Written by Michael Kundrath
The musical chemistry between Phantogram vocalist/keyboard player Sarah Barthel and guitarist/vocalist Josh Carter is downright electrifying on the band’s sophomore studio album, Voices, the highly anticipated major label follow-up to 2009’s Eyelid Movies.
Joining forces with veteran producer John Hill (Santigold, M.I.A.), the band’s fire-hot signature formula – an ultra compelling, groove-heavy blend of rock, pop, trip-hop, and soul – sounds like it’s been injected with a well-balanced dose of performance enhancers. Hill’s impact on the band is palpable; the songs are drenched in a heightened sense of confidence and swagger. The result is some of the freshest music released in recent memory.
The band’s musical influences are apparent in subtle and wonderful ways. Sarah Barthel’s captivating vocal style is a cross between Metric’s Emily Haines, Denali’s Maura Davis and Portishead’s Beth Gibbons, and she breathes serious life into the songs. Josh Carter’s musicianship is nothing short of stellar. His style, M83 meets Oddisee (the rapper/producer) meets Nine Inch Nails is an absolute thrill and unmistakably all his own. Heavy yet dance-able, complex yet simple, dreamy yet lucid. Carter also sings lead on the Broken Social Scene-esque “I Don’t Blame You” and “Never Going Home” which evokes the work of Phil Collins. The wide array of musical vibes hit like fireworks.
Album opener “Nothing But Trouble” is gripping with a hard-hitting drumbeat and ever-alluring vocals, kicking the album off on a high note that only mildly wanes throughout the entirety of the impressive eleven-track album. Ear candy like “Fall In Love” and “Howling At The Moon,” have that head-turning, quintessential blend of electro pop and hip-hop that instantly gets your blood pumping. These songs are meticulously threaded with big-time danceable MPC samples, warm, deep-toned synth parts that are practically buzzing, and clever, glitchy break beats that get stuck in your head for days.
Songs like “Bad Dream,” “Bill Murray,” “The Day You Died,” and “Celebrating Nothing” showcase evolution of the band’s songwriting. They ease up on the gas pedal in favor of a more slow-building, dreamy, atmospheric vibe, layered with twinkling guitars, laid back rhythms, and a ton of heart. Somewhat out of character, these songs save pay off towards the end rather than offering instant gratification, but trust me, the pay offs are well worth it. The few minor weak points on the record are “Never Go Home” and “My Only Friend,” but they’re hardly worth harping on because they’re really not bad songs, they simply lack some of the magic and hook of the rest of the album.
Undoubtedly deserving of a spot on the year-end “best of” lists, Voices is and will remain one of the strongest releases of 2014 through December. For their major label debut, Phantogram have hit a home run. These songs have style, substance and lasting power. One can only hope the record receives the full treatment at Republic and doesn’t suffer the not-so-wonderful fate of other great bands that sign with the big dogs. I have faith though, how can you not recognize something this good?