When I first sat down to write my review for Phantogram's Voices, I listened to the first three tracks and thought, This is like The xx meets The Weeknd meets J Dilla meets a little Nine Inch Nails and some Radiohead. While Voices has qualities that a lot of those artists bring to their own work, it fails to offer the variety from start to finish that makes a lot of those influences successful. While there are good songs on the record, it's no coincidence that they are found at the beginning of the album; they have their own identity because listeners—who I assume will listen to the tracks in order—don't have the rest of the album to compare them to. As the album progresses, the same concepts and effects keep coming back, and some of the first few tracks' most redeeming qualities aren't re-explored frequently enough. Eventually, the ideas that make the first three songs enjoyable undercut the rest of the album. The album is arranged so that its bookends are its best tracks; such logic isn't unique to Voices and doesn't necessarily make or break this or any record, but when those bookends come on either side of like-sounding songs, it might be difficult for listeners to get to the finish.
I wonder, really, if the album should actually be called Voice. There are two people behind Phantogram—Sarah Barthel and Josh Carter—and each has vocals in the foreground on the album. Barthel, however, is by far the duo's best vocalist and offers the most compelling artistic contributions. Unfortunately, Barthel's lyrics are cheapened by the heavy use of vocal effects (and the tracks featuring Carter's lead singing). On “Black Out Days,” the album's second track, it's easy to tell how talented of a singer Barthel is. She forcefully explores a wide vocal range and hits us with a memorable melody. Almost everywhere else on the album, her singing is laden with echoes and whispering effects that stretch her vocals thin and render the actual words near-meaningless. At times, it's difficult to understand what she sings; that's fine—plenty of people have made a damn good living writing famous songs that their listeners sing incorrectly for decades. The effects, however, give the lyrics an ethereal airiness that moves almost all concern away from the words themselves. For this reason, there's very little quoting in my track-by-track review. With so little to hold on to, listeners of Voices really would have benefited from a more forceful, front-and-center performance from Barthel. There's clearly songwriting potential on Voices—as in “Fall In Love” and “My Only Friend”—but it isn't given the room it needs to become something that will bring listeners in and keep them there.
Some of the best qualities of Voices are its beats. A lot of the cadences Phantogram uses are fit for the club and should be turned up loud in the car. They are worthy of a dance and a head-nod. While they sometimes don't offer enough variety within a single track to keep them interesting, they usually offer an intriguing contrast when put underneath Barthel's vocals. These beats make me wonder if Phantogram might consider a handful of cameos from hip-hop artists on their next album. A song like “Howling At The Moon” would benefit from such a performance. I can hear someone like Big Boi on that track. All of this repeats my biggest frustration with the album: Voices is lacking the necessary variety to keep listeners interested on a track-by-track, minute-by-minute basis. The detailed review for each track reflects that.
It's puzzling that a band whose eggs are entirely set in the electronic basket has offered up a conceptually narrow album. There isn't a lot of variety here from song to song, and large parts of the vast, near-endless spectrum of possibilities in electronic music and related technologies are left unexplored. Apart from keyboards, drum machines, heavy reliance on vocal effects, and some sampling, there isn't much else to the album, and certainly nothing that sounds truly innovative.
Perhaps, though, Phantogram isn't interested in that sort of listening experience. While this album doesn't intrinsically beg for a close, track-by-track listen, it is capable of being played in the background while you carry out some of your daily tasks and routines. I've already cleaned my house while this record played, and I found that listen much more enjoyable than the hard listen I gave it in order to write this review. While I don't think the record is particularly great, this characteristic isn't meant to be another knock on its quality. There's nothing wrong with a “set it and forget it” album. Plenty of good music—like some of Radiohead's more atmospheric and abstract work—is at its best when you can leave the room for a second to get the mail. Because Voices is so effects-heavy, and because Barthel's voice is often in the clouds, maybe this sort of listen is what it demands and is how it is best consumed. You'll be minding your own business, drifting along with the rhythm and vocals and the album will suddenly drop into a hip-hop heavy interlude complete with samples and scratchy glitches, and before you know it, it's got you dancing. Then, you'll finish sweeping the floor. There's nothing wrong with that.
"The lights on my face ate away my smile. Could it be that I fell apart?"