Apparently the atmospheric indie duo Phantogram hails from Saratoga Springs and records in a barn. I’ll take their word for it, but few albums sound as California as their debut, Eyelid Movies. Stealing equally from Portishead, Massive Attack, and Sonic Youth, the record evokes an inviting big-sky sunscape laced with underlying menace, like the state that counts Brian Wilson and Charles Manson as equal icons. The title fits — these tracks are daydreams that trend uncomfortably towards the nightmarish. They’re rich, lovely, and alienating.
A lot of Phantogram’s power lies in Sarah Barthel’s ravishing vocals, which blend equal measures of syrup and cyanide into a wraith-like Beth Gibbons lilt. Despite a certain icy detachment in tone, her vocals can inhabit a wide variety of moods, from paranoid agitation to sensuous rapture. At her best she’s siren-like: appealing, vulnerable, and dangerous — Little Red Riding Hood with sharp teeth all her own. She baits her hooks against a loosely trippy atmospheric background, and powers the songs with an almost off-handed melodic momentum.
I’d be tempted to callEyelid Moviesa trip-hop album, if it weren’t for the fact that trip-hop is now a decade out of fashion and Phantogram sounds so unassailably hip. Josh Carter’s immaculate production strips back the adornments and fuzzes things up. The dryly echoing three-note phrase that underpins “When I’m Small” – which so far has my vote for the greatest guitar riff of 2010 – is downtuned so low the pitch wobbles, ominously thunking out the rough-hewn foundation for their danceably dangerous single.
That guitar line exemplifies Carter’s M.O. Instrumentally, Phantogram tends to favor thudding, monotonal drones that jerk themselves repeatedly upwards before being sucked immediately back down to the bass line (think the guitar line in the Velvet’s “Waiting For My Man”) played over repetitive breakbeat drum machine rhythms that pulse, double, drop in and out of the track. On paper it sounds dull, but in practice it’s pretty hypnotic, thanks to the easy precision of the arrangements and Barthel’s breathy lost-girl vocals. Eyelid Movies is trapped a constant push-and-pull between indulgence and minimalism, between the lush and the hushed. The record is dreamy and immersive, but Carter resists the urge to allow his arrangements to get too zonky or druggy or baroque and the result is an intriguingly spartan psychedelia.
The album starts to show its seams around the edges. Things slow down when Carter sings on his own — his voice is nothing special, a sort of generically androgynous indie rock mumble. “You Are the Ocean” has a haunting melody and a neurotic synth howling through the background like a car alarm — it could have been a great track if Barthel were singing. At 11 songs, the record starts to blend together (though for an atmospheric album like this that may not be a bad thing). They tend to find a slicky eerie groove and run it into the ground, which is sometimes hypnotic and sometimes a little bit dull.
But all told, Eyelid Movies does what good albums ought to do: it fabricates a little musical universe, complete with its own weather (cold fog, blistering sun), settings (seedy clubs in the San Fernando Valley, the backseats of black cars), and moods (paranoia, sexual ecstasy, hungover ennui). And by the time you reach the final track, the surprisingly traditional piano ballad “10,000 Claps”, you’ll be torn between the desire to linger there and the urge to see what new and uncomfortable places Phantogram might be able to take you.