TONIGHT!: Phantogram @ Ram's Head Live (Baltimore)

What is one supposed to do on an early summer Sunday evening in Baltimore when the Orioles are out town?  Well, this weekend the answer is obvious: check out one of the hottest indie pop acts touring right now.

With their October 2011 six song mini-album Nightlife (my famously controversial pick for best release of 2011), the indie electronica/pop group Phantogram offered up a dark, moody record full of bassline-driven, slow, full body rockers, characterized by ethereal vocals and remarkable restraint.  On stage, lead songwriter and guitarist Josh Carter is a study in cool as his calm, intense, focus on his guitar playing makes it seem as if he travels into his own world, a world full of fantastic beats and slow, groovy rhythms.  By contrast, lead singer and synth player Sarah Barthel sways and gyrates in a slow yet evocative way that hints at energy, barely held back, coming to a boil just beneath the surface.  The duo is joined on tour by Tim Oakley, whose drums are key to enlivening the group’s trip hop-influenced sound.  Phantogram’s records flirt with dreamy minimalism, but performed live, the songs take on an intensity that never fail to get a crowd bouncing and grooving along.  

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.