Before recording a sophomore follow-up to much-buzzed-about debut Eyelid Movies, Phantogram twosome Josh Carter and Sarah Bartel set their focus on touring, then on releasing a six-track EP that hinted at the sonic direction they were headed in, followed by some collabs with Big Boi (on his well-regarded 2012 full-length Vicious Lies and Dangerous Rumors) and The Flaming Lips (on 2013’s The Terror), and more than four years later, finally landed in LA to record Voices (Universal Republic) with co-producer John Hill (M.I.A., Santigold).
Phantogram’s second full-length builds upon their mid-tempo synth-rock/trip-hop/dream-pop sound with everything they’d soaked up in the time since issuing Eyelid Movies. The hip-hop rhythm and production sensibilities are amped up so that the big bombastic synthesizer fuzz, chopped and spliced samples, glitchy stop-start breaks and stuttering grooves keep the tempo just as much as the machine drum beats and organic fills by guest Matt Chamberlain, who appears on the first and last tracks of the LP.
“Nothing But Trouble” opens the set with a screech of reverb and introduces the fuzzy synths that pulse and pound all throughout Voices, with Bartel’s coos, wails and echoing calls sliding over top like luscious electro-soulful icing. “Black Out Days” adds a note of urgency and a stuttered vocal refrain that’s mimicked with more complexity in the spliced-up samples and sexy lounge-hopping grooves of follow-up track and album stand-out, “Fall In Love”; its broken-record moments are lightened by softer, dreamier interludes and Bartel’s drifting bittersweet lyrics (“Love, it cut a hole into your eyes / You couldn't see, you were the car I crashed, now you're burning alive”). Another stand-out, “Howling,” touches on darker brooding sonic moods with its ‘80s guitar tones and an ominous dance-vibing rhythmic breakdown.
But Voices doesn’t quite hit the note of melodic sweetness in Eyelid Movies, instead, taking a darker, colder turn into electro experimentalism and more shoegaze-y territories, while a few too many tracks break up the momentum to a more lagging pace, including both cuts featuring the tender tenor of Carter; the melancholic “Never Going Home” and “I Don’t Blame You” are understated slow-burners that never really catch fire.
The good news is Phantogram has put out a rather strong sophomore full-length — nothing on here comes as a surprise, it’s the perfect length at 11 tracks and 43 minutes long, and there’s at least four singles that make for prime playlist material with sticky hooks and dance-inducing momentum. In the grand scheme of sophomore albums, you can’t get much better than that.
Critics’ Rating: 4 out of 5 Stars
"Fall in Love"
"Black Out Days"