When you live and die by the hook, there’s little room for error, and while Phantogram’s steps are far too calculated to allow for a misstep, there’s simply not enough substance to carry a whole album.
Parker Evans[follow id = “parker_d_evans”]
Parker Evans is an economics senior and Mustang News music columnist.
If some tracks from Phantogram’s latest album sound like you’ve heard them before, that’s probably because you have. Of the 11 tracks on Voices, six have been pre-released either as singles or part of this past year’s self-titled four-song EP. Even if you haven’t actively sought out the group’s music, you’ll probably be familiar with at least a few snippets here and there, because Phantogram is in the business of making uniquely earwormy electronic rock.
For the uninitiated, Phantogram is a band that actively tries to defy genrefication. The duo is equally comfortable within the frame of a trippy hip-hop beat, shoegaze murmur or straight-up rock guitar. Guitarist Josh Carter and keyboardist Sarah Barthel (both handle singing duties, but Barthel does most of the heavy lifting) are still trying to hold their ground in the middle of a new generation of electro-rock. Voices attempts to be more energetic than The XX, more controlled than Sleigh Bells and darker than STRFKR. As it turns out, the middle is a boring place to be.
Make no mistake, Phantogram excels at writing hooks. Tracks like “Black Out Days” and “Fall In Love” will get your head bobbing and keep it bobbing for days, but catchiness doesn’t always translate into good songwriting and too often, tracks lose their punch around the midpoint. LCD Soundsystem proved it’s possible to make eminently catchy electro-rock without sacrificing humor or pathos, but without any kind of lyrical punch and not much in the way of emotional resonance, Voices doesn’t give the listener much beyond the surface to hold the listener’s attention.
Of course, there are some exceptions. Voices‘ most striking song, “Never Going Home,” kicks off with Carter singing into an effect that mimics Phil Collins’ voice well enough to warrant a double take. From there, the song actually evolves into a confident chorus punctuated by Barthel’s airy sighs and some quirky spaghetti western percussion.
It’s a perfect example of what Phantogram can do when the hook justifies the song. Similarly, “Bill Murray” eschews gimmicky loops in favor of a pulsing synthesizer to create a layered soundscape that could be the sonic love child of James Murphy and Ben Bridwell.
“Howl at the Moon” finds Barthel doing her best impression of Metric’s Emily Haines in what is a perfect microcosm of Voices. It’s upbeat, earwormy and well-produced, but it’s also jumpy and unfocused. By all accounts, Phantogram’s live shows are nothing short of spectacular, but that level of danceable coolness is difficult to sustain throughout an entire album.
When you live and die by the hook, there’s little room for error, and while Phantogram’s steps are far too calculated to allow for a misstep, there’s simply not enough substance to carry a whole album. Voices is still worth a listen, but if you like movie trailers, television or shopping, you’re probably going to hear most of the best parts anyway.