The phantogram, more impressively known in technical circles as an anaglyphic stereoanamorphograph, is a kind of optical illusion in which a two-dimensional image appears to take on a third dimension only when viewed from a specific perspective. Although Joshua Carter and Sarah Barthel were initially attracted to the term because it sounded cool, they ultimately chose it as the name for their Sarasota Springs-based electro-rock project on the basis that they hoped to be a two-piece act with a deceptively large sound. They’ve had some success – when Carter and Barthel came to the U.K. and played Truck Festival last year, your correspondent was so transfixed he missed the start of Mew’s headline set.
Oddly, though, going back to hear Phantogram’s 2009 debut LP Eyelid Movies was a much less satisfying experience. Although the record was generally quite well received, there were those of us who felt that, on record, the songs were disappointingly clinical and pedestrian by comparison with the primal, nocturnal power of the duo’s live set. Set in those terms, the title of this new comeback EP is an encouraging sign, but, although it has its moments, Nightlife is more an adequate step forward than it is any kind of giant leap.
From the start of opener “16 Years”, it’s clear that this sure is Phantogram. Over one of their characteristic drum machine loops hovers Barthel’s recognisable vocal, singing of “mechanical joy” and pondering as to whether “This is love / That I’m feeling again”. Only an EP this may be, but as openers go it’s hardly a grand statement of intent. If “16 Years” feels like Phantogram on autopilot, “Don’t Move” is the duo’s welcome return to the controls. In particular, the snappy snatches of horns are the kind of instrumental flourish this potentially formulaic sound has long needed, even if Barthel’s claim that events have “started to fuck with my head” is a little unconvincing.
Unfortunately for a Phantogram, things begin to fall a little flat in the EP’s second half. Squandering precious minutes on the superfluous repetition that largely defines these last few songs feels like a genuine misstep which drags the music that bit further away from the sense of vitality inherent in the live shows that introduced so many people to this still promising pair of musicians. Indeed, Nightlife sounds more like one long comedown that it does a build-up to an accomplished second album.
These six songs are confirmation enough that Phantogram are still the same musicians that got so many listeners excited a couple of years back, but it simply does too little else. Comparable acts are hardly thin on the ground these days, and, more than anything, Nightlife serves as a warning that Carter and Barthel will need to up their game next time around if they are to keep pace. From this perspective, it seems like it will be a nervous wait for our next look at Phantogram.