Words by Sean Moeller, Illustration by Johnnie Cluney, Sound engineering by Mike Gentry
The two members of Phantogram - Josh Carter and Sarah Barthel - have been to Rock Island twice this year already and both visits were short and sweet ones. The first - with evidence of it here for all to hear - happened in February on an off day between Minneapolis and somewhere else. They drove all day, set up quickly, knocked these four gems out and were back on the road after a quick bite to eat. The second time was just a month and a half ago as they were through town for a show with The Antlers and it was this second quick visit that provided a number of memorable visuals that provide us with possible context for seeing and hearing them - hopefully, as they intend to be heard and seen. All of that is relative though and subject to change. Carter and Barthel had a long haul from Ann Arbor, Michigan, the night before - at least a nine-hour drive - and they were off to Colorado two days following the show here, another beast of a drive. The night was unfavorable to humans or any animals being out of doors, with an unceasing downpour of early spring rain making the roof and walls sound as if a million little creatures were pounding against the surface, trying their mightiest to get in, maybe get up close to the stage or just to the bar for something to whet their whistles. The early, all ages show began as there should have still been a little light outside, but the storms took care of that an made sure that everything felt suitably late in the evening and show time-y. It was just what Phantogram, the groove-centric electro band from Saratoga Springs, New York, needed to feel alive and to make all of its songs breathe with that cool exhalation that Barthel and Carter put into their words. The duo's debut album, "Eyelid Movies," is an exploration in the weird tricks that the consciousness plays on people, through drafty and dodgy days that seem to be accompanied by the proper iciness and the output of a couple dozen smoke machines. It feels as if there are constant worries about what's coming next and yet there's a wild sense that the characters are experiencing a dense, but hard to place or validate form of déjà vu. Everything feels completely familiar and so off kilter and it feeds right into an idea of an evening enveloping you and rain monsters banging on your roof and doors. There's one particular character in the song "When I'm Small," who feels as if they're battling within a cosmic struggle of stardust and star-crossings, where the very nature of love is being questioned and deliberated on, with Barthel singing, "Show me love/You've got your hand on the button now," and that hand seems ready to abort, to end the discussion. It has a general feeling of being mechanical, but the greatest fight here is with all of the parts and pieces that aren't mechanical or are quickly turning into flesh and hearts, capable of overcoming the mechanisms meant to underscore the real emotions. Phantogram takes a tact of exploring all of these genuine and bleeding human conditions while pairing them with these rainy and steely, programmed and synthesized sounds to make a significant metamorphosis of what happens when it can't be helped what's being felt. The feelings take over and there's nothing that can be done but to watch yourself and see how everything reacts - see how you're going to react. You, yourself might let the little monsters in, believing that these things and their new feelings, pose no threat.