Wednesday, November 30, 2016

album review: 'three' by phantogram

Well, it's about time I talk about this.

In fact, I'm a little bewildered why it has taken me this long. Sure, I've been busy and there's been no shortage at all of more records that are flooding the last few weeks of the year, but I have to admit a certain disinterest in this record. Part of this is because I covered Phantogram's last album Voices in 2014 and didn't really care for it - but even that's not really true, from what I remember. And that's the bigger problem, I had to go back to my last review to recall anything about that record, and even a quick relisten didn't stick much with me, mostly because it felt like the poppier nature of the writing didn't really fit well with the darker, fuzzier electronic production and didn't flatter their stronger melodies.

And yet despite everything, the critical reviews have been mixed to positive on this album, including from some people I respect a great deal. They said it went louder and heavier and brought in more bombast - which okay, that could be promising if the writing and delivery picked up the slack - so I left on my schedule. And thus thanks to voting on Patreon, it somehow wound up on top of said schedule, so what the hell - how did Three by Phantogram turn out?

Well, okay, this a specimen I haven't heard in some time: a record that I will happily say is quite good. It's smart, it's well-framed, it's certainly more distinctive than the last album, I can see why people like it... but it's an album that I appreciate a lot more than I like myself. I've gone through this record a good dozen times - which is pretty easy, given how short it is, but not to the point where it's underwritten, which attests to its quality - but the spark really isn't igniting for me on a sonic level. As such, I can't really rate it in good conscience as high as I'd like to, but if anything I describe is up your alley, I definitely think you should check it out.

So okay, let's get to the roots of this record and why it will find an audience that isn't me, the instrumentation and production. And let's start with our two singers, Sarah Barthel and Josh Carter - and yeah, both good singers, but I'm not sure the mixing or production entirely flatters them. Granted, that was an issue on Voices and it seems a little less blatant here, mostly because when Barthel's smoky tones get the room to breathe she can sound a bit like Karen O, which on songs like 'Same Old Blues' with the gospel sample sound very reminiscent of a cut from Mosquito. Carter... he only takes lead on 'Barking Dog', the rest of the time either as the obvious duet partner or on harmony, and it's clear he should stay there, he's not in the same league. Granted, both vocalists are often fighting amidst a blur of reverb and choppy vocal sampling, not even counting the stuttered syllables on 'You're Mine' that really weren't needed.

Hell, if I was looking for an adjective to describe a lot of this record, 'choppy' would be it, and I think it's the fundamental reason this sound doesn't quite click with me. Much has been made about how this record got a fair heavier, and that's entirely true: the beats got thicker, stiffer and more aggressive, the guitars got more distorted with heavier smolder, even the synths developed a harsher vibe, which can place them in contrast with a mix that seems less expansive and more focused on capturing a storm locked in a windowless room. It leads to songs that can claustrophobic fast, especially when you add in samples chopped to ribbons to flesh out more of the melody that can occasionally feel underserved. Take the big single 'You Don't Get Me High Anymore' - the hook is catchy, the noisy compressed blocks of synth do play off the rattle of the percussion line pretty well, and the moments where the mix steps back and lets Barthel's more ethereal overdubs take over lead to a solid climax - but it isn't until the bridge where we actually get a guitar and bass, and it highlights my biggest issue with this album: the low end and basslines. Much of the bass tones that show up in the synth or beats are very choppy and staccato, often cutting through the haze of grinding guitar and synth that drive the midrange, intended to emphasize the harsh, jittery nature of these songs... but it also means that any attempt to build groove off the guitars feels compromised, because that deeper blur and flow just isn't in the bass, providing it shows up at all. It means that nearly all of the climaxes on this album feel undercut to me, hemmed in from really exploding - and yeah, in parallel with the lyrical themes, that makes sense, as the majority of this album is at war with its own mind. But take a song like 'Answer': even as I really didn't like that piano constantly wobbling off tone and that thin clicking beat, when the guitar roars in on the bridge it's awesome - huge post-rock inspired swell... and yet all we get in the low-end is percussion, instead of a bass hammering it home. It all leads to a choppy, jagged sort of record - and if you like that sound, I get why, but for me the choppy sampling that Common already used on 'Same Old Blues' or that loop on 'Cruel World', or the noisy, flattened, very 90s gurgle of 'Run Run Blood' just don't stick for me, and when you throw in more elegant strings on 'Funeral Pyre' and 'Barking Dog', the fact they aren't blurred better into the mix is a distraction.

Granted, all of that hemmed-in discordance fits with this album, especially when you dig into the lyrics and themes. And in that lane it's a pretty nasty piece of work, the sort you'd expect from real struggles with depression that lash both outwards and inwards, from the disillusionment and boredom of 'Same Old Blues' to the curdled frustration of 'You Don't Get Me High Anymore' to the attempt at a gracious breakup on 'Cruel World'. And the blank-eyed repetition on 'Barking Dog', set from the bathroom floor as time seems to slow, it brings out the best line of this album: 'hurt people hurt people too', and that mingled anger and guilt is a powerful moment. But necessarily the rest of the record has to rebuild off of that point, and this is where things get nasty, from the possessive but utterly dispassionate 'You're Mine', to the search for clarity on 'Answer' against too many words saying nothing only to find there might not be an answer. And in the last few songs the thematic arc becomes less about getting over the depression or finding an answer so much as living with it - and from songs like 'Calling All' and 'Run Run Blood', in today's increasingly bleak world that might be all we can do. Yeah, there's a pretty sharp nihilistic streak to this record, but by the end there at least seems to be some twisted functionality restored, hungry and defiantly owning one's open wounds... which I guess is progress.

But those themes, that internal instability and frustration and self-flagellation, it does on some level fit with the instrumentation, it definitely works... maybe even too well. But then I also realized that there are plenty of nihilistic albums that embark of similar paths that I enjoy the sound and flow a lot more, whereas Phantogram's Three doesn't really hit that point for me. Again, if you like this choppier sort of blend of samples, guitar, and synth into a pretty aggressive package with well-framed lyrics, you'll probably dig this. For me, though, given that the sound doesn't quite click, I'm giving it a very strong 6/10 and definitely a recommendation. Again, I get the impression Phantogram just aren't for me, but if anything I described is up your alley, definitely check this out - you'll probably really enjoy it.

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