One of my brothers tends to use the word `fun’ in the way that some folks use the word `interesting.’ You know, how some people say that certain others have `a great personality.’ It’s a comment that’s not quite derogatory, but is definitely a veiled insult. I’ll play a particular band for him that I think he might like and he’ll halfheartedly respond, `yeah, it’s fun.’ This, in a way, is his kiss of death, a way to dismiss the band without being entirely rude. But `fun’ doesn’t have to be a dirty word in the real of great rock and roll. `Fun’ has in fact been a part of the some of the most underrated bands in history, as well as some of the most revered. Think about it, do you think either the Beatles or the Beach Boys aren’t fun? Well, out to save the universe for `fun bands’ are the Phenomenauts. Those living in the Bay Area of California are definitely well aware of this brave `band from space’ and with For All Mankind, maybe the rest of the `earth dwellers’ will be also.
If there’s one thing for which the Phenomenauts can be blamed, it’s being about surface. First of all, how many CD’s do you own that can turn into a rocketship? That’s right, you read that correctly, the CD case for the Phenomenauts’ new album, For All Mankind, turns into a rocketship. Grammys have been given to leopard fur cases and Ani DiFranco’s cardboard die-cut jobs, so if this doesn’t get it this year, there’s no justice in the universe. Secondly, all of the members of the band wear their `Flash Gordon meets Battlestar Galactica meets Devo meets Rocket from the Crypt’ gear so that they look the part of rock and roll space rangers. But the Phenomenauts, despite their meticulous attention to appearance, are not just all about the looks. They’re also a really fun band.
Like Oingo Boingo, the aforementioned Rocket From the Crypt, the Stray Cats, Shadowy Men on a Shadowy Planet, and many others before them, the Phenomenauts combine visceral theatricality with boisterous party music. Surf punk, ska, rockabilly, new wave and rock and roll all meld together into a one intense band that really should have been the house band for that 80’s show Square Pegs. There’s something innocent and endearing about this group of five men who seem less like wannabe rock stars and more like ten-year-olds playing with a refrigerator box that becomes their shuttle to space. In “Man Alone,” one of the first songs on the new album, the singer (not sure whether it’s Commander Angel Nova or Corporal JoeBot 2.0) shouts “we should have a mission / we should have a purpose.” The Phenomenauts have found theirs, blast out the rock and roll tunes, put on a great show, make the kids dance, and have fun doing it. (Side Note 1: The band members all have space monikers, much like RFTC, as can be seen above, those two being my favorite of the names).
For the most part, songs on For All Mankind won’t exactly open new doors for you. This isn’t that kind of band. If anything, this is the type of music that would be great for road trips, or at least as background music while you’re trying to flip that high score on that Pitfall game you still have for your Atari 2600. There is one song here that should turn your head, and that’s the cover of the Polecats’ rockabilly one-hit wonder, “Make a Circuit With Me.” This is a song I used to love hearing on SoCal radio back in the day, if I remember correctly, a particular favorite of Richard Blade from KROQ. Of course, as the Polecats’ version was a bit poppier and innocent, the Phenomenauts dirty it up a bit, vamping it up for a space age generation. They also cut the line words `with me’ until the last verse, a change that I can’t decide whether I like or rather annoys me. Oh well. (Side note 2: The Polecats are now probably more known for being the band that spawned Boz Boorer, current guitarist, musical director and co-writer for the sad one, Mr. Morrissey.)
Bay Area press has lavished fondness on the Phenomenauts, and for good reason. I’ve loved lots of bands, and have been disappointed time and again by their live shows. (Modest Mouse, I’m looking squarely in your direction. I want my money back for your drunken Key Arena Christmas show and your feedback laden Paramount debacle). But the Phenomenauts were incubated in the live arena. Their performances were everything. Sure, it can be called a form of musical theater, but it’s the rockingest musical theater I’ve ever heard of. And if you dare bring up Rent or Across the Universe, I swear to all that is holy I will punch you in the nose.
Rocket from the Crypt- All Systems Go
Oingo Boingo- Only A Lad
Shadowy Men On a Shadowy Planet- Savvy Show Stoppers