The Bongos were a key element in the “Hoboken scene” of the early ’80s, along with The Feelies and The Individuals, centered around the legendary club Maxwells. Their early albums, including Drums Along the Hudson in 1982, were a clever mix of power pop and guitar rave-ups, but on later albums, such as 1985’s Beat Hotel, the band seemed played out, the records too slick, and the band broke up in 1987. Leader Richard Barone went solo and released the magnificent live album Cool Blue Halo the same year.
Now, more than 25 years later, the last Bongos album, Phantom Train, sees the light of day. Recorded at Compass Point Studios in the Bahamas and produced by E.T. Thorngren, the great “lost” record is a fitting end to the first stage of The Bongos and bridges the bands demise and Barone’s solo career. Opening with “My Wildest Dreams,” the sound is prime Bongos: Barone’s sly vocals coupled with the sheen of James Mastro’s guitar. Recorded in 1985, the album, like most American bands of that era, is dated by the electronic drums and way too much echo, but by the third track, a grand version of Donovan’s “Sunshine Superman,” you won’t notice it as much, and the rest of the 14 tracks are a welcome blast from the past.
Barone is the main songwriter on Phantom Train (as he was for most of the band’s career), and two songs from Cool Blue Halo are found here. “I Belong to Me” and “Tangled in Your Web” sound great in a fuller version than the guitar and cello of Halo, but Barone’s minimalistic guitar coupled with his cool, stylish vocals are unmistakable in any context. “Diamond Guitar,” with its driving guitars, brings to mind another ’80s fave The Psychedelic Furs, while “Roman Circus” is a standout, building and building the tension of dueling guitars and tribal drums. The record ends with three bonus tracks, stripped down demos of “Under Someone’s Spell,” “My Wildest Dreams,” and “Town of One,” a James Mastro song left off the original album.
All in all, Phantom Train is a complete and welcome surprise from the past, and gives a new generation of listeners the chance to discover one of the great ’80s bands, The Bongos.