Last Wednesday, following an appearance on Jimmy Kimmel Live, and the day before a sold-out show at Oakland’s Fox Theater, rising New York duo Phantogram treated San Francisco to a (free!) four-song set at Amoeba Records, highlighting material from their new record, Voices.
This was their first Bay Area appearance since a dominating performance at last year’s Treasure Island Music Festival, where they shattered expectations with a headline-worthy show, undoubtedly climbing a few spots up the festival lineup ladder. Singer/keyboardist Sarah Barthel and multi-instrumentalist Josh Carter (with the help of two backing musicians) smiled and regularly engaged the mob of fans packed between the aisles of CDs. When Barthel announced just before launching into the first song (Voices standout “Black Out Days”) that “this is our new single,” an excitable dude near the front yelled “I hope you’re still single!,” eliciting laughter from nearly everybody, including Barthel.
So here’s the thing: how can you sing a bitter line like “Speak in tongues / I don’t even recognize your face / mirror on the wall / tell me all the ways to stay away” and make it sound fun? Phantogram’s music feels like it’s birthed in a white-hot spotlight under a sticky nocturnal fog; sinister sub-bass synths and skittering hip hop drum loops rumble beneath a warm, woozy air of swirling guitars and breathy, desperate vocals. Despite the darkness, there’s also something hopeful, almost celebratory about their colorful chord progressions and Barthel’s cathartic, playful vocal delivery. Imagine Karen O (Yeah Yeah Yeahs) and Alexis Krauss (Sleigh Bells) taking turns serenading each other in a seedy, neon-drenched after-hours karaoke joint emceed by J Dilla, and you have an idea. This is blurry, “street-beat” music made for the night, and all the wonderful and illicit things that happen after the sun goes down. It’s this contrast between dark and light that makes the tension in their music work so well.
So when Amoeba’s lights didn’t dim as they began playing (starting with “Black Out Days” and “Fall in Love”), I couldn’t help but want to yank the breaker. Something was missing, and it wasn’t really the band’s fault. I suspect they felt the same way; Barthel stated they “made some changes to these songs to suit the setting.” Luckily, three of the four songs played were strong enough to get by on Carter’s ass shaking trip hop rhythms and Barthel’s funning (that’s a portmanteau of fun and stunning- deal with it) vocals, so as a fan, I wasn’t disappointed. Neither was the crowd, according to all the cheering.
The one exception was Voices slow-burner “Bill Murray,” which combines a plaintive guitar riff from the Band of Horses playbook with a “Do Re Mi”-mimicking chorus. I can hear its lonely washes of melody as the credits roll after a heartbreaking drama film, but it felt a little slow for a packed and brightly lit record store. They rebounded and closed things out with “Don’t Move,” a sunnier fan favorite from 2011, complete with chopped-up “oohs and aaahs” and a big-brass trumpet sample that had the crowd pumped and ready to mingle as we spilled out onto Haight Street.
Ultimately, while the bright lights and lower volume of the record store did remove some of the mystique from the band’s sound, they still gave us a fun little treat- saving the heavy artillery for Thursday’s sold-out show at The Fox Theater. Just give these guys a dark, loud stage and they’ll blow you away.
Were you there? What did you think of the show? Let us know below!
Listen to “Black Out Days” here:
Check out Phantogram’s remaining tour dates here.