February 19, 2014

Test Spin: Voices, Phantogram

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It is the nature of music composed with machines and technology to possess similar sounds, similar to the that way manufactured goods are all identical. Thus, in digital genres like electronic, it is essential to avoid a mass-produced sound. Today, tools and software for music manipulation and production can be downloaded onto your average 21-year-old Daft-Punk-wannabe’s sticker-decorated Macbook. This has perhaps democratized the industry, but it has also flooded YouTube and SoundCloud with infinite pulsing, beeping, bopping and droning homemade electronic mush. This abyss of generic, B-grade electronic music makes it a competitive industry, in which risk and creativity are essential.

Voices, Phantogram’s second studio album, does not entirely fail in this respect, but it certainly is not  pushing the envelope or bashing down any artistic walls. The album grinds, vibrates and pulses with a sinister, industrial theme. Amid all the buzz and machinery, this album does not quite find its groove; its inconsistencies in lyricism, rhythm and beat weaken the album and create a disconnect between the listener and the Greenwich Village duo, blurring their artistic intent. Some tracks are aloof to the point of being boring and others are more engaging, danceable and urgent, but their disparities make the album feel a little cluttered and off-balanced. Phantogram has slowed down, become more dark, droning and gentle, a turn away from their first, more dynamic album Eyelid Movies. There is little real experimentation or risk on Voices, which is essential for a relatively new artist like Phantogram’s heralded sophomore album. As far as electronica semi-rock goes, it is inoffensive, yet the whining vocals and pulsing breathy beats are often pleasant. There are several haunting moments, lyrical successes and Sarah Barthel’s vocals shine as always, but over all, it would not be terribly difficult for this album to get mistaken by non-connoisseurs of electronica (such as myself) for musical pulp.

Thematically, the album jumps around. The first several tracks are brooding, spacey and paranoid, playing with sanity, reality and illusion. The piece then gets a little crisper and brighter, varying track to track, from screechy melodies to lighter love songs. “Nothing But Trouble,” a soft buzzing song to go insane to, includes the eerie standout line, “they’re eating all my shotgun smiles.” Later, the catchier “Fall In Love” becomes guilty-pleasure grotesque: “ Love, it cut a hole into your eyes … now you’re burning alive.” Lyrically,  Phantogram can’t seem to find a consistent theme.

Other songs have an indie softness about them that confuses and disconnects the album. In “Never Going Home,” a track that steps away from Voices industrial grind, Josh Carter repeats the romantic refrain, “If this is love, I’m never going home,” creating a perfect blurry song for summer nights. “Bill Murray,” a quirkily-titled, dreamy ballad about loneliness and loss, apparently intended to conjure the image of a forlorn Bill Murray, also falls along these lines.

One deeply redeeming quality that pervades the album is the ethereal wail of Sarah Barthel’s vocals. Soulful and synthy, sometimes howling and sometimes hauntingly soft, she distinguishes the album from homemade electronic mush. In one surprising moment, probably my favorite of the whole album, “Blackout Days” drops from echoey buzzing to a sweet piano interlude, during which the lights go out, the machines turn off and we can really hear Barthel’s voice. Transparent, quiet clarity is not what someone listening to Phantogram (or electronic in general) is looking for, but the moment of silence and voice that breaks the continuous grind and churn is truly lovely.

All in all, Voices does have some stand-out bits and pieces — Barthel’s vocals, an engaging industrial drone, surprising acoustic moments, a good love song here and a wailing urgent track there. An avid folk fan who generally shies from electronic or techno, a few songs will definitely make my morning walk-to-class playlist, but unfortunately, it does not hold together cohesively enough to add up to a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.

This album, as well as other tracks from this week’s Test Spins, can be spun HERE: