Positive Feedback ISSUE 73
may/june 2014

 

Phantogram,Voices
by
David Williamson

 

phantogram

I LOVE this album but let's get this out of the way... the album title is unimaginative dreck. Fitting, why yes... apropos, certainly...boring, definitely. I'll check the boxes for us: the songs all have semi-unique or individual styles (check). The songs come together tangentially to approximate multiple individual voices in a figurative sense (check). There are two people singing which meets the literal requirement for the term "voices" to be used here appropriately (check). The musicians' actual voices fall somewhere between serviceable and quite nice (bonus check). Not a bit of this excuses the banality of titling your album Voices. Hall & Oates had a monster album called Voices (in 1980!) which is still the first search result for "voices, album". Two other albums I've listened to lately have employed "voice" as a part of their album title (Voices in a Rented Room by New Bums and Broken Voice by My Epic) and yet they still manage to convey distinctive and innovative intent while using that very same word. Unimaginative and derivative this music is not, and yet they title the album like a collection of after school club student poetry. Let's cut the crap here, Phantogram, and get back to awesome album names like Eyelid Movies! The quality of your music demands it. Onwards!

I dig that the tracks all bend dark here. That they work thematically, as well as individually, within the whole of the album is indicative of a carefully fashioned creation. Blackouts, apathy, death and nihilism are all blithely name-checked like a hit-list of ex-lovers who need to be re-rejected before being given a final kiss-off. Right up until the end of the album you might find yourself grasping for some hint of redemption in and amongst the song titles. But there is none... is there? When you finally realize that each of the album's song titles should be interpreted as a worst-case-scenario, when you glean that each song title is an absolution for what it contains... hope dies.

Yet listen after listen after listen I began to get the feeling that there was something beneath all of the passionless dismissals and tales of comeuppance. Could the gruff exterior of the lyrics be masking a fragility or even—gasp!—a tentative hopefulness? On the track "Celebrating Nothing," you're witness to an airy, uplifting chorus of "give me a reason to stay alive" right alongside the overtly pleading "how many times will I burn it down". On "Never Going Home" we're told over and over that "if this is love I'm never going home" while never being told whether it is love. As the music swells and groans in sympathy and a delicate guitar grows in the cracks between the stark beats and droning synth we're left pondering: Is it that this love is powerful enough to root them in place? Is it that that love is not strong enough to draw them back home? Is there any love here at all? Of course none of this is disclosed, clarified or otherwise made clear. The juxtaposition between hopelessness and longing, surrender and defiance, clarity and obfuscation is the edge the album balances so precariously on. The album draws to a close with "My Only Friend," a title that acknowledges both the loneliness of having only one friend and the possessive focus that isolation can bring. That the lyrics "I have enough" follow "I have all the stars with you", well... there are A LOT of stars. And on a clear night those stars cast a lot of light.

Dark and light aside, I cannot (and will not) fault anyone that came to this album solely for the bass. It exists here. There's a head-nodding, foot-tapping, body-moving vibe that flows through the album like an arcing current of pure adrenaline. As the album progresses a growing sense of restless energy belies the calmness and deliberate slowness the vocals seem to reach for. The staggered nature of the tempo allows for multiple slow beats layered upon each other to create the illusion of faster songs. In a tip-of-the-hat to the band's namesake (the band took their name from an optical illusion in which two-dimensional objects appear to be three-dimensional) their music layers upon itself to come across as deeper and fuller than they have any business sounding. Thematically there's a heaviness to begin the album that feels fully-developed and conceptualized, and threatens to overwhelm all traces of delicacy. This makes it even more of a delight when songs like "Bill Murray" ever so gently work a soft drone vibe into the proceedings, letting the little rays of light that have pierced the veil delicately illuminate the room.

The rhythms are a study in musical eclecticism, a cocktail of top forty pop and lo-fi shoegaze infused with electronic heartbeats and a light drizzle of backpack hip-hop stirred gently, lit on fire and served in a severed Sennheiser foam ear cup. In one more nod to its crafted sound, the album moves solidly and assuredly from one form to another, one tempo to another, one groove to another (I just can't say "one voice to another" without cringing) without feeling disparate or unlinked. The cohesiveness resides in the vocals that on first listen seemed so nonessential, especially in the first two songs. In fact, on my first listen through, I found myself impatiently waiting for the inevitable instrumental track, only to be glad to find they hadn't gone that route by the end of the album. Sure, there are tracks like "Nothing But Trouble" and "Black Out Days" where you could strip away all traces of vocals and just delight in the remaining music. Then there are tracks like "Fall in Love" or "My Only Friend" that are more vocally sustained than others, and showcase a variety of musical proficiencies. What remained constant for me throughout is the conviction that both the vocals and the lyrics are intrinsic to the album's success. All of this said, I personally find the singing quite good and the lyrics appropriately composed in relation to the album's overarching theme. That the vocals more compliment the beats and breaks instead of driving them moves the needle neither direction for me, good or bad, better or worse. It's just further evidence of the bands "voice" (ugh) being displayed to its individualized fullness.

Sound-alike name dropping time (similarities time if you're nasty): Portishead ("Celebrating Nothing"), Metric ("The Day You Died"), Starflyer 59 ("Bill Murray"), Ellie Goulding ("Bad Dreams")... and a smattering of the Postal Service ("I Don't Blame You").

So... this is walking-places music. This is headphones and a bus ride music. This is "turn it up till my workshop speakers are bleeding" music. I've been tearing out my garage for an addition and this album has earned a permanent spot on my "getting-things-done" playlist. I dig it, fully and with both hands. I play this album at home, at work and all the places between where I find I have a need to bob my head in musical surrender. And that's really what this album asks of you: complete surrender to the music.

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