Phantogram Chase the Indietronica Wave With ‘Ceremony’

Phantogram is a band emblematic of the last decade in indie music. The “indietronica” label had long teased its way into the collective consciousness, but never found such clear definition and widespread enthusiasm as in 2010, when singers and multi-instrumentalists Sarah Barthel and Josh Carter released their debut “Eyelid Movie.” The duo came with a slew of artists who coincidentally carved out similar niches somewhere between the EDM excesses sweeping the globe and the outsider DIY ethos that had traditionally stood in stark opposition. Terms like “dream pop” were casually thrown about. Ghosts of trip hop and lingering new wave spirit were summoned with a newfound zeal, and an appetite for club bangers hid behind an ironic channeling that struck a resounding chord. Ten years later, the sound is beyond played out, and it’s a decidedly tough task for Phantogram to remain fresh and engaging. On their latest album, “Ceremony,” they embrace the more overtly mainstream elements of their distinctive style, but simultaneously get edgier with the sounds that they employ, with varying results.  

“Dear God” begins with a soul sample, and launches into a festive jubilee that retrofits ‘70s funk stylings to millennial aesthetics, with sugary vocals, and a cool and easy lo-fi approach. The lyrics could hardly be more hackneyed, with platitudes like “Take me out, of this world I’m living in,” but it suits the music well, and in an ideal world, this would all be intentional. “In a Spiral” is a punchy tune, with overlain vocals, slightly fuzzy, almost shoegaze-ey guitars, and drums that glitch out into a splatter for a short segment that adds enough to make the whole track. The ubiquitous spliced vocal stutters precipitate a chorus, and Western-tinged tremolo guitar snippets add bookmarks. The wealth is in the details.  

Next, “Into Happiness” starts with a chord progression that recalls La Roux’s “Bulletproof” a bit too familiarly. Then again, it’s hardly an original sequence to begin with, and one particularly suited to new wave-derived dance music, sure to have made its way, in some derivative form, into countless tunes. Ever so slightly detuned synths, and an interplay between Carter and Barthel on vocals, make this a standout track. “Pedestal” is a prime example of effective pop streamlining, with the introductory vocal offered over just enough coy synth tomfoolery to keep things interesting, then promptly bursting into a flurry of blissful, buoyant indulgence. Barthel’s vocals get a bit irritating, from the excessive repetition, although there’s nearly enough on display to nearly salvage it. 

One thing that Phantogram have always excelled in is the ability to effortlessly translate dancefloor lexicon to a live band setting and vice versa. “Love Me Now” captures them doing this at their best. The chorus finds Barthel pouting, “Love me, love me, love me” with a blase comportment more readily palatable than the strained utterances of the previous track. “Let Me Down” finds her returning to the high register, atop a backdrop of swirling synths flourishes, perfectly situated stutters, static snares, and driving, gritty bass. “News Today” shifts gears, creating an almost Vaporwave vibe, with detuned, echoing choir snippets and dub-style, delayed hi hats. Falling naturally into character in the new context, Barthell loosens up, sprawls out, and gets more expressive than we’re used to. A striking departure from her usual upbeat exercises, the track finds her relishing the moment and the open space, her free maneuvers giving way to pitch shifts and various effects, at moments echoing Little Dragon’s Yukimi Nagano. The song ends abruptly upon the line “I was happy too,” as if shamelessly venturing to end on a high note.  

“Mister Impossible” gets off to a cinematic start, with reverb-soaked, grandiose gestures befitting the track’s name, picking up a beat even more fitting, readymade for an opening titles sequence. Carter returns for this one, switching duties with Barthel, and the chemistry between the two is immaculate. “Glowing” swings back center, with ‘80s-informed ambiance, and Barthell again sounding crisp and clear, front and center, bellowing out era-appropriate assertions like ”No one saved us,” delivered with something between a sob and a smile. “Gaunt Kids” rides on massive, resounding drums, and jarring drones, over which Carter gets the full robot treatment, and Barthel accompanies him with breathy intimations. The power dynamic shifts upon the chorus, when her whispers take center stage, and his raspy contributions add edge. Closer “Ceremony” has echoes of Lana Del Rey in Barthel’s camp, vaguely 1950s affectations. The song builds elegantly until all is enveloped in haze, with searing guitars, seeping washes, feedback, and delayed, bellowing adlibs blending into a triumphant last hurrah. 

Phantogram made such an impact with their distinctive sound that they found themselves into a real predicament. The style they helped pioneer and bring to wide audiences came to so saturate playlists that even the most consummate productions of the same style would come across now to most as painful. On the other hand, their entire identity, as a band, would be lost if they departed too hastily from their sonic template. “Ceremony” plays it safe, and ultimately a little too safe. There is plenty to enjoy here, particularly the wealth of detail in sound design, whimsical touches, accents and flourishes, etc. But the songs, altogether still sound a bit stale. Still, there are a few cuts thrown in that breathe plenty fresh energy into the record, and hint at promising directions to come.

Ceremony” is available March 6 on Apple Music.