Review: Phantogram - Nightlife

Some albums mark a massive transformation in a group’s style.  These albums might represent an epiphany, an evolution, an exploration of new territory, a conscious change in direction, or a response to a change within the interpersonal dynamic within a group.  Typically these albums follow some relatively prolonged period of silence from a group, during which they sequester themselves from the public and explore themselves and their art only to emerge like a butterfly out of its chrysalis, magnificently transformed.

Phantogram’s new 6 track EP (or, as they say, “mini-album”) Nightlife is not this kind of record.  

Instead, Nightlife is the product of near constant touring in support of their excellent 2010 LP Eyelid Movies, and sees the band more or less picking up exactly where they left off in that last record.  On first listen, Nightlife sounds like less of a sequel of Eyelid Movies, but more of a director’s cut or an extension of that first album.  All same parts are present: fuzzy, filtered rhythms, Sarah Barthel’s hauntingly beautiful vocals and simple but effective keys, Josh Carter’s darker, more mournful vocals and matching guitars, an overall vibe of beautiful melancholy tinged with bitterness, frustration, and regret.  However, on repeat listens, the differences from Eyelid Movies become a bit more apparent.  Nightlife is not a major evolution, but frankly, Phantogram did not need a major evolution.  Instead we have a band honing their craft on the road and taking incremental but important steps forward.  

The effects of the extensive touring Phantogram has been doing as a supporting band with acts like Glitch Mob, The xx, and Yeasayer; throughout the summer festival circuit; and now headlining a tour in support of the new record (coming to DC’s Black Cat on Nov. 16) should not be understated.  Eyelid Movies was, in my opinion, strong from top to bottom, but the album’s best tracks were the more breakbeat-driven, hip hop rhythm-inspired cuts carried over from their first two EPs.  The other two-thirds of the album was still very strong, but many of those tracks tended a little more towards trip hop, with chilled out and understated beats, and a slower, prettier groove.  Nightlife recalls some of the earlier tracks, but adds even a bit more edge or just-beneath-the-surface energy to the production.  

Overall, the drum programming on the new record is perhaps a bit more prominent and complex than what the band has put out previously.  I can only assume that this is the effect of extensive touring and rehearsing with a live drummer, but whatever the reason, “16 Years”, “Don’t Move”, “Make a Fist”, and “A Dark Tunnel” are rhythm-driven slow-rockers that are sure to get a crowd moving.  These beats are just waiting for the right opportunistic hip hopper to pick them up and make them into major chart-toppers.  Seriously, when you hear Kanye or Lil Wayne spitting over the beat from “Don’t Move” with Sarah Barthel’s “All you know how to do is shake, shake.  Keep your body still.” as the refrain, remember you read it on Chunky Glasses first.

The lead single off the record, “Don’t Move” should be a good enough barometer of whether you are going to be able to get behind Phantogram.  The song’s lyrics, which might be about a co-dependant relationship, or addiction, or an anxiety disorder, or.. not... perfectly encapsulate for me the vibe that Phantogram hits.  Something beautiful yet jaded; a subdued, restrained energy - as of someone rocking their body on the dancefloor in an opiate-induced fog; backed by a strong simple breakbeat with an effective and minimalist melody.  

Would I be satisfied with a full-length album that sounded like this?  I’m not sure.  Is this enough of a step beyond Eyelid Movies?  Should we care?  I would mention that the EP closer “A Dark Tunnel”, with elements like an aggressive stutter-step rhythm, shouted, reverb-laden vocals from Josh, and an atmospheric instrumental breakdown halfway through the song, gives some reason to think that Phantogram is ready and able to show us something different.  But none of this really matters, because what we have before us is a very strong, very listenable, relatively lengthy EP of new grooves to get your head nodding and your body shaking.  A great follow-up to Eyelid Movies that hopefully provides a vehicle to even greater success and exposure for the band.  


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