In the past year-and-a-half, Phantogram has gone from making ripples to making waves in the independent music scene. That’s quite the feat since it is a bit difficult to stand out, especially in a blooming electronic scene. But the duo from Saratoga Springs, New York consisting of vocalist/keyboardist Sarah Barthel and guitarist/vocalist Josh Carter have managed to do so with their unique pop-infused trip-hop sound – or as they like to describe their music, “street beat.”
When their debut album, Eyelid Movies, was released in early 2010 to positive reviews, they still continued to fly under the radar. Having been known for putting on remarkable live shows, it wasn’t until they toured with the likes of The Antlers, The xx, and playing various music festivals that they began to turn heads. Gaining national exposure with their appearances on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon and Jimmy Kimmel Live didn’t hurt either. With their latest six-track EP/mini-album entitled Nightlife, Phantogram looks to continue their trend of success.
Upon first rotation of the album, it’s rather easy to notice that Phantogram is taking steps (albeit, not large ones) towards experimenting with their sound. Album opener “16 Years” is a song that they’ve been playing in front of live audiences more recently. It opens with a steady, pounding bass drum that gives the track some of depth while Barthel shows off her lyrical prowess, singing about a revived passion after going through a period of prolonged darkness and artificial happiness.
Things begin to intensify on “Make a Fist,” with the tempo speeding up drastically. Barthel’s demonstrates agility in her voice, going from hissing melodies and whispers to rangy wails and soft crooning, while Carter adds echo-ladened guitar riffs that are hypnotizing. All this leads to a rather crushing crescendo, proving that they can get aggressive if need be.
“Don’t Move” presents itself as a musical form of duality. With lines like “It’s not your heart that you’ve been thinkin’ of / Just the feeling like you’re gonna die” and “I’m not your paranoia / When someone’s at the door,” Barthel sings about a loved one going through a tragic downward spiral in life. Yet, musically, this is the most “danceable” tracks on the album. The shimmering synths, distorted vocal samples lurking in the background, and spontaneous horn blips add texture to an already frenetic energy emitting from the song. Ambiguity presents itself in the hook of “Shake, shake, shake” – either persuading the listener to dance along to the beat or provide imagery of withdrawal symptoms of addiction. Nonetheless, an emotionally charged song with pop melodies placed on top of a trip-hop foundation has made “Don’t Move” one of Phantogram’s finest.
However, Nightlife isn’t without its caveats. On tracks where Carter takes over lead vocals such as “Turning into Stone” and “A Dark Tunnel,” his voice tends to be incomprehensible due to it being drowned in heavy reverb or other effects. And the guitar riffs are almost too similar to the ones found in their debut.
Call it an EP or a mini-album, keep in mind that Nightlife is only six tracks that clock in just less than 30 minutes so it’s hard to fully determine where Phantogram is going with their sound. It’s not a bad effort at all, showing their ability to craft songs that are consistently solid. However, they seem to be in musical limbo because half the songs sound like an extension of Eyelid Movies and the other half show that they’re not afraid to challenge themselves by adding different dynamics to them. Without question, they continue to make music that is suited for the nightlife in any given city. But hopefully in the near future, they’ll be able to put forth a release that allows them to transcend their contemporaries – the potential is certainly there.