Phantogram Unveils True “Voices”

Phantogram-Voices-Universal Republic Records-4.5 STARS

Phantogram Voices
Courtesy Universal Republic

Phantogram doesn’t like to rush things. Aside from releasing two EPs, the indie rock duo has stayed relatively quiet during the four years since “Eyelid Movies,” their last full-length album. Instead of hurriedly churning out a follow-up, they’ve opted to move behind the scenes and collaborate with a diverse assortment of artists. They worked with OutKast’s Big Boi on three tracks from his 2012 solo album, “Vicious Lies and Dangerous Rumors.” Then they were featured on “You Lust,” a track from The Flaming Lips’ 2013 album “The Terror.” And they’ve lent their music to everyone from MTV to The CW to the “Catching Fire” soundtrack.

Now the long wait for a second album is over, and with "Voices," Sarah Barthel and Josh Carter show off the fruits of their labor. The album exhibits a vast array of influences that they’ve been absorbing during their time off. At the same time, they double down on the aesthetic they’ve been cultivating for years. With "Voices," the duo breathes new life into their characteristic jagged beats and stargazing vocals and ensures the arrangements highlight the devastating songwriting rather than swallow it up, resulting in a bright, clear, and finely tuned sophomore album that pulses with life and energy.

Listening through the first three tracks is like listening to a three-part sonic history of the band’s progress over the past five years. Opener “Nothing But Trouble” has the grit and brooding atmosphere of the tracks on 2009’s “Eyelid Movies.” The second track, “Black Out Days,” lets in some fresh air with a snappy beat and a chopped vocal sample reminiscent of 2011’s breakthrough single “Don’t Move.” But “Fall In Love,” the third track, is something else entirely. A florid, deceptively off-tempo intro explodes without warning into a throbbing swirl of strings, synths, and soulful vocal samples, anchored by the biggest beat Phantogram has ever produced. It’s as instantly gratifying as anything in their catalogue, but it’s also suffused with a warmth and color that’s never been there before.


The rest of the record rises and falls in energy, effortlessly weaving together disparate textures and sounds without compromising this warmth. The humorously titled “Bill Murray” opens quietly with a single watery guitar but soon blossoms into a gorgeous, shimmering ballad embellished with rising clouds of hazy voices. “Bad Dreams” is a moody slow burner whose placid surface Barthel frequently shatters with piercing cries at the top of her register. And “Howling At The Moon” announces its arrival with an almost comical spaghetti-Western riff before taking off at full speed into its frenetic, clanging verses, with Barthel cooing the song title above the cacophony like a lovestruck werewolf. It’s even a bit playful, which speaks to Phantogram’s self-assuredness—they know how to have fun with their music without sacrificing any of its impact.

This clarity of vision enables the band’s songwriting to take center stage, revealing just how thoughtful and moving it’s been all along. Throughout their previous releases, Phantogram has written about heavy topics—depression, abandonment, isolation—from all angles, but especially from the viewpoint of the friend who’s helplessly watching their loved ones suffer. On “Voices,” they continue this approach, but with a better sense for when to get the music out of the way and let a choice lyric hit the listener between the eyes. Despite its title, “Fall In Love” is less about the spark of a new romance and more about the house fire that follows. Towards the end, as the beat falls away and the keyboards hover in empty space, Barthel hopelessly mourns, “The lines on my face ate away my smile / Could it be that I fell apart?”. Amidst the soft piano on the stunning closing track, “My Only Friend,” Barthel says the only thing she knows how to say to a lover who just wants to be alone: “I will wait outside / as long as you are alright.”

What makes “Voices” remarkable isn’t that it displays so much range or nuance—it’s that it does so without ever sounding like the work of anyone else. While the average boy-girl indie duo seems to fall somewhere between folk and synthpop, Phantogram has always taken their cues from grittier trip-hop—their drums skitter unevenly, their vocal samples echo from the walls like ghosts, and their songs sound like they were recorded in an outer-space cathedral. “Voices” doesn’t break from this tradition: the only difference is that they’re more confident, more willing to let the weirdness and sentiment shine through the gloom. After four years in the shadows, they’ve returned with a powerful statement of purpose that still stays true to the voices in their heads.

—Staff writer Matthew J. Watson can be reached at