Phantogram - Nightlife
Record Label: Barsuk
Release Date: November 1, 2011
Phantogram's debut album seemed obsessed with the evening hours. Appropriately titled Eyelid Movies, it was chock full of nocturnal songs that, while danceable, were shrouded by a dreamlike, and often chilling, haze. So, it's not at all out of character for the upstate New York duo to drop another set of tunes tailor-made for the night. However, Nightlife marks something of a musical turnabout; though a song like "Make a Fist" would have fit right in on Eyelid Movies, much of that record's dark romanticism that evoked Mazzy Star is absent from Nightlife. Phantogram has allowed some sunshine to seep into their twilit sound, and the result is a sense of balance, something the debut, good as it was, could have used a little more of.
The opening track "16 Years" provides a confident introduction to the EP, showcasing the slightly brighter twist to the pair's brand of trip-hop. However, it's the single "Don't Move" that takes that sound to its peak potential, adding some lush chillwave-y synths to their mix of beats and samples. On first listen, some of the song's loops seemed ill-fitting and scattershot to me; don't let that discourage a second listen. Once the creative genius at work here sinks in, many repeat spins are sure to follow. As for obeying the lyrical order to "keep your body still"? Good luck with that one.
While Sarah Bathel's sometimes-airy, sometimes-sultry vocal is usually an essential element to the music's atmosphere, partner-in-crime Josh Carter takes over the singing duties on "Turning Into Stone", as he does on several of the debut's tracks. His style is rather non-descript, but is bolstered by Barthel's powerful turn on backup as well as the deep buzz and skittering rhythm pushing the song forward.
The aforementioned "Make a Fist" marks a bit of a return to the eerieness of Eyelid Movies, possessing an ominous insistence that's sort of reminiscent of Yeah Yeah Yeah's "Maps", but also sort of not. As the most uncluttered of the disc's six cuts production-wise, the title track's success falls squarely on Barthel's shoulders, and she expectedly proves more than worthy of the task.
The endpiece "A Dark Tunnel" is the closest example to a real bumper on the set, but doesn't quite stand up to its analog from the full-length, "Futuristic Casket" (its best song for my money). Aside from that rather flat conclusion, Nightlife is a solid offering from a unique act who possess a sound all their own, who seem unafraid of exploring all aspects of that sound-- the sweet, the sexy and the sinister-- and who, even this early in their career, have us anticipating their next move.