As much as I love the Phantom Band their two LPs to date haven’t quite delivered everything that I’d hoped for.
Debut ‘Checkmate Savage’ certainly has some of their very best tunes but it’s also a little uneven at times. Sophomore LP ‘The Wants’ is a more consistent record but the second side of that record perhaps doesn’t quite live up to the promise of the first half .
It gives me great pleasure therefore to be able to report that third LP ‘Strange Friend’ is the one where it all comes together.
In a way, rather strangely, ‘SF’ is something of an understated record. The odd flourish aside (for example the crashing guitars midway through ‘Doom Patrol’) it’s rarely attention grabbing. Indeed initially I wondered if it really lived up to the rave reviews it was receiving.
Often the easiest way into a record for me is through a handful of stand-out tracks which draw you in to the rest of the record. But ‘Strange Friend’ doesn’t offer that option – there are no stand-out tracks. More often than not that means that an album’s just not up to scratch. But not in this case because ‘Strange Friend’ is that rare record on which pretty much everything is as great as everything else.
For that reason I think it’s a record that you need to invest a little time in initially. But, boy, that pays rich rewards.
Because once you’ve scratched the surface not only do the differences between the songs get drawn out but the strength (and durability) of the melodies become clear. These are songs that not only bear, but insist on, repeated listens.
‘The Wind That Cried The World’ with its soaring, wordless chorus is probably the obvious single choice thanks its clarity of purpose. But there’s nothing quite like it elsewhere on the album.
But then that can be said too of the insistent electro dance stylings of ‘Women of Ghent’ or the rhythmic clatter of ‘Galagapos’ or the lively lead guitar on ‘Sweatbox’ or … Well, you get my point.
The slower tracks deserve a mention too. ‘No Shoes Blues’ is lovely building from a downbeat intro before , whilst ‘(Invisible) Friends’ is every bit as good.
The largely acoustic ‘Atacama’ does stand a little apart from the rest of the record. But even if it sounds almost more like something from the Rick Redbeard solo album ultimately it belongs to an established Phantoms tradition of stripped back tunes such as ‘Island’ and ‘Come Away In The Dark’.
More than any Phantoms album to date, the keyboards are critical to the songs. There’s an 80s feel to some of these sounds which recall early 80s Simple Minds on he likes of ‘Sweatbox’ and, most notably, on the melody which accounts for half of the chorus on ‘Doom Patrol’.
There’s plenty of other reasons to love this record. ‘Strange Friend’ probably features Rick’s best vocal performances for the band with each and every one pitched perfectly for the songs and it’s those performances which invest the record with its emotional resonance. But there’s also the subtle little touches throughout, such as the brass towards the end of ‘No Shoe Blues’ or the Prince-esque solo towards the end of ‘Sweatbox’ ,which confirm the band’s reputation for invention.
But perhaps what says it best for me is that it’s the first album in ages that’s been on repeat – again and again – even when there’s other excellent new stuff to be heard.
To the point then – ‘Strange Friend’ is a record that will keep rewarding you with every play and, even at this relatively early stage, I’m certain that anything that beats it for album of the year is going to have to be very special indeed.
‘Strange Friend’ is available from all good record shops or online from Chemikal Underground.