PHOX Wows with Contemplative Harmonies at Brighton Music Hall

PHOX, an indie-folk band from Wisconsin, is a joy to listen to. Last Friday, they played a sold-out Brighton Music Hall show on their national tour. The Hall’s muted lighting, brick walls, and exposed ceiling supports made for a fitting venue for the band’s classic indie sound. At 9 p.m., opening band Cuddle Magic began the show, playing a set that had flashes of brilliance but was mostly too generic to really shine in the face of the band to come. Cuddle Magic released their latest album “Ashes/Axes” on the day of the show and are currently touring with PHOX.

The crowd appeared to enjoy their performance enough to provide raucous applause at the end of each song and, more impressively, to observe a few minutes of almost complete silence when Cuddle Magic made their way into the center of the room for a “super quiet song.” The band played a soulful rendition of “Expectations” off their 2010 album “Pictures” in the midst of the crowd. After returning to the stage and finishing their set, Cuddle Magic signed off, and PHOX took the stage.

PHOX does not seem to be touring for anything particularly timely. Their debut and latest album released in 2014, though they are currently putting together music for a second album. (Perhaps, as their website says, they are just trying to escape the Wisconsin winter.) So when lead vocalist Monica Martin opened with an oldie but a goodie—a really, really goodie—“Kingfisher,” fans weren’t likely to complain. Over the course of the evening, the band ran through other favorites like “1936,” “Slow Motion,” and “Evil.” In total, they played a 14-song set, one of which Martin dedicated to Planned Parenthood, and a two-song encore.

PHOX’s music is serenely beautiful and often evokes a yearning for simplicity. Each member of the band is individually quite talented—Jason Krunnfusz provided great harmony and solid bass lines, and Martin’s smoky soprano is unmistakably the musical calling card of the ensemble—but the true joy of listening to PHOX is hearing their talents mesh together. The harmonies and countermelodies of their discography create a soundscape unlike anything else in modern music. Each song communicates its own particular emotional message, leading the listener through the story behind each piece. Listening to the studio recordings, one learns that story through lyrics; at this show, where audio issues and inadvisable live mixing decisions pushed the words into almost indistinguishable reverb, the music itself did the job. It was at once less clear and more pure than what one could hear on Spotify or YouTube.

Early in the show, Martin segued to another song with an offhand comment: “Here is a song about something else sad,” referring to the early pieces. Though it is surely somewhat melancholic, PHOX’s work is not sad, per se; songs are about loss, sadness, and “attractive people being indifferent to you,” as Martin explained one new song’s inspiration. But musically, playfulness abounds in their discography, with sweeping highs from the strings, lively bass lines, and often groovy beats from the percussion. So, despite Martin’s warning, PHOX’s concert, like their songs, wasn’t really sad, but rather as complex in meaning as the human experience: sad in subject, but contented in reflection.

—Crimson Staff Writer Noah F. Houghton can be reached at noah.houghton@thecrimson.com.

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