There’s a fairly common trope dominating parts of the indie music world and it goes like this: pixie voice female leads a band surrounded by male orchestrated electronics. Just look at the way Purity Ring and Chvrches have been lauded by critics. There are even mutated versions of this theme: the twisted insanity of Crystal Castles and the one-woman pop machine that is Grimes. But if there’s one outfit ready to flip this trope on its head it would be Phantogram. With their newest album the New York based duo have turned from a promising indie-rock group into a full-fledged, ass kicking, genre-mashing superhero team.
The most noticeable difference, at first, between Phantogram and say Purity Ring is how frontwoman Sarah Barthel controls the songs. Barthel can easily be cooing and seductive one moment only to be breathing fire the next. Even while she’s at her most sleek, she’s still hiding daggers behind her back, after all the opening tack “Nothing But Trouble” is filled with her “shotgun smiles”. When she starts describing her R.E.M. cycle on “Bad Dreams”, be assured that nightmares will be induced. Barthel’s vocals are on a good portion of the songs but her partner in crime Josh Carter also lends his singing to two tracks; “Never Going Home” and “I Don’t Blame You”. “Never Going Home” is the album’s weakest track with a predictable chorus and a subpar vocal performance but “I Don’t Blame You” stands as one of the album’s many highlights. Carter’s voice quavers at the start before busting out a beautiful and sorrowful chorus, one of the most emotional moments here.
Still, Carter’s guitar playing is his main draw, the solo to “Nothing But Trouble” in particular being a blistering way to start the year in guitar excellence. “Nothing But Trouble” actually reveals one of the album’s major influences: hip-hop. The break just before Carter’s blazing outro is a reminder that Phantogram played a key role in Big Boi’s last LP Vicious Lies and Dangerous Rumors. In fact the only thing that Voices might be missing is a few bars. “Fall in Love” has a grandiose background that begs for Yeezus to come off the mountain and drop a few rhymes. Throughout Voices, the driving beats are top notch. Barthel’s stuttering vocals mix with cracking drums on “Black Out Days” and the whiplash inducing beat on “Howling At the Moon” demands Pusha-T in his finest “Numbers on the Board” form. Even without Pusha, “Howling At the Moon” is Voices’ star track. It’s the best rocker about lycanthropic sex since TV on the Radio’s “Wolf Like Me” and Barthel gives a performance that would make Karen O jealous.
It makes sense then, with all the surprising turns that Phantogram take on Voices that they make the album’s emotional core a slightly ironic song tingled with sadness. “Celebrate Nothing” is up there will “Fall in Love” as the most massive song on the album, Barthel’s looped “ha!” acts as the propelling force for each section of the song, Carter’s guitar trembles and expands, and a throbbing base anchors the low end. Without Barthel’s vocals the song sounds like a New Year’s send off. But then Barthel starts to ask, “How many times will I burn it down?” Though it gives potency to the song it is strange that Phantogram don’t want to party after creating Voices. They have plenty to celebrate.