The Bongos – Phantom Train (JEM Recordings) review
An unreleased album from 1986 that stands up to the best of Eighties’ alternative music
Imagine finding an unreleased record from the glory days of one of your favorite bands. That’s what Phantom Train from The Bongos is. The album was recorded in 1985-86, but never released because the band broke up near the tail end of the sessions. The original quartet has recently reformed for a series of shows – making now a perfect time for this forgotten record’s release.
After the band’s demise, frontman Richard Barone went on to a successful solo career. Phantom Train helps bridge the gap between the Bongos’ percussive jangle of their last album, Beat Hotel, and the introspective chamber pop that Barone would explore with cool blue halo, and beyond. In fact, several cool blue halo tracks were originally cut with the Bongos. Yet, the differences in the two versions are staggering.
Take “I Belong to Me,” an upbeat pop song here, it would transform into a stark, statement of purpose on Barone’s later solo album. Ditto for “Tangled in Your Web,” which is strummingly pleasant from the Bongos; stripped of the heavy percussion, it oozes passion on cool blue halo. These versions are great, and certainly fit with the rest of the record, yet they would become something greater when included in Barone’s solo work.
Also recognizable to fans of his later material is an early version of “River to River,” which later appeared on his Primal Dream record in 1990. Buoyed by a slithery guitar line (played by Barone with an E-bow), and featuring a fantastic chorus, this could’ve been a smash college radio hit. The band was always known for infusing danceable rhythms into their catchy music, and “My Wildest Dreams” showcases that unique blend.
For an album that’s lingered in the archives for decades, it’s surprisingly solid from start to finish. “Run to the Wild” is fueled by a strange keyboard, while their cover of Donovan’s “Sunshine Superman” manages to glam up the Sixties’ classic while still being reverent. The record closes with the dark “Roman Circus” which certainly predicts the path Barone would take after leaving the band. Several “bonus” tracks are included, of which, the sax-driven “Town of One” (written by guitarist James Mastro) shows that the band was full of killer (albeit unheard) singles.
While current artists like Daft Punk and Bruno Mars are aping the styles of the Eighties, Phantom Train is the real thing – a lost treasure from an underrated band. —Tony Peters