Phantogram – Voices
Amidst the distractions of collaborations and EPs, Sarah Barthel and Josh Carter have spent the last four years working on a follow-up album to 2010’s highly acclaimed Eyelid Movie. Voices serves up a fearless, hands-on approach to the rebirth of trip-hop through the eyes of two New Yorkers. ‘Nothing but trouble’ is a ballsy opener which screams with Portishead ingenuity. Sarah’s vocals trickles up and down the stairs of a track bathed in unbashful sultriness.
One of the best tracks on the album, Black Out Days, is a sexy, pulsating mix which manages to break away as ‘cool’ despite the catchy, repetitive chorus “eh eh eh eh eh” worthy of Rihanna’s pop-lyricism. A dirty snare propels the listener through buzzing sythns, stadium drums and ends with a reflective Sarah singing over a dwindling piano. By the third track, we strongly see the RnB /Hip Hip spine that shone through their previous releases. Fall In Love is a perfect example of Phantogram’s formula of (Sampling + Cross-beat riff) + Vocal line\Instrumental breaks = Track. It’s a tried and tested pattern and it works brilliantly throughout an album that is held together by various themes.
Josh manages to supplant his vocals on two tracks, Never Going Home and I Don’t Blame You. It would be unfair to say that they let the album down, but his appearances are straightforward, monotonous ballads, which don’t garner the same power and attention. Especially when he repeats “if this is love I’m never going home” before, thankfully, being cut off by an abrupt jump to silence. Josh is a pivotal element, if not the most important in the construction of the music but, he simply gives the listener a hiatus from Sarah’s beautiful yet relentless, twisting vocals. And the more time we spend away from Sarah’s cross-beat lyricism, the more excited we are for her return.
Death is a common feature laid in more than half the tracks: “I will know to die” (My Only Friend), “I’ve got the feeling we’re gonna die” (Celebrating Nothing). But somehow, we can confidently say that this album is not asphyxiated by it. Voices is mainly focused on the destruction of things; whether metaphysical or spiritual, death is the catalyst for change in relationships, neurosis and for revealing secrets and lies. ‘Dark’ should never be used to describe this album as each track is steadily searching for the light.
Some critics hoped they would be more ‘experimental’ with this release, but is being an electronic, breakbeat, pop-rock outfit not enough these days? Sarah and Josh convincingly manage to be both a ‘90s guitar band whilst wearing the mask of MF Doom. The duo commented that they bonded in high school over the likes of J Dilla, The Roots and Busta Rhymes whilst still sharing an appreciation for The Beatles – the latter giving them inspiration to create “rich and loud” pop melodies. Voices is more than an uppercut of an album, it’s a finishing move. After this release, Phantogram should confidently be able to walk across the limp bodies of any doubters.