The following was written by Lina Khan with photographs by Alison Klein. If you have a show you’d like to see reviewed send an email to princeofpetworth(at)gmail
With a sound so distinctly urban, Phantogram‘s small-town origins come as a surprise. The self-described “street beat/psyche pop” duo has earned a reputation for hipness since the 2010 release of their debut album Eyelid Movies, recorded in a barn by their very rural Greenwich, New York hometown.
Back on tour with Nightlife EP, the band played to a full house at Black Cat Wednesday night. A smooth mix of electronic loops, synth beats, and hip hop evocations, Phantogram professes an eclectic range of influence – old soul, French pop, shoegaze – that fuses subtly on their recordings. Live, though, that range flattened, producing a sound highly energetic but rarely powerful.
Keyboardist Sarah Barthel’s cool, breathy croon briefly came through on “16 Years,” a catchy electro-pop track, but remained mostly overpowered by percussion. “Mouthful of Diamonds” brought out the band at its strongest: Barthel’s confident vocals, guitarist Josh Carter’s tender riffs, and a pulsating backdrop of synth beats that roll unremittingly. The casual synthesis was lent depth by the single line “I wish I could believe,” repeated with a simplicity that verges on hypnotic.
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It took till “Don’t Move,” with its bouncy stutter, for the audience to actually get moving (why does nobody dance at shows in DC?), the upbeat magnetism breaking to thumping rhythm that then resurges to full force. “All you do is/Shake shake shake,” Barthel sings, “Keep your body still/Keep your body still,” a delivery that undoes its own fulfillment.
Much of the set collapsed into a continuous semi-mesmerizing groove. A few moments showcased the moody edginess that hovers around some tracks – the paranoid and uneasy “Running from the Cops” – but the sultry syncopations mostly maintained a softer disinterest. Phantogram may evoke urban lure and pavement stagger, but there is little grit to be found. Their enigmatic allusions rarely rise above the innocuous – something a live performance can sometimes overcome, but of which the band fell short. There is little energy spent building and sustaining sound so that it takes you somewhere, a lack of intensity that isn’t in itself bad, it’s just that nonchalance only carries so far. No doubt, these sonic loops are magnetic, but unlikely to stay with you. You’ll enjoy grooving to them when you hear them, just might forget to look them up when you get home.