In 2008, Portishead made headlines by reuniting and releasing their first new album in 11 years. And they managed to keep fans’ attention by releasing something significantly removed from the moody, cinematic and crackly beat-oriented pop they perfected in the ’90s. They knew, perhaps better than most trip-hop outfits, that trip-hop had been a stagnant sound for some time. Very few artists have done much with trip-hop beats in the past ten years beyond pleasant atmosphere for a yoga class, but rarely anything truly captivating. But then along comes Phantogram, a duo from Saratoga Springs, N.Y., of all places, with an album of spectacular eerie pop, backed by, you guessed it, trip-hop beats.
The secret to Phantogram’s success with crackly, old school sounding beats lies in the fact that they are not, themselves, a trip-hop group. There is very little about their Barsuk debut Eyelid Movies that suggests chillout sessions or cocktails at the W Hotel. Rather, they make atmospheric pop with a playfully mischievous side. Like the Yeah Yeah Yeahs remixed by J Dilla, or Björk’s younger, American punk rock siblings, Phantogram create a cool, sultry hybrid ton Eyelid Movies, maintaining outstanding melodies while bolstering them with a darkly danceable side.
Leadoff track “Mouthful of Diamonds,” with its odd siren sounds and thumping snare, sounds briefly as if it were plucked from 1995, but once its gorgeous guitar licks start, it becomes something else entirely. Sarah Barthel’s vocals add a serene weightlessness to the song, complementing the distorted, yet warm synthesizers. The opening riff of “When I’m Small” is funky, but heavy on the reverb, approximating surf-disco, while “Turn It Off” rides a dense, one-note bassline that gives way to a pretty, if slightly off-kilter chorus. The bizarre vocal effects of “Running from the Cops” recall Brainiac, and the jerky rhythms of the title track take the album into gangsta dream pop territory that’s oddly irresistible.
Reincorporating sampled and electronically-generated hip-hop beats into new contexts and configurations, Phantogram take the once-dated idea of trip-hop and funnel its elements into something brand new. Eyelid Movies is, more simply, a great indie pop record, and an awesome surprise from a band with some great ideas and even better songs.
MP3: “When I’m Small”
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.