It's not just that Phantogram's first album, Eyelid Movies, is one of the most auspicious debuts of the year. It's that the duo of Josh Carter and Sarah Barthel have made a kind of electronic-based pop that has recognizably dark echoes from the past—bump 'n' grind beats from Detroit, the drugged-out sparkle of psych-rock, the creepy cradle lullabies of Portishead—shaped into a cumulatively uplifting, soulful experience. The opening scriddle-squeak synth of "Mouthful of Diamonds" gives way to a warm and generous guitar pattern, circling around the listener like an embrace, while Barthel's vocals move from an exhortation of "wake up" to the whispered lament of the chorus.
Or there's "When I'm Small," easily one of this year's best tracks: A boinging guitar line rides a deliberate hiphop beat while Barthel carves out melodic arcs with her voice. It's a tense, gorgeous song with peaks and valleys, full of mystery and resolution. Phantogram performed a spaced-out deconstruction of the song on KEXP that turned it inside out, exploring all of its sonic possibilities, but more tellingly, there's an acoustic version online as well, recorded for Brooklyn blog Big Ugly Yellow Couch. In it, Carter gently strums an acoustic guitar behind precise and tender singing from Barthel. The song suffers nothing from this stark reinterpretation—in fact, stripping away the song's electrics clearly indicates the level of songwriting the pair is working at.
Much of Phantogram's music gives the impression of generating warmth out of very cold surroundings. Based in Saratoga Springs in upstate New York, the duo practices in chilly isolation outside the town's borders. "It's beautiful in the summer and the fall," Barthel says. "The winters are really depressing! But it's great for music: There's nothing to do, and all your emotions are right out in front of you. There's so much quiet time. There's so much time to reflect on whatever you're thinking of."
Barthel and Carter were friends growing up, but didn't play music together until after college, when Carter played Barthel some of his beats and asked her to sing on them. They played some live shows, but decided to focus the bulk of their energies on making a record. Out of the blue, Erich Cannon from Portland's Spectre Entertainment contacted them after he heard songs on their MySpace page. Cannon gave them the impetus to finish the album, and just before Phantogram decided to self-release it, a few record labels contacted them, including Barsuk, who released Eyelid Movies in February. "We were going to write the record, finish it, and release it as a demo for upstate," explains Barthel. "Then our plan was to move down to New York [City] to do the whole networking and meeting people kind of stuff. And we kind of skipped that whole thing, just because of the internet."
Meanwhile, the band has added a third member for this tour—drummer Tim Oakley of the Mathematicians—and is contemplating the follow-up to Eyelid Movies. The inevitable move down to the big city isn't necessarily in the cards, says Barthel: "It's kind of nice to be away from cities when you're not on tour. We really enjoy the country—the peace and quiet, I guess. I mean, there is always so much more to do in New York, but there are also more distractions. If we did move to New York, our next record wouldn't get done as soon, or the way we would really want it to."