indie aggregations, The Bongos, I went with the recording date of 1981 which they were errantly tagged with.  Not so.  In factt the beginning of that particular entry, I even went so far as to express my own doubts about when the tracks were actually conceived, and soon enough, lead-Bongo himself Richard Barone wrote in and carbon dated the material as being the product of a 1985 recording session.   The songs in question were being proposed for the band's second proper studio LP, Phantom Train, following up '85's Beat Hotel.  As fate would have it Phantom Train didn't see it's intended light of day in 1986.  Or 1996.  Or even 2006.  When the Bongos disbanded in the late '80s, the release of the album became something of a non-priority, but some twenty-seven years on the Train has finally pulled into the station.

My intro the Bongos was a somewhat used and abused vinyl copy of the 1982 singles and ep compendium, Drums Along the Hudson.  Technically, it served as the band's first physical album, and even though the music comprising it was culled from disparate sources, it possessed a flow all it's own - an absorption of idiosyncratic, left-of-the-dial dispatches of it's era, ranging from the Feelies and the dB's to the jittery reverberations of the first generation of CBGB's punk.  By 1983, the big boys (RCA) rang the Bongo's collective doorbell, and thus began a two year relationship with the label, resulting in '83's Numbers With Wings ep, and Beat Hotel, the group's first bonafide LP two years later.

With a major label budget to buttress the Bongos came bigger and better recording options, and it showed on the band's two commendable RCA releases.  Conversely, some of the odd feathers that informed their nascent singles were plucked in the process.  For shame that Phantom Train didn't see a more suitable release date, because while Barone and Co, weren't able to recapture the creativeness of their DAtH era, they were able to reclaim some of the warmth.  "Run to the Wild," "Tangled in Your Web," and "Under Someone's Spell" are taut and indelible slices of guitar pop, that miraculously don't concede an inch to the more gratuitous production "options" of the period.  Elsewhere, "Saturn Eyes" exudes the bittersweet, power-pop inclinations that the Smithereens and Let's Active were renown for, and the even starker "Roman Circus" ascends to the densest and heaviest crescendo the Bongos had scaled yet.

Was Phantom... worth the layover?  A resounding yes if you're a longtime aficionado, and for those who haven't made your acquaintance it's not a bad place to start, just make sure you get around to investigating Drums Along the Hudson while you're at it to get the complete Bongos picture.  While I'm not at liberty to share anything directly from the album, check out the aforementioned demos herePhantom Train is available from Amazon and digitally through iTunes


Jim H. said...

excellent...i'd had very lo-fi copies of what was "Phantom Train" for years, and great songs will survive bad fidelity, so this is a great surprise to finally see issued.....and there's gotta be SOME love for "Beat Hotel", no? A little slicker, but great songs! thanks again!

spavid said...

Beat Hotel contains quality songs, no doubt, but when it comes to me and the Bongos, it's simply a classic case of "I preferred their earlier stuff." Know what I mean?

Richard Barone said...

Thanks for posting! One thing about The Bongos is that we went with the flow. That is to say, we used the palette we were handed as far as studio access, time to experiment, etc. 'Beat Hotel' was quite different in its original form - 8-track demos made in our rehearsal studio - but it was great to be able to stretch out in world-class studios like Electric Lady and Power Station (Avatar) as well to make the RCA release. We learned so much about recording doing that album. Things we liked, and things we preferred to do differently. 'Phantom Train', recorded mostly at Compass Point in the Bahamas under the guidance (i.e. freedom) of Chris Blackwell and with the fantastic engineer Eric Thorngren, was where we got to use what we had learned in all those previous recordings. The Bongos were also intent on not repeating ourselves. We saw so many of our peers repeating their successes with cookie cutter repetition (sorry, not sorry) that we instead wanted to make something different each time. I write quite a lot about the making of 'Phantom' in my book 'FRONTMAN': ( Our live shows, and our love for our audience, was the continuity. Again, thank you so much for writing about 'Phantom Train' and our other stuff! ~ Richard Barone, 2019