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Barnhart Blog 3 - Discovering Phantogram

Joel Barnhart
December 07, 2010



I discovered Phantogram when I was looking over which shows I wanted to cover on Niagaramusicscene.com. I originally chose them because they were playing on a Sunday night, which is one of my nights off work. Checking out their Myspace page, I was immediately hooked.

A two piece band out off Saratoga Falls, New York, consisting of Sarah Barthel on vocals and synthesizer/keyboards, and Josh Carter on vocals and electric guitar. Their music is a very relaxed electronic sound, perfectly blended with electric guitar. I wouldn't go so far as to describe it as trip hop, but there are certainly similarities. Barthel's vocals are soft and flutey, if I may invent an adjective, with a certain sadness. Her voice reminds me a bit of Beth Gibbons of Portishead, though slightly higher in pitch. Carter's vocals are largely filtered with effects, and add a fitting contrast to Sarah's soprano. The music is catchy and very well produced, well layered, with simple but effective guitar riffs, and synthesized melodies that create a very dreamlike listening experience.

The night was opened by The Broken Lyre, an electro-poprock band from Niagara Falls. They played a good set, fast and fun, and while their style of music isn't really my cup of tea, I submit that they were pretty solid. I enjoyed them more than I think I would have Bad Tits, who were supposed to be opening for Phantogram. I checked Bad Tits out on Myspace before the show, and couldn't really get into them, so I feel this worked out for the better.

Phantogram's set had far more energy than I was expecting, having listened to the three tracks on their myspace page several times in anticipation of the show. A lot of this can be attributed to the addition of a live drummer, Tim Oakley. I was already a fan of the music going into the show, and was impressed at how much simply adding live drums on top of the drum machine beats improved the whole affair. At the beginning of the show, the audience was seated around the room, with the exception of a lone photographer standing near the stage, leaving the dance floor completely vacant. This was quickly remedied when Carter informed the crowd that he had recently purchased a new cologne, that we would have to move closer to the stage to smell it. I found this amusing, and it was an effective way to get the crowd away from the walls and dancing, as audience members quickly filed into the dance floor.

The music was loud and fast, which again, I hadn't really expected, given how calm and soothing the music on the album was. It was certainly the same music, but there's just something about an attractive girl bobbing energetically behind a keyboard and singing that adds a whole new dynamic. The music was loud enough that unfortunately, the vocals were at times difficult to hear. In the studio recordings it's easier to just increase the volume of a soft vocal track in the mix, but live, the drums, guitar and synth was so loud, that it drowned a lot of it out. You could still hear it, but in some cases, the vocals were reduced to a soft droning in the background, with lyrics nigh impossible to pick out. Their performance was good enough that it was a minor complaint, but Barthel's voice is a large part of what drew me to the band in the first place.

I picked up their LP, and I'll definitely see them again next time they come to town. St. Catharines was the first stop on their Canadian tour, and they'll be playing shows in Peterborough, Quebec City, Montreal and Toronto, so if you find yourself in any of those cities while they're there, by all means, check them out. You can hear their stuff on www.myspace.com/phantogram, and you can check out Broken Lyre at www.myspace.com/thebrokenlyremusic

-Joel Barnhart -