Phantom Band was the immediate post-breakup project of Can drummer Jaki Liebezeit. The sound of the group’s 1980 debut is dominated by the vocal and bass work of Rosko Gee, a former member of Traffic and a collaborator with Can on their later albums. Holger Czukay, whose role in Can had been minimized by the time of their demise, is on hand for a guest appearance, although his exact contributions to the record are mysterious. Phantom Band continues in the vein of less celebrated late-era Can records like Saw Delight and Out of Reach, but the frigid disco sound and incorporation of African and South American pop sensibilities is significantly more organic on Phantom Band than those (perhaps deservedly) underrated late Can records.
Can fans only familiar with the group’s legendary earlier albums will be surprised by the comparatively smooth sound of Phantom Band. Those with open ears will certainly appreciate the crack rhythm section here and the inimitable monophonic sound of Liebezeit’s drums. The pop songs on Phantom Band waver stylistically between tedious lite-soul gestures and unorthodox disco maneuvers that compare favorably with some of Arthur Russell‘s projects. Opener “You Inspired Me” is as good an example of Phantom Band’s aesthetic as any, laying down a rigid percussion backdrop over which sweet vocals and a thick bass groove. The track recalls some of the more exuberant moments of David Byrne‘s superlative Rei Momo LP, with its fusion of distinctive vocals and exotic instrumentation.
Elsewhere, the brief “Phantom Drums” is a moody instrumental piece complete with the sound of pouring water that effectively breaks up the poppier tunes. “Absolutely Straight” follows, opening with a brief keyboard line that momentarily recalls The Who‘s classic-rock juggernaut “Baba O’Riley,” before settling into an enticing groove replete with a horn section. These middle tunes mark the high point of Phantom Band, and I wish that some of the more promising tracks like “Without Desire” were given expanded workouts.
As a piece of the Can legacy, Phantom Band rises above the level of curiosity and is a particular treat for devotees of Liebezeit’s renowned drum sound. As a rejoinder to the idea that the marriage of world music and Western pop-rock began with Byrne and Brian Eno‘s My Life In The Bush of Ghosts and continued with Paul Simon, it’s an essential artifact and a deeply pleasant listen.