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. As a result, Phantogram’s major-label debut, Voices, very deliberately feels like a band fulfilling its potential.
Co-produced by John Hill (Santigold, M.I.A.), the record touches on several genres from torchy synthpop and soulful hip-hop to jackhammering electro and melancholy rock. It also explodes with rhythm—fat buzzing beats, snapping fingers, quick-cut samples, hissing percussion, and dank drums—and moody electronic production. Both Barthel and Carter sound more confident; the former especially comes into her own as a vocalist, exhibiting the ability to let loose or show restraint as needed. “My Only Friend” starts off as a quiet piano-and-voice song and ends in an attack of drilling keyboards and clipped drums; “Fall In Love” grafts a ’90s R&B-sounding chorus to funky synths; and “Howling At The Moon” feels like a rowdy soul-punk revue from another dimension.
Yet Voices’ thematic dread (both existential and reality-based) is more appealing than its diverse sonics, and gives the songs a pleasantly dark sheen. “Celebrating Nothing” is resigned to failure (“I've got the feeling we're gonna die”), while “Black Out Days” is disoriented by thoughts of an ex. In fact, Phantogram’s vision of love is the opposite of rosy: The romance described in “Fall In Love” is toxic and violent, while elsewhere, Carter sings, “If this is love, I’m never going home” on “Never Going Home.”
If the record has a weakness, it’s that Phantogram is sometimes slightly too beholden to its influences—“Celebrating Nothing” sounds like Yeah Yeah Yeahs circa It’s Blitz!, while “The Day You Died” feels like a pretty solid mellow Sleigh Bells outtake. But as a whole, Voices is a huge step forward for the band, one that smartly amplifies its atmospheric gifts through the lens of worthy songs.