In Brief: A remarkably solid electronica album with a bit of a trip-hop twist that strikes a deft balance between immediate pop hooks and sonic experimentation. If not for the embarrassing misstep at the end, this could easily be an A-grade record.
You can file Phantogram under “Bands I wish I’d heard of a lot sooner, who somehow slipped under my radar until now.” This trip-hop influenced electronica duo from upstate New York has been putting out music since late last decade, but it wasn’t until they started showing up on a few best-of lists at the end of last year that I thought, “Hey, that sounds like a band I could get into”. Sure enough, their third album, aptly titled Three, is the kind of thing that’s pretty easy for me to fall in love with. I’ve lost count of the number of female fronted synthpop and electronica bands that have tickled my fancy over the years, and as I listen to the immediate hooks on some of this record’s standout tracks, I’m reminded of bands like Metric and Chvrches, while the two-person DIY setup they’ve got going on brings to mind Sylvan Esso or a much more energetic Beach House. Of course once you throw the genre label “trip-hop” out there, people are bound to think of Portishead, who helped pioneer the genre. Credit where it’s due and all that… but with apologies to any Portishead fans out there, Phantogram’s Sarah Barthel has a vocal style that I actually enjoy listening to most of the time. At times Phantogram is more than catchy enough to be mainstream, but they’ve also got an experimental streak underpinning a few of their songs, which means they’re not just throwing huge pop hooks on top of keyboards and programmed rhythms and calling it a day. Over the course of ten tracks, they actually manage to impress me quite a bit with how well they balance sampling with live performance, and how they bring the contrasting vocal approach of Josh Carter to the forefront on a few songs. It’s the kind of record where I’m never tempted to get any two songs confused, and yet it’s remarkable how well it flows from one track to the next. It’s pretty much the perfect storm in terms of the things I like to hear on an electronica-heavy pop or rock album.
If there’s any thematic link between the songs on Three, it seems to be boredom and restlessness with one’s existing situation, wanting to try something new, and giving into temptation a whole lot as a result of it. I have no idea whether Phantogram pulled off such a balance between dark lyrics and thoroughly catchy hooks in the past, but it works like gangbusters here. These songs aren’t at all worried about whether they come across as creepy, selfish, entitled, addicted, or borderline sociopathic, because they seem to be about exploring the dark side none of us wants to admit to, and maybe for Phantogram, admitting to it is a way of exorcising personal demons. Don’t expect a lot of morals to the story here, is kind of what I’m saying. Some of it’s esoteric enough that I can’t make out as clear of a meaning, so it’s not all hedonism and apathy. And unless you count the startling frankness of the word “ho” being used over and over in the final track (which for me is the album’s lone weak point), there aren’t any explicit lyrics here, either. Honesty even when it’s uncomfortable seems to win out over pure shock value here. I appreciate it when a songwriter has that skill.
1. Funeral Pyre
The first track is by far the most impressionistic thing on the album. With somewhat minimal and repetitive lyrics, it depends largely on mystique to draw the listener into the album, and it does an amazing job of that. Sarah Barthel’s vocals go from a near-whisper at the beginning to an impassioned cry as the icy, 8-bit-style percussion is gradually colored in with shades of synth and guitar, and the deep blue of the night sky is gradually lit by the flames from a ship set ablaze. Other than her being transfixed on “your eyes”, the song gives very few hints as to who or what she’s saying goodbye to in the fashion of a Viking funeral here. But it at least explains the album’s cover image. I’m impressed at how strong of a mood this song sets despite not following a discernible verse/chorus structure. Despite not being obvious single bait, for me it’s the most memorable song on the record, due to the unorthodox backbeat that echoes in my brain long after the song is over, the searing guitar melody that breaks out during the bridge, and the awe-inspiring drum fills in the climax. It’s the perfect balance of programming and live performance, and I can only imagine it would bring the house down as a concert opener. (Hopefully not down in flames, though.)
2. Same Old Blues
The Gospel music that shows up in the beginning of this song – apparently it’s from a group called Voices of Conquest and the lyrics are “Oh yes, my Lord, he will surely bring you peace” – stands in deliberate contrast to the anything-but-peaceful lyrics Phantogram wrote for it. It’s up-tempo and catchy as hell, but it’s written from the perspective of being stuck in a rut, bored with the same old, same old, and having these dreams telling you that some sort of dark spiritual force is weighing you down. That’s a pretty apt description of what it’s like to go through a depression, I guess. Sarah’s vocals are anything but depressing here – she’s got just the right mix of raspiness and smooth clarity to remind of me of Brooke Fraser at a few points, oddly enough. And the way she uses the Gospel sampling for a bit of call-and-response in the chorus is pretty clever, even if the uderlying point of it seems to be that the old “pray your blues away” solution isn’t working out for her. By far, the most memorable part of the song is the bridge, where a downright wicked bass drop plays off of a dirty guitar solo, mimicking the chorus melody. It’s like the best parts of a rave and a rock concert happening every few seconds. Maybe that’s a slight exaggeration, but the point is, it’s pure awesomeness.
