Tuesday, February 18, 2014

album review: 'voices' by phantogram

If you've been watching my reviews for a while, you've probably noticed that I don't tend to set indie rock on a pedestal. There's a reason for that: there's good and bad stuff in any musical genre, and I don't discriminate. But I would be lying if I didn't say that my standards are different for certain genres of music, and there's a reason for that: certain genres are trying to do different things and have different focuses. Most pop albums are only really trying to get you to dance or have a nonspecific good time, and if the album does it well, it has succeeded in its goal. The album isn't going to get critical acclaim from me unless it goes above and beyond - but then again, that's what I'd say about any album from any genre.

The difference is that certain artists within certain genres - like indie rock or alternative country or progressive metal or certain branches of hip-hop - have bigger goals in mind. They're aiming to make something more artistically significant than just dance tracks - and while it's very tempting to reward an act just for the idea, it's the execution of the idea that really matters. That's why I've thrown some pretty harsh reviews at indie rock acts like The Neighbourhood or Young The Giant or, hell, even acts I've mostly liked in the vein of Lorde, HAIM, or Bastille. I appreciate that these acts are aiming higher, believe me, but that it's how they execute that vision that I'd like to see. It falls along the line of a central tenet of my musical philosophy: that genre is simply a descriptor of music, not a measurement of quality, and a transcendent album of any genre can be just as emotionally impacting or intellectually rewarding as any other. 

So what happens when you get a duo like Phantogram, who like to toe the line of indie pop between modern synthpop or the off-beat weirdness of some of their tourmates and collaborators, like The Flaming Lips? Well, that was a question I was looking to answer when I picked up their most recent album Voices - albeit not expecting much. That wasn't to say Phantogram's first album Eyelid Movies was bad - far from it, it was enjoyable enough - but it wasn't a record that really stood out to me so I was looking forward to getting reacquainted with the band. How did it go?

Ehh... it's okay, I guess. Phantogram's Voices is far from a bad album, but in an increasingly crowded modern indie synthpop environment, it would be hard to say that that Phantogram stands out among the rest. It's not a failure in terms of what the band was trying to create - indeed, there's a fair bit going on beneath the surface on this album that does prove to be a welcome surprise - but I can't but feel underwhelmed by this release, mostly because I don't really feel the band plays to their strengths as much as they should.

First, let's talk about the vocals. Both Josh Carter and Sarah Barthel contribute vocals to this album, and juxtaposing Barthel's ethereal sultriness against the the fuzzier, heavier electronics is an interesting contrast, but I'm not sure she has a lot of consistent emotional range. She does come across as having some vulnerability on the ballad 'Bill Murray', but more often than not she goes for Karen O's brand of sultriness that doesn't really fit the lyrical tone and themes for which Phantogram is going (although juxtaposing it with real vulnerability in 'Blackout Days' is executed pretty damn well). Josh Carter definitely gets second-billing when it comes to vocals on this album, and while I think tonally he's more in line with the lyrics, he doesn't really stand out as a presence in the same way Barthel does.

Maybe it has something to do with the instrumentation, which is clattering and fuzz-saturated and filled with samples and odd keyboard effects almost to bursting. And while of the classier samples do blend well with the attempts at grandeur Phantogram makes (especially on 'If I Fall'), most of them just comes across as extraneous and unnecessary. If this overproduction was what they gleaned with working with The Flaming Lips, it was not the right lesson, mostly because it feels extraneous and distracts from the guitar melodies that are actually pretty solid and have some good rougher texture, especially on the poppy standout track 'The Day You Died'. It doesn't help that the drums are as stiff and mechanical as they are, and never having enough unique presence to stand out in the mix, which is already filled to the brim with glitchy synth effects, nearly omnipresent fuzz, and overloaded reverb that's intended to make the tracks sound hollow and booming, but are never really all that potent. And the frustrating fact is that most of it doesn't come together - the opening track 'Nothing But Trouble' has a guitar solo at the end of the track that kind of reminded me of the one in 'Shesmovedon' by Porcupine Tree, but it felt nowhere near as cohesive. 

Now I understand why they overloaded the mix with cacophonous fuzz and sound from every angle, because on a thematic level, this album is exploring the many voices playing the head of someone going through a breakup. And lyrically, Phantogram actually do a pretty solid job exploring the various contributing emotions: helplessness, anger, defiance and denial, the fake smile you put on to reassure everyone that everything is all right, and even the strange inert feeling you get when you know the feelings in the relationship have sputtered out and you know it's only a matter of time before you end it. On a lyrical level, Phantogram really does an in-depth job exploring those emotions, especially the last one on 'The Day You Died', where the song is one of the rare ones that has just as much emotional weight when taken literally on a deeper subtextual level. Sure, on a deeper level it works as a song reflected that strange, surprised, bemused feeling when you realize the feelings are gone, but it also works on a more superficial level, the odd feeling you get when you go to a funeral expecting to feel grief and instead not feeling much at all. And while Phantogram do repeat the 'dying as relationship ending' metaphor a few more times to diminishing returns on this record, especially on the final track 'My Only Friend', I won't deny that on a lyrical level, there's simple, effective songwriting here.

The problem really is in the execution, because none of the elements feel on the same page. The production is heavy and cacophonous and completely drowns the impact of the tighter guitar melodies, the lyrics have a decidedly pop sensibility when approaching darker subject matter and mostly works in an indie pop vein, and Sarah Barthel's delivery feels bizarrely inert when delivering lyrics that really require more desperation and force and emotional weight than she gives them. And I do think she's capable of it - the earnest ballad 'Bill Murray' proves that - but the sultry, smoother vocal delivery doesn't work on an emotional level with the lyrics, and it really doesn't match the tone brought by the production, which seems to be trying to show emotional distance but never allows the tracks enough room to breathe or smolder to develop that distance. Maybe things could have worked with the electric guitars in a Yeah Yeah Yeahs inspired groove, but Phantogram never quite gets there and the pieces never add up to more than the whole.

In short, it's telling that Phantogram's best songs on this album are when they are describing not really feeling much at all, because the emotional beats on this album only work for me inconsistently. Honestly, I think they might have misunderstood their strengths, because while the heavier production and glitchy elements and vocal effects add texture, the melodies are so much stronger and the technical songwriting is a natural fit for a darker, synthpop vibe. And while I do like some of the songwriting and guitar lines and can't really call any song on this record a bust, Phantogram's Voices never really rises into something special for me. I'm inclined to give it a 6/10 and a tentative recommendation. There's definitely better synthpop and electronica out there, but if you're looking for a new fix, you could do worse than Phantogram.

No comments:

Post a Comment