Date: December 5, 2013
Venue: 930 Club, Washington, DC
The 1990's saw an abundance of electronic acts featuring hip-hop beats and sultry female vocals - Massive Attack, Portishead, Tricky, Bjork, Sneaker Pimps, Morcheeba, Olive, Esthero and so forth. All these groups operated, more or less, within the genre of "trip-hop" - a style that leaned heavily on the boom-bap aesthetics of hip-hop, dub, and jazz but, in most cases, smoothed out the rough edges. At the time, music critic Simon Reynolds accurately identified that "trip-hop [was] merely a form of gentrification." The genre had the intangible hallmarks of "cool" without much of the danger, inevitably becoming the soundtrack for sophisticated coffee shops, cocktail bars, and car advertisements worldwide.
The last decade has seen trip-hop wane, supplanted by cutesy synth-pop drawing flagrantly from new wave, new romantic, indie rock, and shoe gaze - styles that had no menace to begin with. Out with the sub-bass and breakbeats and in with the quirky synth leads and 4/4 disco kicks. Enter Phantogram from upstate New York, the rare contemporary electronic act that splits the difference - incorporating synth and jangly guitar with chunky bass and hip-hop breakbeats (nary a disco beat to be found). No coincidence the pair were tapped for three collaborative tracks on Big Boi's last solo record Vicious Lies and Dangerous Rumors, released late last year.
Phantogram, comprised of Josh Carter and Sarah Barthel, played a sold out gig at the 930 Club last week. Though Josh Carter frequently takes passable lead on vocals, like their trip-hop predecessors, it's all about the female vocal talent. Sarah Barthel is always the highlight of the group's live performance - stomping and striding around the stage in her trademark angular bob, skinny jeans and dangerously high heels. Barthel breathily cooed and belted out the group's best known hits "As Far As I Can See," "When I'm Small," and "Mouthful of Diamonds" while Carter and a new live drummer and bass player handled guitar and rhythm.
Though the band leaned on selections from their excellent 2010 debut album Eyelid Movies and its mini followup Nightlife, at least half of Phantogram's set was comprised of new tracks from their recent eponymous EP and forthcoming album. Most of their new material incorporates the rough 808 kicks, triple time hi-hats, and stuttering vocal samples of trap music (think T.I. or Gucci Mane). New single "Black Out Days" might be the best thing they've done yet, and was definitely the highlight of the show - with a grimy analogue bass-line, massive echoing snares, and Barthel reaching a blaring vocal crescendo to make the hair on the back of your neck bristle. There's something sincere and unpretentious about Phantogram. No irony, just tough beats and infectious melodies. Their sound is not revolutionary, but if they stick with some of the rough edges and expand on the hooky songcraft on display last week I think they'll keep soaring to new heights.