Phantom Cats have closure, now.
The now defunct Detroit quartet releases their proper finale on Friday with Swan Songs (on Tool & Die). Recorded in one day on a top floor loft space overlooking Eastern Market, guitarist Nik Ländstrom, singer Liz Shar, bassist Adam James and drummer Matthew Dahler, cranked out a keen cache of genre-defiant denouements, blending soul, samba, indie-pop and bossanova, with impressive fret-mincing on the guitar, radiant lead vocals, and snazzy/jazzy/adventurous rhythmic grooves from bass & drums.
Phantom Cats were always a weird blend.
“Weird is good…” Ländstrom said, approvingly. “Nobody wants to be a normal band, right?”
Ländstrom, a classically trained wizard on the guitar, moved back to Detroit (from Grand Rapids) in 2010, when he began writing more of his own songs with singer Shar. By February of 2011, James and drummer Max Daley joined the pair to form what would become quite a dynamic composite of rock flavors and performance styles. Shar could soar to operatic belts, James and Daley found a exquisite pocket blending jazz and garage rock, while Ländstrom went to work on the guitar like some kind of sorcerer, often too immersed in his own fleet-fingered frays to even notice an audience of guitar-geeks and pedal-heads losing their shit at the edge of the stage.
Phantom Cats will premier Swan Songs digitally this Friday: https://phantomcatsdetroit.bandcamp.com/
Now, in any given week, Ländstrom will likely be listening to anything from D’Angelo, to 16th Century Madrigolds, to bossanova, to Gregorian Chants, or maybe some Hayden…and then some early heavy-metal. So, it’s that kind of kaleidoscope kiln from whence lots of Phantom Cats music was structured and cooked.
“That’s a big part of Phantom Cats’ sound,” said Ländstrom. “It’s all these different things…especially on (Swan Songs); moments of Latin, funk, some definite James Brown-moments, some R&B…and you’re taking all that and then applying more of a classical approach to it, with the way we’re writing it, ya know, almost thinking motivically about a song’s big picture. I was into the idea of everyone doing their own free response to these songs, after I’d worked them out on the guitar. It makes it more interesting that way. Liz has this insane ear; she can hear things and just sing it with perfect pitch. And I always let drummers do their own things because it’s important to get character in the rhythm.”
The band initially thought that March of 2014 would be their final days. But their would-be final performance felt too disconcertingly off, weird, or flat for them to just let it be… So they first decided to take all of the songs on Swan Songs and give them a proper send-off with a recording session. They didn’t know, then, that it would take a good year-and-a-half before that ball could get really get rolling, (Shar, it should be noted, is currently studying at Georgetown Univ to get her Master’s in Linguistics, so their windows of time were limited). (For that matter, they’re all pretty busy, lately: as Ländstrom also performs with Earth Engine whilst working as a freelance music teacher, James just joined Cosmic Light Shapes and Daher has his own solo music project).
Anyhow… Suffice it to say, they finally performed their final-final show in April of last year and then in the late autumn of 2015, they finished up Swan Songs with Three Lions Media producing/engineering, inside the former HQ of Pink Lightning.
“You know when you can sort of feel it, with something, like it’s going to be your last chance…That’s a whole album of songs that would have been gone,” Ländstrom said. “They should be out there! I mean, maybe only 50 people will download it, but still, there are people I meet who tell me they’ve listened to our first EP…”
Swan Songs represents the (late) Phantom Cats in their most purest essence. “These songs represent myself having made a lot of headway as a guitarist and us having more of a deliberate understanding of music. There was a lot of patchwork on that first EP. These songs are through-composed and are written with certain ideals in mind, just with a much more deliberate process.”
Swan Songs is bittersweet, in that regard. It’s the band at their peak, musically with their technique, compatibility as friends and collaborators, and…yeah…just in maturity and sensibility, as these players are now nearly five years older and wiser than the scrappy charmers who broke onto a scene back when they likely raised a lot of politely perplexed eyebrows from the rest of the (garage) rockers around here.
There’s more confidence, too. That shines through on Swan Songs, freer and more confident. “As long as it’s not overly indulgent, there’s a clear structure and the songs go somewhere…There’s a trajectory here.”
It’s a classic tale of a band making some brilliant and, yes, weird pop songs that burned out before we could their curious comet could complete a full span of our horizons… I mean, they didn’t even ever sit down for a band photo! They never even had a proper release show for that first EP! They’re like a freshly-forged urban myth.
Fittingly, Tool & Die will collect both of their releases, Swan Songs and their debut EP into one big album: The Collected Works of Phantom Cats. Stay tuned.
This weekend, Phantom Cats singer/lyricist Liz Shar will share insights on three selections off of Swan Songs...