When Phantogram’s debut album, Eyelid Movies, was released on the indie label Barsuk in 2009, I knew almost nothing about them. Just that they were a duo. I simply bought the album after reading a few positive reviews and hearing samples online. And I immediately fell in love with its quirky electronic music, which didn’t adhere to the distinctions of any particular genre. When I told friends about them, I simply described them as electronica. After listening to their new album, Voices, their first for Universal Republic, that’s still how I would describe them, as their sound incorporates various elements of rock, pop, trip hop and even hip-hop, but always has a very electronic vibe with its use of samples and loops along with synthesizers, guitars and various other instruments.
The duo consists of Josh Carter and Sarah Barthel. Josh plays guitars and Sarah plays keyboards. If I understand correctly, both produce, sample and program their music. Meanwhile, both sing, though Sarah performs the lead vocals on at least two thirds of their songs. Voices was co-produced by the duo and John Hill, who’s most known for his work with Christina Aguilera, Santigold and M.I.A. (Most recently, John co-wrote and co-produced the Shakira and Rihanna duet “Can’t Remember to Forget You.”)
I’m sure that some people will say that Phantogram sold out because they signed with a major label, but, really, what’s changed? Their songs might not be quite so quirky now, true, but they’re still plenty rough around the edges and are a far cry from radio-friendly, mainstream pop. In fact, as catchy as many of the songs on Voices are, I highly doubt that any of them will ever get any airplay on top 40 radio. And I’m pretty sure that Universal Republic knows it and doesn’t mind. I think this is one of those rare instances where a major label signs an artist and just lets them continue doing what they’re doing, simply giving them greater exposure. If Phantogram’s new songs are slightly less abstract than some of their earlier material it’s probably because they’ve become better, more well-focused songwriters, not because they were trying to write hit singles.
The album opens with “Nothing But Trouble,” a gritty tune with raw percussion and burbling, synthesized bass. “I’m nothing but trouble / I’m losing my mind,” Sarah sings, her haunting vocals sounding as though they’re coming from far away, off in the distance, the edgy music considerably louder in the mix. And that’s just perfect, really, being that if someone was losing their mind there would be an awful lot of noise cluttering up their head, muting their thoughts.
The second track is “Black Out Days,” a trippy yet anxious number that was the first track on their self-titled EP released last year. It delivers punchy but jittery beats on top of layers of harmonious vocals during the warning of a chorus: “Stay away-ay ya / Away-ay ya / Away-ay ya.” In the background, Sarah sings, “I’m hearing voices and they’re haunting my mind.” At the end, all we hear is subtle, chilling piano as she sings, “Black out days / I don’t recognize you anymore.” At this point, it would seem as though the album is a portrait of someone who’s going insane. Certainly not the sort of songs you’d be writing if you were selling out.
If Voices does have a potential hit, it’s a fairly massive tune with clattering beats called “Fall In Love,” though it’s hardly the sort of lovey dovey track you’d expect from a song with that title. “Love, it wasn’t ours to recognize / To see, I was the reason you feel sick inside,” Sarah sings in the beginning. “Fall in me / I’ll let you bleed,” she declares over nearly frantic music during the chorus. She might as well sing, if you fall in love with me, you’re completely fucked. And so the album continues to have that insanity theme. BUT, not every song on the record is so unhinged…
“Never Going Home” is an especially trippy but considerably brighter tune. “If this is love, I’m never going home,” Josh sings with gusto during the vibrant chorus, which kicks things up a notch or three after the mellow verses. “Daddy, you point the gun / All this holiday is fun,” he croons during one of those verses. It’s a bit melancholic and makes one wonder if he’s just being sarcastic during the chorus but I’m pretty sure this is just his version of a happy love song.
One of the album’s best tracks is the haunting ballad “Bill Murray,” which was given its title because the duo have always pictured “a sad Bill Murray” in the video for the song, which they seriously want him to star in. It begins with subtle guitar — playing a lovely dream pop riff — before humming synth and minimalist beats join the picture and Sarah starts singing, her voice especially ethereal here. “Wave goodbye to your family and friends / Those lost ants,” she sings during the eerie final verse. “And your eyes bleed when you see / ‘Cause nothing works inside.”
Ultimately, Voices is still the Phantogram we heard on Eyelid Movies. If there’s a difference, it’s their level of passion, their volume of intensity, which has gone from a solid 8 to a mind-blowing 10. To be sure, I don’t think they’ve tried to make their music more accessible here. I think they’ve just tried to make it bigger. And in this case, bigger is better.
You can now stream the entire album on NPR: http://www.npr.org/2014/02/11/271517810/first-listen-phantogram-voices