You know those Youtube videos that are just like “How every _____ song is written”, where some guy walks you through the recurring themes and formulas a certain artist tends to return to over and over again? If they ever get popular or recognizable enough (and there’s a good chance they will), no doubt someone will make one of those for
Phantogram – piling on a loud, massive trip-hop beat, a dark smoky minor-key synth-driven atmosphere, disembodied vocal samples, and a distinctive, ethereal high-pitched female voice singing about “Feeling like I’m gonna die” and “Walk with me to the edge”.
This isn’t a bad or good thing – it just makes them instantly identifiable. Ever since their debut full-length Eyelid Movies, they have gradually achieved a strange form of
mid-level postmodern musician fame: Big enough to collaborate with a member of Outkast regularly, not quite on the level of fame that would break them out of the “trip hop/electro indie” ghetto for mainstream listeners. But their career arc has been a slow and steady progression, they’ve grown their audience just a bit more with each new release, and even if they never quite become the world’s most popular band, their work has proven durable, versatile and quite reflective of the times that created them.
Greenwich, New York natives Sarah Barthel and Josh Carter first met each other in junior
high. When Sarah washed out of art school and Josh’s early band Grand Habit folded in 2007, they began working on songs together. Under the name Charlie Everywhere, they began gigging and releasing EPs. Finally, in 2009/2010 Eyelid Movies was released on no less than 3 different independent labels. At this stage, their sound was a lot more minimal and psychedelic than later releases, veering into straight-up synthpop territory at times. If you’re not sure whether you’ve heard the sexy two-note club banger
“When I’m Small”, think back to the last time you saw a Gillette commercial – that’s them.
“Mouthful Of Diamonds” opens the album in a warm, confident tone, but the pessimistic lyrics belie its welcoming, comforting vibe: The song trips to a close with Sarah repeating “I wish I could believe”. Meanwhile, “As Far As I Can See” creates a bizarre four-bar riff out of cut-up samples, stabbing synth staccatos, and Sarah being cut off on her first syllable, pushing the band’s style towards the dense, atmospheric “dancegaze” sound it would eventually become. So far this release has included by far the highest number of songs with Josh on lead vocals, and if his voice is nowhere near as
striking or melodic as Sarah’s he does write good lyrics and on this album, runs his voice through a lot of effects pedals — dig the underwater vocal on “Running From The Cops”.
2011 brought the release of the Nightlife EP, spawning live staple “Don’t Move”, a bomb-ass beat with layers of samples switching and repeating on top of each other, like a bored kid absent-mindedly twiddling the knobs on a radio.
The EP sort of dwindles to a close after the fantastic opening 3 songs, without leaving much of an impression in the second half. The band was already tinkering with their style, going for a druggier and more intricate sound, and didn’t figure it out right away.
The tripped-out, heavier-yet-busier style they were approaching came into its own on 2014’s Voices, their major-label debut and first real brush with mainstream success. “Fall In Love” starts as assumingly as possibly before a punishingly SICK drop into the blasts of synths and bass that explode from the speakers like some exaggerated version of their early sound. “Black Out Days” pulls off a similar trick before swooping into its Rihanna-esque chorus, and “Nothing But Trouble” contains my very favorite moment by them on record as of yet: a breakdown that consists of scratches, very loud kick drums, glitches, and one of their most incomprehensible vocal samples ever.
Elsewhere, the band reveals a more sensitive and soothing side to themselves with dreamier slow tracks “Bill Murray” and “I Don’t Blame You”, as if to prove they’re more than another cynical dance-rock band, with a range of expression capable of deeply affecting emotion.
Between this album and their latest, they released a collaboration with Outkast’s Big Boi under the name Big Grams, capping off a series of tracks they produced for him on his previous solo album. It’s a strange fit at times, with the Gram sometimes seeming a bit out of their depth in the presence of a legend like Big Boi, but they’re an interesting combination anyway.
Phantogram’s story of steadily building buzz and word-of-mouth popularity continued into 2016’s Three, but for the members of the band, it wasn’t exactly a time to celebrate. Sarah’s sister had taken her own life the year before, and the grief and pain they were experiencing made it onto the record in the form of a resigned torpor. Never the most uptempo band, Phantogram seem to be playing almost at half-speed, like getting through the songs is an effort in itself. Still they managed to include a couple of their catchiest singles yet in “Same Old Blues” and “You Don’t Get Me High Anymore”.
The ultimate tribute to the dearly departed arrives in the form of Josh Carter’s “Barking Dog” — I have no idea what this song is about, but the emotional power of it is devastating. Swirling strings and despairing vocals push the album to an early climax, with remaining tracks mostly evoking more successful artists (Adele, Miley Cyrus, umm…. Evanescence). It’s the first Phantogram album where they don’t sound like they still want to be themselves.
Whatever is next for Phantogram, I just hope they get to keep doing their thing. I have a tendency to get really deeply into bands or artists who end up flaming out or just never quite reaching the potential of their popularity, but so far, their arc has been pretty upward. Most importantly, they have shown a discipline, imagination and work ethic that proves they are the real thing, and deserve to be mentioned alongside the other big names whenever somebody asks you the dreaded question, “What current bands are you into”? I like to think that by writing this post, I’m contributing to their hype in some roundabout way, and on the off chance someone does end up reading and listening to this stuff despite never having heard the band before, I hope you enjoy it.