Phantogram is a relatively new band having only released one full length album, “Eyelid Movies,” in early 2010. Yet they have been received relatively well, finding themselves asked already to be on festival bills, such as Chicago’s North Coast Music Festival, which occurred over Labor-day weekend. And while they played earlier in the day, to be playing at all in festivals on the first summer after your first release, you are doing alright. This time they played Chicago, however, they would be playing at night, and indeed they would be the headlining act.
Immediately one noticed a substantial difference over their North Coast show, they added a drummer. Phantogram consists of two musicians (who wrote and recorded the music, if the drummer will play a part in the next recording is still unknown), guitarist Josh Carter and keyboardist/sonic effecter Sarah Barthel. They play what could be described as a heady mixture of bass laden break-beats, effected guitar, and floaty lyrics which can be catchy or straight psychedelia. One can sense they have definite roots in hip-hop and electronica, but seem to take a more indie rock approach to both. Some of their songs will make you want to fist pump, some to tap your toes, and others to just sit back and listen with your eyes closed.
Another improvement over their festival day-show was that they were able to build the emotional setting of their desire. The band usually only played beneath 2 red lights, which sometimes would be switched to blue. You could only sometimes make out their faces. Behind them was a large black curtain, upon which was displayed a variety of projected-visuals, usually of the white and gray variety. While this set up proved frustrating for anyone wanting to take photographs, it proved wonderful for setting a dark and mysterious, yet low-key vibe. And to add to that, Sarah (whose usually lead singer and is aesthetically stunning), hides behind her own hair – never really letting anyone see her face. They definitely set the mood.
What was impressive about the music performed this night, and another difference from their North Coast set, was that they morphed and altered many of the intros into their songs. Obviously it was the addition of the drummer that made this musical nicety possible. As a band with only one album they are understandably restricted in the amount of songs they can play, there is going to be very little surprise for the audience. So adding that little bit of difference between the album and live versions of the songs, without really altering the songs substantially, really gave some soul to the performance and kept the audience just slightly more engaged (at least for those of us who have listened to the album before seeing them live). The song in which this was most noticeable was When I’m Small, when they used a nice sustained hip-hop like entrance to the song; letting the beat bang out for a while and establish a certain emotion before Sarah layered some vocals with a chorus effect – rounding out the sound with their unique psychedelic quality – before the full beat and sound of the song came in.
Other highlights from the evening were Running From the Cops, and Let Me Go. The former because of its motion-enfusing, thick, hip-hop beat sublayer and the latter because of its unique high-tempo base that nonetheless is a foundation for a relatively non dance-friendly, more sedated song. It is this kind of juxtaposition of musical attributes, both accomplished adroitly, that makes one think this band could be successful for some time. Another positive sign was the one new song they played, the name of which I couldn’t catch, which had a great contemporary rock/rave mix to its sound. After this show it wouldn’t be a stretch to believe this band will surely only keep ascending, and honestly, they will be deserved of the popularity.