The Bongos

Phantom Train

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After 1985's Beat Hotel sank without a trace shortly after release, the Bongos decided they wanted out of their deal with RCA Victor Records, and they entered into talks with Island Records' prexy Chris Blackwell. Blackwell invited the Bongos to record demos for their next project at his Compass Point Studios in the Bahamas, and the group ended up cutting an album's worth of material in the islands. However, the deal with Blackwell was never finalized, and the Bongos fell apart before the Compass Point tapes could be released. More than 25 years after the fact, former Bongos leader Richard Barone has finally resurrected the band's lost album, and Phantom Train is an unexpected delight, a satisfying fusion of the nervy, guitar-based energy of Drums Along the Hudson and the cleaner, electronic sheen of Numbers with Wings. While the Bongos tried something similar on Beat Hotel and didn't quite hit the target, Phantom Train has a more organic sound and feel that better suits the group; while the synthesizers are still here, the guitars dominate the performances, and the results sound more unified and naturalistic than they did on Beat Hotel. Eric "ET" Thorngren's engineering and production give this a richer and livelier sound than Beat Hotel, albeit with a certain amount of very '80s gloss, and the songs are great. "Roman Circus," "Tangled in Your Web," and the title cut capture the mysterious melodic undertones that ran through Drums Along the Hudson, "My Wildest Dreams" and "Diamond Guitar" are glorious, beautifully crafted pop creations, and the cover of "Sunshine Superman" is both witty and effective. The band rarely sounded better than they do on these tracks; Barone and James Mastro's guitars are incisive and full of unique, evocative tones, bassist Rob Norris lays down a rich bottom end, and drummer Frank Giannini and percussionist Steve Scales mesh rhythms beautifully. Phantom Train is one lost album that richly deserves its belated day in the sun, and it shows the Bongos' last act was stronger and more impressive than the half-hearted Beat Hotel would have led fans to believe.

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