FAME Review: The Bongos - Phantom Train
The Bongos - Phantom Train

Phantom Train

The Bongos

Jem Records - MVD6036A

Available from MVD Entertainment Group.

A review written for the Folk & Acoustic Music Exchange
by Mark S. Tucker

If you weren't familiar with the long-deceased Jem Records label and its subsidiaries (PVC, Passport, Passport Jazz), it's prolly 'cause yer not a crit and don't pay much attention to the business shenanigans pervading and often sabotaging music. Jem, founded by Marty Scott, was an odd affair, and, for SoCalifornians, seemed to be tied into Mark Ferjulian's Moby Disc record store chain. Ferjulian was an equally odd bird, more so when he started Christering just before the chain collapsed, but he always prominently featured Jem records in his stores and even employed a cat who was the all-time coolest SoCal record store clerk, Dana Madore (of the Even/Odd band), something of a minor legend among collectors hereabouts.

Yeah, but what does all this have to do with The Bongos??? I'm getting to that.

In those days, when mom 'n pop shops ruled the Earth before America got on its Korporate Kapitalist Kingdom kick, things were hectic, dispersed, and anarchic…a lot like the alt / punk / New Wave scene itself. A record collector could roam Southland shops searching for unknown treasure overlooked in the mess that Frank Zappa called "the filthiest business on Earth", the music biz. And that collector could come away with a lot of cool shit. I know, I was one of them, and store managers always got a big smile whenever I entered their sacred domains looking for swag. I worked in aerospace, could afford to spend a few bucks, and was forever a-search for unique sonic items.

It was at Moby Disc, on the Jem label (the Drums Along the Hudson release) that I first discovered The Bongos, and now this latest, Phantom Train, is, after all these years, so far the best from what could very well be one of the best archetypes of the time. The band was fairly eclectic—indulging in rock, alt, psych, etc.—dressed down, played here, there, and everywhere, recorded for 5 years (Fetish -> PVC -> Fetish -> RCA), and then fell apart just as they seemed about to escape cult status. Dinosaurs like Robt. Christgau never got 'em at all while younger cats, Jim DeRogatis and ilk, had 'em nailed from the git-go. By the time the public awoke, though, the ensemble were history.

Well, not quite, as Jem is now resurgent and going over its backlog, including this unreleased little treasure. Why Phantom languished is anyone's guess, but it shouldn't have. Much of the album was co-produced by E.T. Thorngen (ex-member of Bulldog and Pepper, two cool bands with singer Billy Hocher, a cat who should've gone much further), a gent who knows his way around a studio and in this case presided over a pretty noticeable mutation of The Bongos, here with a good deal of ornamentation, electronic stuff, overdubs, and etc. For my money, this is the band's best release, and so the unearthing is providential and appears to be signalling a new incarnation, as the guys are touring once more and working on re-releasing old LPs.

Electro-rocker Moby was and is a huge fan of The Bongos, and it's not hard to see why. Everything from the progressively slanted Roman Circus to a cool-ass cover of Donovan's Sunshine Superman to the ravey opener My Wildest Dream to the catchy mello-rocker I Belong to Me is superbly delivered, the bulk of the disc written by Richard Barone. The recording is crisp and energetic, and it may even be that what the Baby Boom rock 'n rollers have been experiencing in the way of revivalism in classic rock is now manifesting for the later generations. With any luck, there'll be a lot more lost gems like this one located and trotted out and perhaps even a few revived careers, although even that milieu has its hazards. After all, look at the new Flash, or better yet: don't.

Track List:

  • My Wildest Dreams
  • I Belong To Me
  • Sunshine Superman (Donovan Leitch)
  • Diamond Guitar (Barone / Mastro)
  • Run to the Wild
  • River To River (Barone / Usher)
  • One Bold Stroke
  • Phantom Train (Barone / Mastro)
  • Tangled In Your Web
  • Saturn Eyes
  • Under Someone's Spell (demo)
  • Town of One (James Mastro)
  • My Wildest Dreams (demo)
All songs written by Richard Barone except as noted.

Edited by: David N. Pyles

Copyright 2013, Peterborough Folk Music Society.
This review may be reprinted with prior permission and attribution.
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