On “Don’t Move,” Phantogram’s Sarah Barthel makes an impossible demand: “Keep your body still,” a line that’s satirically placed at the center of the New York duo’s most ass-shaking-est beat to date. The irony is even more pronounced when considering Phantogram’s small but percussive body of work, particularly the way in which their debut, Eyelid Movies, with its crisp urban beats and litany of slick electronic sounds, plays like a funky, post-millenial resurrection of late-’90s trip-hop, casting Phantogram as savvy downtempo purveyors with some brains behind the beats.
While the same kind of praise can be heaped on Nightlife, it’s difficult to ignore the suspicion that the release is less of an EP than a single with five B-sides. “Don’t Move” is just that good, and it finds the band synthesizing all of their strengths into a four-minute electro masterpiece, teasing listeners with a clipping, jazzy sample throughout before resolving powerfully in a final, hip-gyrating chorus. “Shake, shake, shake,” Barthel intones, at long last giving us permission to dance.
The problem is that the cerebral joy of “Don’t Move” is surrounded by what sounds like Eyelid Movies’s half-warmed leftovers. The songs aren’t terrible by any stretch of the imagination: “Make a Fist” and “16 Years” would have been strong entries on the band’s debut, and the jarring dichotomy of “Turning Into Stone,” where stilted, tinny brass accompaniments are paired with a plush production of drumpads and various ambient synths, proves Phantogram is into challenging their audience just as much as beguiling them. The real issue is all about expectations. “Don’t Move” marks a drastic maturation for the band, one in which their electronic aesthetics are assembled into a grander kind of dance-pop without getting compromised or otherwise dumbed down. However unfairly, the rest of Nightlife doesn’t quite meet those lofty heights.
Thus, the weaker tracks seem even more anemic in comparison: Josh Carter continues to struggle with his vocal duties, his voice coming off like an injured howl caked in tunnel reverb on “A Dark Tunnel,” exacerbating the already repetitious nature of Phantogram’s music. The title track is a demure little sidepath, eschewing the band’s trip-hop percussion for something altogether more plain and, ultimately, boring, despite Barthel’s unguarded vocal performance. If not for the brilliance of “Don’t Move,” Nightlife could have been more appropriately titled Eyelid Movies: The Addendum.