Phantogram could’ve very easily gotten lost in the massive wave of boy/girl electronic duos that made their way into our ears since 2009. They’ve rode the wave along with bands like The Bird and the Bee, Matt and Kim, Chairlift, and Sleigh Bells into that hip hop-inflected indie dance pop that was either catchy or grating. Fortunately for Phantogram they are blessed with the amazing voice of Sarah Barthel and the studio prowess of Josh Carter. They’re unique in a sea of many interesting but not necessarily long lasting bands. Their 2009 full-length debut was a rather breathtaking album filled with rough-around-the-edges pop tracks hidden under electronic beats and at times an industrial roughness that made you think you were hearing something more than just electronic pop. Barthel’s voice is what made that album so unique, while Carter’s programming and studio expertise made the beats more than just cookie cutter loops run through some Pro Tools plug-in. Eyelid Movies felt organic, not processed. Four years and one e.p. later Barthel and Carter have returned with a polished piece of electro/industrial pop gold called Voices. While not as sublime and dark as it’s predecessor, Voices builds on Phantogram’s strengths: Sarah Barthel and those beats.
Right out of the gate “Nothing But Trouble” comes roaring out of the speakers, all studio shine and spit-polished. There’s no mistaking Barthel’s voice, for sure. But there’s something a little stale about the beat. Nothing distinguishable from any other electronic band playing on internet radio. Mid-song Carter comes in with some guitar work that is reminiscent of classic 80s Cure and brings the song up a few notches. We then go right into the club banger “Black Out Days” that seems to want to be some sort of radio hit. Nothing wrong with that, I suppose. It just sorta goes through the motions. Decent enough, but as one 80’s commercial pondered, “Where’s the beef?” The answer is “Fall In Love”, a soul-inflected track that reminds the listener why Phantogram is so great. All the elements are there, popping and clicking. Now we’re talking. Barthel’s ethereal voice floats above the excellent programming. This is 21st century pop music at it’s finest. Catchy as hell, yet still interesting and new to the ears. Hello, Phantogram. “Never Going Home Again” sounds like a b-side from Phil Collins’ No Jacket Required, with Carter singing and giving us something to savor and reminisce with at the same time. This is the kind of track that would’ve been a huge radio hit in 1985. Sadly, neither pop music or radio exist like this anymore.
Okay, so pretty much after the first two songs this album kicks into gear and becomes this massive record filled with ear candy and interesting production. “The Day You Died” is big and emotional with a chorus that soars. “Howling At The Moon” brings back some of that weirdness Eyelid Movies delivered in spades. You’ll be cranking this and blowing the speakers in your Camry for sure. “Bill Murray” is sublime. A beautiful ballad that should be playing at the coolest proms on the planet this spring. “My Only Friend” closes this record out on a melancholy note. Much like Eyelid Movies excellent closer “10,000 Claps”, “My Only Friend” is proof of the power in Sarah Barthel’s sweet, beautiful, and longing voice. The production is 80s-centric reverbed beats and hand claps. It’s perfect.
Voices continues what Eyelid Movies started, with better production and bigger choruses. While there have been some really great and interesting guy/gal duos over the last few years, Phantogram have proven they’ve got staying power. They’ve got the beats. They’ve got the voice. They’ve got the songs.