‘I’ve seen [the band] so many times and they’re always magnificent”, said the euphoric young twentysomething girl that was happily bouncing next to me during the entire Phantogram performance.
Opening for Phantogram was the American electro musician and record producer James Hinton, better known as The Range. He started out the evening smoothly with pieces from his latest album, “Potential”. The Brooklyn-based artist explained that in order to create “Potential”, he searched on YouTube for voices to sample from people whose videos were very rarely seen (some of these videos had less than 100 views). Then, he would contact them to seek their collaboration and approval in joining their voices to his music. The result of this scouring is a very atmospheric album, full of scintillating piano take-offs, heavy beats, and ethereal vocal samples.
Despite The Range’s relative shyness on stage this Thursday, we could easily perceive, as he was jumping frenetically and articulating the lyrics during his set, that he truly found his own way of fully expressing himself through other people’s words. The only drawback of his performance was that the speakers didn’t seem to be entirely working; something that was fixed later on before Phantogram’s set.
The electro trip hop rock band certainly didn’t disappoint any of its faithful fans on Thursday evening. Accompanied by hallucinating visuals and two additional musicians, Sarah Barthel and Josh Carter played several songs from “Three”, their accurately named third album. The record consists of a collection of dark pop songs about loss and grief, with infectious choruses and energetic beats.
It’s precisely this energy that made Phantogram’s performance “magnificent”, as that girl was saying. The formation succeeded in transforming sadness and heaviness in pure intensity. Barthel’s magnetic presence and her visible bond with Carter revealed that what genuinely matters beyond fancy lightings and trippy projections is real emotion and nothing else.
Phantogram took to the Joy Theater this past Thursday, Nov. 3, delivering an exceptional performance in support of their most recent LP, Three, released this past September.
The show, which commenced with Three opener “Funeral Pyre”, began behind a mesh screen on which a black-and-white light show was projected before being cut loose following the first four songs. However, one need not see behind the curtain to hear the evening’s biggest surprise – Phantogram duo Sarah Barthel and Josh Carter were accompanied by a live band.
This is a seemingly obvious choice for a live show, but not without its risks for a band of Phantogram’s pedigree. The thick fog of dreamy synths, glitchy distorted beats and down-tempo samples that listeners love to get lost in on Phantogram’s albums are largely manufactured using recording software – by removing the veneer of post-production, there’s a danger that you loose the emotional atmosphere that made the songs what they are in the first place.
This was the case for songs pulled from Phantogram’s earlier catalog. “Turning into Stone” sounded more like a hard rock track than the airy electro-shoegaze meditation that it was on 2011’s Nightlife; and “When I’m Small”, one of the band’s best-known singles, was an uneven performance, struggling to maintain its brooding trip-hop vibe against the live guitar and drums.
For the most part, however, the decision to upgrade to a full band was a solid one. While the music would have stood up with just Carter on stage working a laptop and Barthel playing guitar and assuming lead vocals, the stage would have lacked energy without the full ensemble. DJ opener The Range, while competent at his craft, was a lonely site onstage all on his lonesome standing behind his MacBook – his beats stood up, but the crowd was unmoved. Leveling up to a live band transformed Phantogram’s show from a performance into a concert.
Further, the inclusion of a live band breathed new life into Phantogram’s work. Like Pinocchio coming to life, the songs were free of their digital puppet strings, able to explore and take on a new identity. The keyboards on “Howling at the Moon” and “You’re Mine” had a new ‘80s New Wave vibe, while the live guitars and drums gave a harder pulse to “Mouthful of Diamonds” and “Bad Dreams”, elevating these tracks from introspective sentiments to self-assured crowd-movers.
This live reinvention worked best on tracks off Phantogram’s latest effort, which comprised half of the evening’s playlist. The heavy cloud of digital moodiness that overcast earlier albums has cleared on Three, giving way to a collection of more focused pop songs. Though Barthel and Carter were probably just trying to change things up when they decided to feng shui their sound, many of these sonically stripped down songs come across a bit stale on the record (exceptions being the hip-hop influenced “You Don’t Get me High Anymore” and “Calling All”, and the Life of Pablo-esque soul-R&B track “Same Old Blues”.) Live, however, the band gives these tracks a rawness complementing their sparing approach. Oftentimes during the set, the band sounded more like fellow New York-indie rockers Yeah, Yeah, Yeahs than commonly associated electronic peers like Purity Ring and Sleigh Bells. Had Phantogram gone for broke and, in their quest for simplicity, sanded down their sound down even further to the garage rock grittiness of their live show, Three would have been much more adventurous.
The highlight of the show, however, was the performance of new track “Barking Dog”. Recounting the band’s reaction to the recent suicide of Barthel’s older sister (Carter was a close friend as well), the regretful dirge was accompanied by childhood videos played on twin screens located at opposing sides of the stage. Two girls next to me broke into tears during the performance; another man towards the back, uncomfortable with the group show of emotion, shouted “this is getting weird”, clearly audible over the tune’s quiet synth hum and softly sung lyrics. While I agree it was not the evening’s most comfortable moment, it’s a beautiful song and clearly an intimate moment for the band to share, as evidenced by the fact that the mesh screen was raised back up to cover them during the performance.
Though “Barking Dog” was an encore performance, Phantogram aren’t the kind of band to leave their audience on a “Hurt” note (ala Nine Inch Nails). The band closed things out with three more songs getting the party back on track: “Cruel World”, “Fall in Love” and “You Don’t Get Me High Anymore”. Barthel and Carter followed the show with a vinyl signing for Three at the merch stand.