3. You Don’t Get Me High Anymore
Now there’s a provocative song title, especially for a lead single. While I’m usually a bit skittish about drug metaphors in song lyrics, I think this track does a pretty good job of exposing the dark side of such a metaphor, likening a stale relationship to a transaction where the lover/dealer can’t get a person high as easily as they used to, because they’ve developed a tolerance and now seek a bigger high. The huge buzzing synth riff and the rattling beat are full of character here, making it a song that demands to be noticed in just about any context. Just due to how fast Sarah rattles off the verse lyrics, it’s easy to miss how surreal and alarming some of them are, particularly the part about dreaming your teeth are falling out (which is apparently a dream that Josh Carter actually had a few times). The pre-chorus melody, quite surprisingly, peels back the layers of sound, revealing a simple synth melody and some beautiful but vulnerable high notes from Sarah as she decides to face the fear head-on: “Walk with me to the edge/Stare with me into the abyss/Do you feel like letting go?/I wonder how far down it is.” That abyss could be suicide or sobriety for all I know, but for a person in that deep, both are probably equally terrifying. It takes talent to take such dark lyrics and craft such an engaging song around it, without the sheer poppiness of it all eroding away at the meaning. I’d point out how utterly addictive this song is, but I’m sure I’d get groans.
4. Cruel World
This song is where the trip-hop influence is most pronounced – it’s got more of a laid-back swagger to it, sort of like what Miike Snow did last year on their song “Heart Is Full” (on an album called iii, now that I think of it), but minus the stupid lyrics. This one tricks you into thinking it’s a bit of candied piano pop first, before the chorus drops in, with a cymbal-heavy beat that I like to think of as “acidic”, and some more bits of sampled soul music (this time the Lee Moses song “Every Boy and Girl”, though so chopped up that the very end is the only time you only hear more than a split second of it at a time). The lyrics are pretty bitter here, with Sarah having experienced so much hurt and negativity for all of her efforts to actually care about people, that she’s reinventing herself as a bad girl and saying “goodbye to my good side”. It’s not a worldview I’d like to advocate, but man, I sure can relate to those moments when you feel like no good deed goes unpunished, so I can relate to how she was probably feeling when she wrote this.
5. Barking Dog
And now for something completely different! Josh Carter takes over lead vocals here on a song that is heavily driven by strings and samples, and this was a bit startling to me the first time around since I didn’t even recall him singing backup on any of the first four songs, so I had no idea the band had two vocalists up until this point. It’s an effective way to flip the script, since the lyrics are very stream-of-consciousness here, circling around in a bit of a surreal loop as a man tries to wrestle with voices in his head, regrets that seem to replay themselves over and over for eternity, and unwanted distractions like the sound of a dog barking somewhere in the distance. I didn’t know until I hit up Genius to read the lyrics for this song that it was partially inspired by Sarah’s sister committing suicide. That’s a tough topic for any artist to tackle, and that makes it even more interesting that Josh is the one singing here, as if Sarah needed to hand the mic over to her bandmate to avoid getting too close to the material. You definitely hear the anguish in his voice in the echoing climax – it’s very Peter Gabriel-esque, actually. This track will probably stick out like a sore thumb to a lot of folks, but it does so for good reason, and as out-of-nowhere as it seems at first, I couldn’t imagine the album without it.
6. You’re Mine
Now that the cat’s out of the bag and noobs like me know that the band has two vocalists, they use this to great effect on a chillingly possessive song that bounces the lead vocal role back and forth between the two of them. The stuttering beat is disorienting at first, and the lyrics are almost like barked out orders, telling a relationship partner not to go looking anywhere else or even believe someone else will love them, because it’s too late – you belong to me now. It may as well be called “Gaslighting: The Song”, considering how well it illustrates the creepy effect a controlling and manipulative person’s words can have on the other. Is now a good time to mention how much fun the song’s chorus is? Probably not, considering the subject matter, but what the hell, I can’t resist. The chopped-up vocal sampling and killer dance beat make it the kind of thing you’ll want to writhe around the room to, preferably with strobe lights flashing. I just love how unflinchingly sinister the whole thing is. They just lay those bossy lyrics out on the table, and you can’t help but notice how close some of it comes to more “conventional” love songs that try to make possessive behavior sound romantic, and they push it just far enough to destroy any notions you might have had of this being okay.
