Release Date: Feb 18, 2014
Record label: Republic
Genre(s): Pop/Rock, Alternative/Indie Rock, Indie Electronic
The upstate New York duo Phantogram was made for these times. “Bad dreams never affect me,” Sarah Barthel sings on the titular track. “I’m just a scene in a movie.” It’s a coy trick, this cool indifference, because the wounds of Barthel’s heart peek around nearly every corner on Voices, Phantogram’s major label debut. That duality is omnipresent in the production of nearly every song too: With the exception of a few slower, moodier tracks, Voices would hit just as hard in the club as it would in the bedroom of, say, a misunderstood teenager who gazes deeply at stars in a shroud of anger or melancholy.
Review Summary: Beautiful contrastDeception and contrast are no strangers to music, particularly more complex forms of music such as progressive rock, jazz, and classical music. After all, it's neat to hear something that will catch you off guard once in a while instead of remaining a one-trick pony. While plenty of albums are placed in this "one-trick pony" category out of remaining dedicated to a certain crowd and comfort zone, contrasts and sonic shifts are often welcome to change the pace a bit.
There’s a fairly common trope dominating parts of the indie music world and it goes like this: pixie voice female leads a band surrounded by male orchestrated electronics. Just look at the way Purity Ring and Chvrches have been lauded by critics. There are even mutated versions of this theme: the twisted insanity of Crystal Castles and the one-woman pop machine that is Grimes.
Voices is Phantogram's full-length follow up to 2009's Eyelid Movies (EPs have been released in the interim), and the Saratoga Springs duo stays true to its layered, beat-driven, ambient method. This time around, however, the songs are tighter, and with their signature multi-tracking and moody approach, the album benefits enormously from the added structure. .
After making some noise with their debut album, Eyelid Movies, which straddled the line between trip-hop and shoegaze with the skill of an acrobat, Phantogram have refined and expanded their sound in really interesting ways. The duo of Sarah Barthel and Josh Carter have added R&B influences and hip-hop swagger to the mix, refined their songwriting skills, and in Barthel's case, become a very powerful vocal presence. Their second album, 2014's Voices, shows how far they have come and, despite some minor flaws, ends up being a really solid and deep modern pop album that sounds perfectly crafted and infused with real emotions.
When Phantogram released their first LP, Eyelid Movies, in 2009, they were the little electropop duo that could. Earlier that year, Sleigh Bells erupted on the scene, defining a new electropop sound and threatening to overshadow their peers. As Eyelid Movies made the indie blog circuit, it gained some well-earned acclaim. The duo of Josh Carter (guitar, vocals) and Sarah Barthel (keyboards, vocals) found a sweet spot between the swaggering guitar-led heroics of The Kills and the grungy, aggressive pop sound that Sleigh Bells had just popularized.
We poor, embattled British critics are in for a hard time writing about the new record from Phantogram. I know, I know - woe is us. Still, the problem is an intractable one, so have a heart. It’s this: those with even a passing interest in Voices will have already heard it. And we’re not ….
Self-styled "street beat" exponents, Phantogram are Brooklyn's Sarah Barthel and Josh Carter, whose debut album, Eyelid Movies, was compared to Portishead and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. Five years on, they're still a giddy blend of clanging electro and Barthel's aching voice, though Phantogram are stranger than most post-xx acts. Nothing But Trouble echoes uber-goths Bauhaus, while Never Going Home is the soundtrack to Twin Peaks had Phil Spector been commissioned to write it.
Amid the distractions of collaborations and EPs, Phantogram’s Sarah Barthel and Josh Carter have spent the last four years working on a follow-up album to the 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.
Though the expediency of the internet has condensed the measure of instant success from “overnight sensation” to “mid-afternoon phenom,” Phantogram offer a case study that slow-and-steady can still win the occasional race. Theirs is the sort of popularity that’s easy to overlook: the New York duo’s 2010 debut full-length for Barsuk, Eyelid Movies, quietly seeped out into a post-chillwave marketplace overrun with atmospheric synth-pop acts, and yet here they are four years later headlining 3,000-cap venues like New York’s Terminal 5 and the Hollywood Palladium. Sure, a few surprise collaborations with the likes of Big Boi and the Flaming Lips may have helped raised their stock in the interim, but, without the benefit of a runway breakout single or viral video, their exponential audience expansion appears to be more a product of old-fashioned word-of-mouth than click-of-mouse.
