Phantogram’s 2009 debut, Eyelid Movies, was a good album on paper with a middling execution. Rife with great ideas and, this time, the prowess to back it up, Voices is nothing short of a 5-year expectation finally realized. In Voices, the New York duo of Sarah Barthel and Josh Carter manage to translate strong shoegaze influences into an electronic rock record bursting at the seams with ingenuity. Befitting the move to the Universal-owned Republic record label, even Voices’ weakest offerings are dusted in pitch-perfect production and a diverse range of instrumentation.
Phantogram finally sounds the way Phantogram has always wanted to sound, and a large part of that comes from tighter and smarter compositions. Instead of a dance duo fighting over where to drop their Kevin Shields references, their sophomore album features a much kinder mix of bit-crushed guitar overlays alongside Barthel’s cloudy vocals and Carter’s moody lo-fi crooning.
Opener “Nothing But Trouble” is not only the takeaway favourite song of the album, it also firmly establishes the refinements made to their approach since last-year’s self-titled EP: drum machine beats are almost immediately overpowered with synthetic weirdness, and a stunningly distorted guitar is kept at bay until the 3-minute mark, where Barthel’s creamy lyrics get remixed into a masterpiece breakdown that reads like a Cocteau Twins record layered on top of Justice.
Taking a look at Phantogram’s influences, it’s hard not to notice that Josh Carter has a serious guitar fetish: being likened to Sonic Youth, John Frusciante, and Serge Gainsbourg takes some effort, and Voices shows off the manic side of the duo perfectly. “The Day You Died” is carried on Carter’s rhythmic guitar playing matched against dream-pop beats, and even when that electric guitar is kept growling behind a dark, pulsating synth rhythm, it’s very reassuring knowing it’s there, waiting, behind each track.
Still, the hardest part of Phantogram is recommending them broadly. Voices is, in every way, more accessible than their debut offerings, but a trip-hop spattered electronica duo can still be a tough sell. The album isn’t so chocked with shoegaze references or real, serious dance numbers to sway itself either way—and depending on the song, it’s either the listener or Phantogram who are standing, staring earthwards, trying to absorb the music. Part of the appeal of Phantogram is that dichotomy—their most complex tunes are the ones that are so compelling to dance to, while their catchier numbers invite the listener to scratch their head and think. Fans of obsessed-over guitar tones won’t think to look at this New York pairing first-glance, and their shoegaze influences are worn on sleeves covered by rhythm-heavy songs and crystalline vocals. But for those whose interests collide, like Barthel and Carter’s did, somewhere in that tangible space between referential and reverential, Voices is not just a step in the right direction—it’s exactly how Phantogram is supposed to sound.