Pitchfork got it dead wrong on Tuesday. Stuart Berman’s lukewarm review of Phantogram’s sophomore record relied on an all-too familiar mythology of sudden, arbitrary success amid the digitized music industry’s state of saturation and self-replication to cast the Saratoga Springs duo as a bit of a fluke. Comparing them to 2013 breakout flavors Haim, Lorde and Chvrches, he described the band as “the new frontrunners of background music.”
Given, we local fans are bias toward Phantogram’s success and will be quick to note the steady labor behind Josh Carter and Sarah Barthel’s ascent. Still, it’s not the story that Berman (and others who might be rightly wary of trend surfers and style biters) is misunderstanding; it’s the music. Unlike the glut of guy-girl electro-pop bands out there, Phantogram have increasingly taken the architecture of hip-hop production as their songwriting template (along with it’s accompanying rhythmic history), crafting a gauntlet of bangers on the first half of Voices with help from M.I.A. producer John Hill. It’s hard to imagine what kind of work anyone could be getting done with a head-nodding break like the one on “Howling at the Moon” playing in the background. Ditto singles “Black Out Days” and “Fall in Love,” which hit just as hard upon re-release as they did on the album-teasing self-titled EP last fall.
Save for Carter’s Phil Collins-y “Never Going Home” and album chill-out “Bill Murray,” the guitar has become secondary to the synth and sampler, although Carter delivers a delicious St. Vincent-ian noise-guitar freakout on the outro to opener “Nothing but Trouble.” The camera routinely peeked over Carter’s shoulder at his touch-screen sample bank during the band’s Kimmel performance earlier this week, but what the band are doing with the formula is as old as the blues: couching lyrics about desolation, alienation, amnesia and futility within elating melodies and rhythms. Voices is undeniably dark, with Barthel parroting a theme of ineffectuality on “The Day You Died” and “Bad Dreams,” and even venturing mortal premonitions on “Celebrating Nothing” and “My Only Friend.” But this music doesn’t wallow or demand the listener’s sympathies the way too many of the band’s peers need do. Hooks like the one on “Fall in Love” are undeniable and (un?)fortunately destined for sullying ad-placement. If Voices is leading the way in background music, it’s because listeners will be rocking it on repeat all year.