Last night, New York duo Phantogram played for a sold-out crowd at First Avenue, following the release of their new album Voices. Selling out the Mainroom—and not for the first time—is no small feat for a band with only two studio albums to their credit. Vocalist/keyboardist Sarah Barthel seemed well aware of that, reflecting, “We started playing [the] 7th Street [Entry]; now it’s an honor to be here.”
Barthel commanded the stage; rocking out on guitar, tambourine, keyboard, or just with the mic. Whipping her short, dark hair around and silhouetted by the stage lights, Barthel looked like an iPod commercial sans earbuds. Her dance-like-no-one’s-watching enthusiasm was crucial to starting the party, because it took the reserved, yuppie-looking crowd at least four songs to loosen up and start moving. Luckily, at the onset, Barthel danced enough for all of us.
Phantogram’s brand of bass-heavy electro-pop sounds like indie rock and trip-hop met up at a rave. The flashing (and sometimes dizzying) lights and the deep low-register rumblings that lent the show its rowdy nightclub ambiance drew on tropes of electronic music, while Barthel’s sometimes smooth, sometimes tormented vocals and engrossing stage presence were those of a rock star.
The core of Phantogram are Barthel and vocalist-guitarist Josh Carter. Touring drummer Tim Oakley provides added depth and complexity to their live attack. Beefing up the rhythm section makes some songs more danceable, while adding a sense of anxiety and urgency to others. It was often hard to discern what was being sung, but with lyrics like “Ain’t it lonely/ living all the time/ when everybody dies/ and then I close my eyes,” I wasn’t concerned about missing much.
Phantogram hit the hits out of the park—songs like “Running From the Cops” and “Black Out Days” were given the power they needed, and Barthel’s exuberance was contagious. “Don’t Move,” played slightly more dissonant and faster than on the album, blew the recorded version away. Many of their faster songs took on an epic, rock ‘n’ roll affect. Phantogram’s moments of anthemic rock and their rebellious electronica both worked well, but the band’s slow songs like “The Day You Died” fared less well, played with such sentimentality as to seem almost trite, making for a mid-set slump.
Phantogram’s music often recalls the sounds of the 80s and 90s. Barthel confirmed her sympathies when she asked, “Do you still carry lighters? Anyone? It’s the 90s, right? Cell phones work, too. It’s not really the 90s, I just wish it was. Kurt Cobain forever.” Barthel’s big stage presence, vocal chops, and bold, feminine electro-pop are reminiscent of Gwen Stefani with an updated, Crystal-Castles-esque digital angst, but Phantogram play it a bit safer than either of those artists, with a sound that’s catchy and accessible even if it’s not groundbreaking.
Overall, the show was fun: people danced, there were no major issues or mistakes, and the obligatory Prince joke was made. Fans who enjoy Phantogram’s records were surely pleased by their compelling live show, which took their tidy recorded sound and messed it up—in a good way.
Kyra Herning is a student at Macalester College.