Can a band working in relative isolation craft music that resonates with listeners around the world? Can that band and its music evolve and connect with an ever-widening audience without sacrificing quality or compromising integrity?
When the band in question is Phantogram, the answer to both is unequivocally "yes." And Voices provides indisputable proof.
The New York duo's second full-length album catches the ear quickly, melding hazy dream pop, dark atmospheres, and head-knocking rhythms into a compelling, original sound. Opener "Nothing But Trouble" contrasts waves of distortion with Sarah Barthel's beguiling soprano, underpinned by Josh Carter's gritty urban beats. Moments later, the staccato vocal hook and layered rhythms of "Black Out Days" drive the listener deep into a fever dream of echo and atmospherics. But do not confuse immediacy with instant gratification. The impact of Phantogram's songs intensifies over time.
Since 2007, the Phantogram sound has evolved gradually and organically, and the band's career has mirrored that progress. Formed in Saratoga Springs, a small city in upstate New York, longtime friends Carter and Barthel crafted music untroubled by outside interference. With each new release and national tour since 2009 debut Eyelid Movies (Barsuk), their sound has progressed—and so has their popularity. Yet Voices makes no concessions to commercialism. From inception to execution, Phantogram's second album stays true to the aesthetic that has won them a wide, disparate fan base.
The making of Voices hewed closer to its predecessors than the band first intended. Although now based in Brooklyn, they retreated to familiar turf to minimize distractions. "We tried writing in Los Angeles, we tried writing in New York City, but we had to head back to upstate New York to get some peace and quiet," says Barthel. Only after the initial songwriting was completed did they decamp to LA, where Carter would team up with co-producer John Hill (M.I.A., Santigold) to record and put the finishing touches on the band’s sophomore album.
Lead single "Fall In Love" emphasizes its sly hooks via contrasting dynamics, with quiet snippets of synthesized strings and isolated vocal passages sprinkled amidst pulsating bass tones and Psycho-worthy orchestral stabs. Bluesy, vapor trail guitar lines and a rhythmic buzzing reminiscent of a mad scientist's laboratory impart the sublime "Bill Murray" with an eerie balance of contemplation and disquiet.
Although hip-hop is a key influence on their music, the division of labor in Phantogram doesn't neatly split into clear cut old school roles of DJ and MC. The two members share creative responsibilities. Carter sings lead on two new tunes ("Never Going Home" and the percussive "I Don't Blame You") and Barthel assumed a bigger role in production on Voices. Sometimes they write together in the same room, at others they split up; immediate proximity isn't a prerequisite after years of collaboration.
"We're able to work separately from one another and accomplish the same goal," explains Carter. An idea hatched on piano or guitar by one band member may then be passed on to the other for further refinement. "If we're stumped on something specific, we're able to swap the material we're working on," adds Sarah. "That's a really cool process, because one of us will think of an idea the other might not have."
Whereas their previous work was largely studio-based, this time the live experience factored into the composition, too. Phantogram has toured incessantly since the release of Eyelid Movies, headlining larger and larger sold-out shows at clubs and theaters and delivering knockout performances at festivals including Coachella, Bonnaroo, and Treasure Island. "Touring led the way to what the music on Voices would sound like," says Barthel. "It helped us expand and discover new sounds and dynamics that we wanted to incorporate."
In addition to the new sonic discoveries, all those shows have proved integral to Phantogram’s gradual, but steady, rise in acclaim. "A huge part of our audience comes from playing live and touring," says Carter. "Being able to go from playing a crowd of five people to 50, then 500 or even 5,000 has marked our progress and shown us the value of working hard, while challenging us to still make our music unique."
Discipline and innovation have won Phantogram admiration from well-seasoned peers. Acclaimed music supervisor Alexandra Patsavas (The Twilight Saga, Gossip Girl) solicited an exclusive track ("Lights") for the soundtrack of The Hunger Games: Catching Fire. The duo joined forces with the Flaming Lips for "You Lust," a thirteen-minute epic showcased on the Oklahoma combo's 2013 album The Terror. "It seems crazy that artists that we admire want to create music with us," admits Carter. "That is huge compliment to us and all our hard work."
Meanwhile, working with Big Boi on three tracks for his 2012 solo album Vicious Lies and Dangerous Rumors did more than just broaden Phantogram's listening audience. The Outkast veteran also dispensed sage advice as they graduated to a larger record label and bigger crowds. "The conversations with him gave us composure and confidence," says Barthel. "He told us not to worry and stay true to what we were already doing." Lend an ear to Voices and it is clear Phantogram took that advice to heart.