Most PR-ready band photographs do little to enhance their subjects’ character — they’re perfunctory (“These people look like this”) without captivating your eye or your imagination. Doron Gild’s portrait of Phantogram (above) subverts that convention and, in turn, that reality. It frames Joshua Carter and Sarah Barthel as specters caught somewhere between the night sky and the woods, the blue-tinted pair floating above or creeping out of foliage. Without using a single note or word, it establishes the basics about Phantogram’s sleek pleasures: 1) they’re linked to nature, and 2) they enjoy pretending. (The coloring probably nods to their music’s mood — that or they’re big Dr. Manhattan/Na’vi/Smurf fans.)
Gild’s portrayal of the duo — who come to the Paradise this Wednesday — stems from a shot taken near New York’s Saratoga Springs, close to where Carter and Barthel met as high-schoolers more than a decade ago. They never played music together in high school, but a more recent impromptu sing-along to “Velvet Revolver or something on the radio” made Carter appreciate his friend’s vocal versatility. And that gave birth to Phantogram, Barthel’s exquisite, breathy voice merging with Carter’s delicate aural architecture. The result is a down-tempo, washed-out dream that rides the demarcations among electronica, indie pop, hip-hop, and post-punk.
Phantogram’s debut album, February’s Eyelid Movies (Barsuk), was cooked up in the winter of 2007–2008 in Harmony Lodge, a barn in Easton, New York. Located about half an hour southeast of Saratoga Springs, it’s on land Carter’s parents own, and over time, he’s amassed enough equipment — mixing boards, laptops, speakers, drums — to make it his own studio. During the Eyelid recording sessions, the rural surround contributed a feeling of isolation that made its way into the final product.
Morever, Carter says, “When I’m falling asleep, it always feels like my world shrinks. I gradually feel small and spherical.”
During the recording period, rats infested Harmony Lodge, so an underground-dwelling rodent protagonist named Lucy found her way into the pulsating “When I’m Small.” Carter titled another track “Running from the Cops” because he thought that’s what the music sounded like. “We pick lots of different elements and see how they mingle together,” he says. “Usually, it’s just imaginary events.”
That concept peaks on Eyelid with “Mouthful of Diamonds.” Buoyed on a beat that resembles a swan’s sad squawk, this soothing number sounds like a tribute to the pitfalls of dreaming too much. “Wake up/You’re getting high on your own supply/You’re still alive when you could have died,” Barthel croons. By its end, she’s repeating, “I wish I could believe,” as if desperate to make a fantasy real.
Carter suggests that “Mouthful of Diamonds” is about being cheated on — a blasé explanation when you listen to the actual song. But he won’t go any farther. It’s like Gild’s striking image — a sense of unfamiliarity is crucial to Phantogram’s mystique, and Carter realizes that disclosing secrets is counterproductive.
“Does that ever ruin things for you?” he asks. “Have you ever really loved something about an artist, and then they explain exactly what it is, and you’re just like, ‘Oh, well, to me, it was this.’ A song is more special if you make your own connection.”
PHANTOGRAM + RAILBIRD | Paradise Rock Club, 967 Comm Ave, Boston | September 22 at 7 pm | 18+ | $13 | 617.562.8800 or thedise.com