Although it has been five years since its debut album Eyelid Movies, Phantogram has been affirming its niche steadily since then, releasing two EPs and having a number of tracks appear in commercials, movies, and TV shows. With word of mouth bolstering the duo’s name from one set of ears to another, Phantogram maintains a certain middle ground between unknown and mainstream, holding onto the indie tag without being obscure. Despite having no sleeper hits or breakout singles in the arsenal, Phantogram retains a strong following, something its newest effort, Voices, will be sure to maintain.
Produced in an actual studio this time around with the help of John Hill, the record sounds professional and finely tuned, something which regular listeners will be much accustomed to. Labeling themselves as “street beat” (a sort of trip-hop, dream-pop combination with heavier back beats), Sarah Barthel and Jack Carter have taken their uniquely labeled sound and put forth another clean, tight record which exemplifies their genre without making a caricature out of it. Although each track has heavy post-production work (a signature of Phantogram’s style), there is not a sense that this detracts from the record or somehow undermines it. Without it, there would definitely be something missing from their sound. Never being one to strip down its music, Phantogram has carried on this tradition throughout Voices, which will certainly be a treat for old and new listeners alike.
Unfortunately, these same listeners will find that the band has not deviated from this traditional sound-at all. In fact, variation is nearly non-existent here as each song blends into the next with little notice from the listener. Multiple play s through only exacerbate this, leaving the album to be a sort of glorified background music choice more than anything else. Barthel’s ethereal vocals tend to bypass the ear, slip through the back of the mind, and find their way out the other ear-it never truly registers what is being said or why. Lyrically, there is nothing to be spoken of either, and there is not much reason to stop and back track anyway. The slickness of the production often does the same, never dazzling or catching hold of the attention, instead flowing right along, one song into the next. Carter lends his vocal talents on only two songs, and neither member appears vocally together on any, which furthers this sort of under-the-radar sound. Having both members sing on a track possibly could have lent an interesting tension to the project-dynamics are lacking in the otherwise finely tuned sound.
This criticism withstanding, the record does speak to the fact that Phantogram know its sound inside and out. Although Barthel and Carter are not aiming for lofty heights here, there is a refinement that must be recognized. They’re sounding better and better with each release, fine-tuning every step of the way. Considering that their following has generally been created by word of mouth, this consistency only serves to help them, as they aren’t relying on gimmicks or breakouts to establish their fan base. Phantogram may not be the most innovative or avant-garde band in existence-however, it’s fantastic at what it does and is worth taking up into any music collection. Phantogram isn’t making up any excuses, just making good music. Take it or leave it.
In an era in which many musical artists rely on disingenuous means to gain bigger and better fame, it must be handed to Phantogram for sticking it out with its “street beat” style. Voices lends itself to the day-to-day of modern society, providing the perfect background soundtrack to the average commute, a melancholic day or a night on the town. Unimpressed with schemes and shiny new tricks, the album does not try to compensate for being another step in the band’s evolution process. Instead, it fits neatly into the spaces in the back of the mind where it may not always be heard, but will always find a niche to stay in.