Sometimes bands in this genre start to lose me when they get into the slower material, and there isn’t as much in the way of “wall of sound” pyrotechnics or tricky rhythmic stuff going on. I really thought at first that I was going to hate this song, due to its languid piano melody that seems to be coming from a warped tape that warbles here and there on playback. Then I started to wonder if they had actually recorded this on an old answering machine, and I grew to like the atmosphere of loss and sadness that it conveyed. Since it took me a few tries to get the hang of the how the syncopated piano syncs up with the drums, I actually got a bit of a “Pyramid Song” vibe from it, and that’s one of my favorite Radiohead songs, so I can’t complain. Plus, this is another excellent use of both vocalists that makes the song a lot stronger than if just one person were singing. Sarah and Josh both take turns playing the part of the lover left in suspense, wondering if the person on the other side of the phone is going to bother giving them a straight answer about whether this thing’s for real. You get the sense that it might be a relief for the other person to just say “no” and cut them loose. Perhaps that’s implied by the abrupt ending, when the tape seems to have been cut off because there was nothing left to say.
8. Run Run Blood
This is definitely one of the most oddball songs on the album, which is saying a lot, because even the big singles aren’t necessarily conventional in terms of the interesting sound collages that the band puts together. It’s a fairly up-tempo song, yet it’s quite ominous as well, bouncing back and forth between a hazy, buzzing guitar melody, skittering beats, and a nice little keyboard crescendo that offers only a temporary, false sense of security from the bloodthirsty wolves and lions that are apparently hunting down the listener. It’s the last of three tracks in a row where Sarah and Josh share the lead vocal, and it’s worth noting that the interaction between them is quite different in each of the three. While I’d have preferred a little more rhythmic force from the drums in this one (they seem more on the synthesized side, with less contribution from the live drums than usual), the buildup and breakdown here is fantastic, and there’s this eerie moment as Sarah sings the chorus melody that reminds me of Paper Route doing something similar in their song “Rabbit Holes”. Stylistically, this one feels like more genres than I can name all being thrown into a blender, and they sure didn’t forget the straight-up pop in that equation, because it’s hard to get that climactic vocal hook, “It’s bigger than life/It’s bigger than love/Bigger than us” out of my head.
The band mostly sets aside the trippy electronic shenanigans for this song, which is a dark yet surprisingly heartfelt “power ballad” sort of song that finds Sarah trying once and for all to exercise some personal demons. You get the sense from her weary vocal performance, and especially how she belts out the chorus to the kind of beat you’d expect to hear at an 80s slow dance, that she’s sick and tired of being haunted, and it’s either kill or be killed. While the synths and programming play an important role here, it’s really the gloomy electric guitar that defines the song for me, making the verses a rare moment of terrifying intimacy where it really feels like we’re hearing the innermost thoughts of a woman at the end of her rope.
10. Calling All
You guys are kidding me with this one, right? This is like a bonus track or a B-side or something that wasn’t really meant to be on the album, wasn’t it? Nope, it’s the actual closing track of the album, and after all the emotional baggage of the last few songs, I can only imagine they just wanted to blow off some steam and have fun again. But yikes, what a way to do it. Sarah’s off-key moaning over the first few gurgles of synth are my first clue that something’s not right. I think it’s meant to be sexy, given the overtly sexual tone of the rest of the song, but it just sounds like she’s suffering from a really bad headache. Then she begins to shout the lyrics as if through a megaphone, rallying all the call girls to strut their stuff for some dollar bills. I’m not kidding or even exaggerating. They went and wrote a stripper song. I’ll grant that it’s a catchy stripper song, with the chorus urging us about a million times over, “You know you wanna shake”. But leading up to that is several repetitions of the line, “We all got a little bit of ho in us”, delivered in that same “painful moan” sort of voice that opened the song. This is not sexy. It’s downright embarrassing. Unlike other songs on the album where I can tell they’re purposefully deconstructing some sort of damaging behavior, the intent of this one seems to be full-on empowerment. The line “Love is overrated” pretty much obliterates anything other than mindless sex that I could try to interpret it to be about it. And look, I don’t want to be the prude who tries to shame someone for being proud of their sexuality. If you and your girlfriends want to go out to the club trawling for new boy toys every weekend, have at it. I just don’t think comparing that activity to straight-up prostitution is as empowering of an image as Phantogram seems to think it is. Issues with the lyrics aside, most of this song blows straight past catchy into downright annoying territory. It could be about nothing of consequence and it would still be an irritating way to close out the album. I really hate that this one track has to drag my opinion of the whole record down a notch, but well, there you have it.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Funeral Pyre $2
Same Old Blues $2
You Don’t Get Me High Anymore $1.75
Cruel World $1
Barking Dog $1.25
You’re Mine $1.75
Run Run Blood $1.50
Calling All –$.50
Sarah Barthel: Lead vocals, Keyboards
Josh Carter: Vocals, guitars
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF: