Phantogram - Voices

Despite a few highlights and the band's talented lead singer, Phantogram's second album ultimately misses its mark.

Additional Info

4.8

ALBUM: Phantogram

ARTIST: Voices

2014

Electronic

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?"

1. Nothing But Trouble
Phantogram front-loaded their best tracks on Voices, and “Nothing But Trouble” is a good starting point for the album. The track begins with a whining guitar and is followed by a synth-heavy club beat and Barthel's airy, driving vocals. In the song's fourth minute, we fall into a sampled hip-hop cadence that provides a nice break from the previous rhythms and ethereal nature of the song. This is one of the best songs on the album, but it might have been better placed in the album's sluggish middle.7.5
2. Black Out Days
Barthel's best vocal work is featured on “Black Out Days.” Her voice is most forceful here, stripped of the whispery effects that undercut it elsewhere on the album, and offers a nice chant-like wail in the chorus. Late in the song, her voice is sampled and cut up over top of the beat. The song ends with only her voice: “Black out days, I don't recognize you anymore.” This song is one that would be the easiest to sing along to, and it will be one of the few I'll return to on a regular basis.8.0
3. Fall In Love
The beat here is heavy on the sludge, its buzzing juxtaposed with Barthel's thin vocals. She sings, “The lights on my face ate away my smile. Could it be that I fell apart?” Clearly, Barthel is capable of writing captivating lyrics, but as I mentioned above, all of the vocal effects end up robbing the lyrics of much of their potential force. The groove-shift that leads to the chorus is welcome, and it gets the head bobbing a little. After three songs, I begin to fear that all of the tracks on the album are going to sound the same.7.0
4. Never Going Home
Immediately, I find myself wanting Barthel back on the microphone. Carter's vocals are in the foreground here, and his performance as front-man seems out of place. It's as if he found a never-before-heard Pink Floyd track and remixed it, but the lyrics aren't as good as anything Roger Waters would write, and his guitar work is ordinary. The beat doesn't have the same club or hip-hop vibes to it, which could have been a nice change, but it doesn't offer anything of interest—some sort of conceptual contrast, perhaps—against Carter's vocals. I've mentioned that I wonder why the band doesn't make better use of Barthel's vocals, but I'm totally puzzled by Carter's time in the spotlight.2.5
5. The Day You Died
This song never reaches the emotional potential inherent in its title. Barthel sings, “Strange, it didn't affect me,” which is compelling given the subject matter, but the track is too formulaic. The repeated guitar riff is composed entirely of quarter notes and the beat isn't as exciting or varied as “Fall In Love” or “Nothing But Trouble.” Here, Barthel's vocals aren't undercut by the effects but by her conservative delivery. At this point, I'm wondering why Phantogram doesn't realize its best bet is to let Barthel shine.4.0
6. Howling At the Moon
The beat is this track's redeeming quality, as it goes through several melodies and modulations to offer a variety of cadences that's missing elsewhere on the album. Barthel sings, “At night I cry and howl at the moon.” Certainly, these are not the most exciting or original lyrics, and by this point, they are performed in a way that has become familiar—perhaps boring. In the third minute of the track, a new keyboard melody comes in over a stripped-down drum beat. This offers listeners some time to groove, but it can't overcome the sluggishness of the album's accumulating familiarities.5.0
7. Bad Dreams
Speaking of songs becoming familiar, Barthel sings, “Bad dreams never affect me” in a way that's almost identical to the similar line in “The Day You Died.” There's a mildly interesting snare cadence rambling and scattered in the background, but this track's spare nature doesn't make up ground with listeners. Barthel's vocals in the chorus remind listeners that she can really, really sing. If they're like me, they're also led to wonder, again, why her vocal talents aren't more frequently on full display. The track ends with Carter playing a three-note rhythm on his guitar. Things are getting boring.3.0
8. Bill Murray
There isn't much going on here. The beat is slow and spare, as are Barthel's vocals. The chorus is probably the albums airy-est. There's a heavier reliance on stringed instruments to accompany the vocals, and some re-sampling of the vocals works to add a little variety to the track's end. We're far-removed from the album's first three tracks. I'm not sure what purpose this one serves.3.0
9. I Don't Blame You
Carter's second track, “I Don't Blame You” offers a familiar take on a relationship on the rocks. Carter repeats the track's title in the chorus, which occurs over a hyper-noisy instrumental track, and he concludes, “I should've slept it off. I should've stayed in bed. I should've took your call.” The noisy chorus makes an attempt at an emotional peak, but at this point in the album, it's difficult to ask listeners for their company to that peak.2.5
10. Celebrating Nothing
A return to a quicker tempo and heavier club beat, “Celebrating Nothing” offers a little more than the previous three tracks. I find myself wishing The Weeknd were singing over this beat. Perhaps it's the song's bleak subject matter: “Give me a reason to stay alive. I've got the feeling we're gonna die.” There was an opportunity here to offer a re-thinking of the beat within the framework of the song, as in the album's opening track, but that doesn't happen. The song suffers from tediousness as a result.4.0
11. My Only Friend
The album's closing track begins quietly: “I had all the stars with you. I had enough.” From the beginning, it's obvious that this track is an attempt at a big, emotional finish. It continually builds, adding bass synth and piano as the song progresses. Eventually, the pattering drum machine joins in, and Barthel's vocals stretch out and become louder: “Hide your broken bones in my hands.” This is a much, much better song than the several that precede it, but I worry that listeners, at this point, have stopped listening.6.0
Written by P.J. Williams
P. J. Williams writes and teaches in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. His poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in Salamander, DIAGRAM, Nashville Review, Cincinnati Review, Salt Hill, Ninth Letter, and others.



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