Like the optical illusion the band takes its name from, Phantogram’s music reveals dimensions beyond what’s readily apparent. Belonging superficially to the genre of music inhabited by contemporaries such as M83, Passion Pit and Chromatics, Phantogram moves beyond the well-worn formula of taking sensual female vocals and wrapping them in layers of throbbing synths and booming percussion.
Josh Carter and Sarah Barthel of Phantogram include many such moments on their sophomore album, Voices. Guitar arpeggios and distorted keyboard stabs float above insistent synthesizer loops and Barthel’s embellish. Sometimes they fade into the music, adding another layer of hypnotic sound. It’s the kind of music that nudges you to sleep when you come home drunk at 4 a.m.
Where Voices really hits though is in the moments that break from this formula. The sharp percussion and energetic vocals on “Howling at the Moon” or the aching pedal steel guitar of “Bill Murray” hint at a wide range of influences and allow Barthel’s powerful voice to the forefront.
Other tracks fall into the background more easily, such as “I Don’t Blame You,” which tends to lose itself in droning keyboards and horn loops. It does end with one of the more poignant moments of the album, though, as the music fades, leaving only Carter’s aching voice reproaching himself: “I should’ve slept it off / I should’ve stayed in bed / I should’ve taken your call.”
The lyrical content is often melancholy, with tracks such as “Never Going Home” speaking to the staying power of past hurts. Carter sings “Mama / you screamed to me / after all these years.” Closer “My Only Friend” explores with soul-baring honesty how failed relationships still hold sway over our lives. However, the sweeping synths and driving beats expand these songs to grandiose proportions, turning the depression into a kind of cathartic release.
This is the duo’s first album since 2009’s Eyelid Movies and shows a concerted effort to expand its sound. Voices makes a deliberate effort to move away from the restrained grooving of “When I’m Small” or the soft whispers of “Mouthful of Diamonds.” Even more subdued tracks such as “Never Going Home” echo and crash grandly.
Voices does well to include quiet moments in the midst of the storm, giving the songs room to breathe. The balladic piano that closes “Black Out Days” or the pregnant pauses between cascading oh-oh-ohs on “The Day You Died” ably counterpoint the enormity of the music and highlight the breathy sensuality of Barthel’s voice.
Voices capitalizes on Phantograms’s strengths while beginning to move in new directions. The added emphasis on production and scale mesh well with their sound, although the best moments on the album come not from anything added in the studio, but rather from a willingness to experiment.
4 out of 5 stars