Fans who snuck a peak of Phantogram last year at Treasure Island Music Festival likely came away with a variation of the following thought: love 'em, but there’s something incompatible with them and the daylight.
Funny how circumstances and setting can completely alter the impression of a live performance — last night at the Fillmore, we saw a band’s live act fully realized, every strobe light in place, every bass dial turned up, every ghostly vocal hush thoroughly resonant. The New York-based start-up has been touring and paying dues for a handful of years now, having released a deliciously catchy album last year called Eyelid Moves, a sugary, moody, head-bobber of a debut. And now with the follow-up EP Nightlife, they have moved into more assured territory, flexing an inventive electro-pop sensibility while also exploring deeper, darker sonic alleyways. In other words, theirs is a sound begging for the bigger nightclubs of urban America, where humble yet cutting-edge production value can sync up with their expansive, texture-rich atmospherics. Rapidly but deservedly, they have earned appropriate billing.
They’re at their best in songs like “Mouthful of Diamonds,” confident enough in their aahhh sheeiiiitt beats and clever samples to leave the chorus instrumental. “Don’t Move” is the obvious winner of this new collection of songs, with lead singer Sarah Barthel beckoning us to “shake, shake, shake” in her lyrics, as if the ridiculously catchy looping hooks weren’t already doing that.
Barthel is a temptress onstage, swaying her bob of a hairdo seductively, sillhouetted in the strobe light to devastating effect, her bling spilling down from around her neck and her voice whispering sweet, tortured nothings (alas, sometimes her voice was overwhelmed by omnipotent bass lines). Count her among the new breed of indie divas — a certain peer of Alexis Krauss (Sleigh Bells) and Romy Croft (the xx), falling stylistically somewhere near the middle between each of those poles.
Her vocals played the foil to bandmate Josh Carter’s musings, who sings well enough when he’s not busy providing subcurrents of sonic texture on guitar. Carter, who co-writes with Barthel, seemed to be more comfortable as the behind-the-scenes conceptualist, but occasionally showed off a haunted vocal range that matched Barthel’s tragic-lullaby mode.
It’s hard to tell where Phantogram takes its cues from, owing a bit to trip-hop forefathers Portishead (Barthel could easily play a young Beth Gibbons in the someday-made-for-TV movie Portishead: WTF) but also sharing studio-sampling DNA with hip-hop’s finest — Kanye and Jay-Z oddly come to mind. But playing the comparison game is mostly futile with Phantogram. They’re just as likely to turn off the rich beats and slow it down in songs like “You Are the Ocean,” which subtly and slyly built into something irregularly sublime last night, with its echoing siren somehow blissful behind Carter’s countertenor. “Turning into Stone,” another new one off Nightlife, works in similar fashion, patiently evolving into a flame-raiser in unexpected ways as Carter’s ethereal guitar noodling shoots the moon in the second section, before urgent drums race the song to new heights, for proper epic-climax measure.
Consider these ears blown away, and a bit numb from all that synth-bass rumbling.
Opener Reptar, an oddball quartet from various points in the Southeast, was dually impressive. Their allure derives mostly from an ability to go in any direction at any given time, and a vocalist who seems a stylistic relative of Daniel Johnston, at once gifted and seemingly emotionally unstable (check out their bio to get a sense of their whimsical approach to the biz). “Stuck in my Id” was perhaps the most subdued, traditional number of the bunch, yet still a ridiculously catchy, quirky piece of songcraft. Definitely worth a listen for anyone who appreciates weirdos putting pop music traditions through the looking glass.
Photos by Misha Vladimirskiy