Music Reviews

Phantogram Voices

(Republic) Buy it from Insound Rating - 5/10

At a sold-out nightclub show this past November, the he-she duo from New York was firing on every imaginable cylinder.  Elaborate lighting rigs pulsed and flashed as a rowdy throng of bodies bobbed and bowed with each thunderous clap of bass.  Even vocalist Sarah Barthel seemed incredulous at the energetic reception, coyly introducing the next cut with something to the effect of “our record label doesn’t want us to play this song yet...but we’re going to anyway.”  So began, to uproarious applause, a grimy drop into “Fall in Love,” the standout first single off new LP Voices

Barthel paired with longtime friend Josh Carter to form Charlie Everywhere in 2007, but it took 2 EPs, 2 years, and a trademark concern for newly-named Phantogram to release Eyelid Movies, its debut LP.  With crackling and hesitant drumbeats, opening track Mouthful of Diamonds burst to life like freeze-locked foliage sensing its first spring.  Really, it said, you can judge this album by its cover. Foggy, nocturnal atmosphere billowed in from all sides, ushered forth by mid-tempo trip-hop rhythms, buzzing synths, meandering riffs, and Barthel’s dreamy vocal timbre. Though it lost focus over the final few tracks, the set’s solid first half was enough to secure success and sold-out venues, even 4 years after its initial release.

Phantogram were riding high at that nightclub in November, and thus sits the bar for Voices at the cartographical junction of Mt. Anticipation and Hype’s Crest.  For musical journeymen, no map is required to recognize the peril of this terrain: either trek skyward to newly charted heights, or unwittingly misstep into an obscure and potentially inescapable crevasse.  Unfortunately, Voices staggers dangerously toward the latter. 

The most disappointing difference between the two albums can be succinctly summarized as “more.”  Musically, more is always going on. From the get-go on Nothing but Trouble, the beats are busier.  Brash jumbles of chopped effects pulse atop a hyperactive drum machine.  Everything is forward, everything is equally emphasized, and no discernable focal point emerges.  Vocally, Carter is featured more prominently, which is inexplicable since his counterpart is quite obviously the more talented, textured, and charismatic singer. Voices has its own Running from the Cops as Carter steps up to the mic for aptly named Never Going Home, which never really goes anywhere at all.  Lyrically, everything is more monotonous. I Don’t Blame You, Never Going Home, and Howling at the Moon form a triumvirate of title repetition that leeches any enjoyment from future spins. Repeat patrons of Disney’s “It’s a Small World” boat ride will be elated, but for most, one time through will more than suffice.  All this is to say that more isn’t always better, and where Eyelid Movies blossomed in its breaths, Voices screams until it suffocates.

The good news, at least, is that Phantogram have made a solid album. The bad news is that it spans across their two LPs with plenty of forgettable filler in between.  On Voices, the one-two punch of Black Out Days and Falling in Love features the duo’s strongest, most defining elements. On the first, Barthel laments the “thousand voices howling in [her] head” as the bass line plummets to reveal a treble-based interval earworm. Pair these songs, and perhaps Bill Murray, with several standouts from their debut, and it’s easy to see how the band has garnered so much success as both collaborators and a standalone act.

With Voices, Phantogram have fallen off the path to glory.  A la 127 Hours (and Arctic Monkeys, musically), some sort of surgical self-reinvention is necessary to sever entrapping hindrances and redouble their ascent. With time and luck, they’ll emerge more focused and innovative with the commanding intent to please their fans and silence the voices of their critics.