At a sold-out nightclub show this past November, the he-she duo from New York was firing on every imaginable cylinder. Elaborate lighting rigs pulsed and flashed as a rowdy throng of bodies bobbed and bowed with each thunderous clap of bass. Even vocalist Sarah Barthel seemed incredulous at the energetic reception, coyly introducing the next cut with something to the effect of “our record label doesn’t want us to play this song yet...but we’re going to anyway.” So began, to uproarious applause, a grimy drop into “Fall in Love,” the standout first single off new LP Voices.
Phantogram's highly polished debut, Eyelid Movies, is very much an album born of 2010, and their relatively similar output since then—most notably “Don't Move” from their Nightlife EP—suggests that the Greenwich, New York-based duo would need to pivot further away from their original blueprint to avoid the dreaded sophomore slump, which is both very real and very pervasive, even for artists who seemingly possess an unassailable combination of discipline and talent. But by broadening their palette on Voices, Sarah Barthel and Josh Carter have also defanged their music, resulting in a litany of such inoffensive and undistinguished electronic music that it could soundtrack a smartphone commercial. The album's lack of focus stems from one fundamental change: Phantogram has become a gentler band, slowing their usual breakneck pace into something far more docile and stationary.
Although Phantogram’s 2009 debut full-length Eyelid Movies was sonically fearless—influences included everything from quaint trip-hop and fuzzy hip-hop to fragile synthpop—it also felt somewhat disjointed. The duo behind the album (vocalist/keyboardist Sarah Barthel and vocalist/guitarist Josh Carter) clearly had a vision for where they wanted the music to go, but their songwriting and arranging skills hadn’t yet caught up to their ambition. Smartly, Phantogram spent the subsequent years collecting experiences—they collaborated with Big Boi and Flaming Lips, and toured with a murderers’ row of indie and electronic bands—and recording a series of EPs that incrementally helped them refine (and define) a distinct voice.
There’s a special brand of music for the insomniacs among us. Music for the hours you should be sleeping, but can’t. For when it’s late at night, and you’re not tired at all. Music that’s electric. Songs that buzz..
When you think of Phantogram, you’d never imagine the source of their sound would be a rural setting. Surprisingly, the pair—Sarah Barthel and Josh Carter—record their music in a barn in upstate New York, near where they grew up. Combining an electronic pulse with steamy vocals, their music is more suitable for a late-night, big city drive than a rustic getaway.Their latest album, Voices, showcases more maturity and focus than their previous work.
It’s tricky to read intention into the vagaries of production technique, but if the mixes on Phantogram’s “Voices,” the second album from the New York duo of Sarah Barthel and Josh Carte, are any indication, they’ve become more comfortable asserting their personalities in the seven years since they formed. Unlike their breakout “Eyelid Movies” in 2010, the vocals here are pushed to the fore, mostly unobscured by effects. This is still a heavily produced effort, with songs like “Black Out Days” draped in enough ambience to make a Foley artist jealous.
Phantogram Voices (Barsuk) Phantogram's 2010 debut Eyelid Movies wasn't an album to sing along to. After maybe hundreds of listens to arresting standout "When I'm Small," yours truly still can't tell you what Sarah Barthel is crooning through the sexy production swirl. Never did it occur to me that it might be important. The New York duo's second LP, Voices, corrects that small oversight.
Phantogram has occasionally been portrayed in the past as a little band that could. But there has never been anything remotely small about the enthralling electro-pop sound of the duo from Greenwich, N.Y., or the rapidly expanding fan base that has grown right along with the group. Their music has always been more expansive and stylishly metropolitan that the humble confines of the upstate New York barn where it was born, as Sarah Barthel and Josh Carter have consistently injected a modern pulse and intoxicating texture into their swelling songs.