Things aren’t always as they appear. Take a phantogram for example. By definition, a phantogram is an optical illusion that plays with depth to make a two-dimensional object appear three-dimensional. On their new album Voices, male-female duo Phantogram plays with perspective just the same. Hailing from upstate New York, musicians Sarah Barthel and Josh Carter write and create their music in a barn. Despite their rural surroundings, Phantogram’s sound is an unexpected mix of electronic and rock. At first listen, the duo’s new album may sound like it would merely make for good background music. With a more in-depth listen and attention to detail, however, one can escape this illusion and discover the genius and captivation that is Voices.
The 2014 release is the first full-length the band has put out since 2009’s Eyelid Movies. Despite the five year time gap, the duo has stayed true to their sound. Voices maintains the same atmospheric and mysterious melodies that longtime fans have known and loved, but with more precision and firmer roots. Singer Sarah Barthel’s verses are hauntingly captivating, featuring soaring vocals and impassioned chants. Guitarist Josh Carter also makes vocal appearances on two tracks, titled “Never Going Home,” and “I Don’t Blame You.” The range of the male and female tones brings a refreshing diversity to the chill-inducing sound that is Voices.
“Fall In Love” was the first single Phantogram put out from the new album. The song made waves within a relatively short period of time. In the past, Phantogram has kept in the shadows, only reaching the ears of those driven enough to discover the sounds of the underground. This is no longer the case. Playing sold-out shows, performing in larger venues, and receiving more airtime, Phantogram has earned great exposure since the release of the single. With lyrics such as “The night has swallowed my soul / Could it be that I fell apart / It shows / The lines on my face ate away my smile,” the single is dark and twisted, but nonetheless entrancing. This may very well be the mood for the album as a whole.
“The Day You Died,” the strongest track on the album, showcases the vocal and instrumental abilities of Phantogram at their highest. The lingering “ohhh”s and “ayyy”s of the song combined with the looping guitar rhythms are dangerously catchy. The song radiates with energy and passion that can easily be transmitted on stage during a live performance.
The album slows as “Bill Murray” opens with sweet and melancholic notes reminiscent of a lullaby. Barthel’s vocals are expansive and drifting as she croons “Am I wanted inside? / Say goodbye, do you feel liked? / Wave goodbye, and your heart’s not in line.” The track’s title is yet another illusion: despite referencing a comedic actor, the song is actually wistful and somber. The dreamy melody of “Bill Murray” is something you’d listen to right before shutting your eyes and welcoming sleep.
The album picks up again with the energetic “Celebrating Nothing.” The track muses on living and dying, themes Phantogram frequent in their music. Even with changes in tempo, it is evident the songs on Voices piece together. The tracks are more patterned and consistent than the experimentation and choppy variety experienced on 2009’s Eyelid Movies.
The depth and profoundness drawn from Voices is in the details, from the microphone buzz in opener “Nothing But Trouble” to the mesmerizing background drum beat in “Bad Dreams.” It may take a few listens for the untrained ear, but the ethereal sounds created by Sarah Barthel and Josh Carter will prove to gratify. While phantograms may be based on trickery and distortion, the quality of Voices is no illusion.