The Other Ghost Writers — Saratoga Springs’ Phantogram is hauntingly good

The 11 tracks on Phantogram’s debut album, “Eyelid Movies,” already show a band — a duo, actually — with a wealth of ideas. From techno-soul to post-punk song structures, from ballads to half-sung rap, Josh Carter and Sarah Barthel, surround their music with a mix of down-tempo beats, thick guitar riffs and sometimes ethereal/sometimes menacing synths. A teeny-weeny little bit of Portishead, yes, but the group is funkier, cooler and, well, more East Coast … Saratoga Springs, N.Y. to be exact. They make it all the way cross-country this weekend to treat Goleta and the Mercury Lounge to their ghostly effects.

Indeed, ghostly effects are why “Phantogram” is such an appropriate name for the group, and much better than their first choice, Charlie Everywhere, which they had until signing with Barsuk Records.

“It was a half-baked name to begin with,” says Carter. “Once we started talking to record labels, we thought, if our music is going to be exposed to a wider audience, now is a good time to change it to something we actually like.”

Though the music sounds like it came from a small bedroom somewhere in Brooklyn, Phantogram never happened until Carter and Barthel found themselves back in their hometown. They had been teenage friends — Barthel lived next door to Carter’s best friend, but she had a trampoline, and her house was the street corner kids’ hangout — and now they rekindled their friendship. Carter had gone to NYC with his brother to start a band but had left slightly disappointed.

“My brother is a good songwriter,” he says, “but I just wanted to pursue my own ideas.” Barthel was home after earning her art degree, and Carter slowly discovered Sarah’s hidden talents for singing and playing piano. Carter asked her to sing on a song he had written, and “it came out pretty cool. We pretty much thought, hey, let’s start a band.”

Their journey from demo to rising stars has been relatively quick at 18 months. They have played CMJ and opened for School of Seven Bells, along with heavy play on some NPR stations. Barsuk Records heard their demos, and both the label and the band agreed to put the music out as is.

“It sounded cool the way it was,” says Carter. “We could have recorded everything on the album, but it would have lost its original essence and feeling.”

That’s a fortunate thing, because the thrill of “Eyelid Movies” is the grit that gets underneath the sophisticated fingernails of all the tracks. Drum samples are often scratchy, and the vocals may also be chopped and changed, too. When Barthel sounds too lovely, Carter will overlay his grungy vocals on top. Yet it never loses sight of delivering catchy riffs, or “street-beat psyche-pop,” as they’ve been called.

The group records in a barn owned by Carter’s parents, located 40 minutes north of Saratoga, in a small town called Easton. On the outside, it’s a traditional red-wall-white-trim barn. Inside, “it’s a massively disheveled room with tons of broken speakers and cords and wires and a drum kit, and there are a bunch of percussive instruments, a few samplers, guitar pedals — broken and not broken — crappy keyboards, cool keyboards, a laptop, a few mixing boards. It’s just a great place to be creative. Sometimes we wish it was a bit cleaner.”

PHANTOGRAM
Where: Mercury Lounge, 5871 Hollister Ave., in Goleta
When: 9:30 p.m. Saturday
Cost: $8
Information: 967-0907, www.myspace.com/mercurylounge

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