Album Review of Three by Phantogram.
Release Date: Oct 7, 2016
Record label: Republic
Genre(s): Pop, Pop/Rock, Left-Field Pop
“I keep on having this dream where I’m stuck in a hole and I can’t get out / there’s always something that’s pulling me down,” laments Phantogram’s Sarah Barthel on ‘Same Old Blues’, the second track on their latest and noticeably darker record ‘Three’. It’s the upstate New York duo’s third LP and the follow-up to 2014’s ‘Voices’, a record that firmly cements the band’s legacy as reigning forces in the - admittedly niche - indie trip-hop circles. Phantogram have been dead set with mixing stadium-filling choruses to their signature brand of intoxicating synth-pop, their tracks an adrenaline-filled rallying cry.
Difficult to argue with Three's convincing lead track, the radio-friendly extravagance that is You Don't Get Me High Anymore. How it whips itself into a dizzy mess before chomping down on its skyscraper chorus is a demonstration of pop smarts advanced enough to suggest that this is breakthrough time for the American duo of Sarah Barthel and Josh Carter. "Used to take one, now it takes four" intones Barthel with a breathy detachment that recalls Curve (ask your mum) or prime Garbage (ask your big sis).
A few minutes into the latest Phantogram record and you would be forgiven for expecting nothing more than a collection of mundane dark electronica. The lead single, "You Don't Get Me High Anymore," is decent enough, even if it comes off a little too eager. It will make a great addition to summer indie playlists, channeling strobe-light passion with a Dandy Warhols flare.
Phantogram have always existed in the shadows, lurking just off the dancefloor and hiding from the neon glow of the bar lights. Three sees the band’s previously murky trip-hop attempting to make its way into the seething throng of frugging, bugged-eyed revellers and throw a few shapes. This is, thanks to the addition of some fine collaborators (Ricky Reed being just one example), Phantogram’s poppiest album to date.
In 2009, Phantogram’s icy, sample-based brand of modern trip-hop made its formal introduction to the world in the form of Eyelid Movies, a fascinating debut set released on celebrated indie label Barsuk Records. The album was a cult hit and warmly received, AllMusic’s great Tim Sendra noting how “the amount of care the duo gives to the arrangements, the subtle and successful blending of influences, and above all, the high quality of the songs and performances, mean that the record is a success on its own terms. ” Golf claps abound, the world of indie electro-pop kept a-spinnin’.
Three is different than Phantogram's previous releases. The hip-hop-influenced electro-pop duo have clearly grown a bit more comfortable with the conventional pop world; single "You Don't Get Me High Anymore" is as radio-friendly as anything they've done, and has some mainstream success to show for it.Unfortunately, songs like that single provide the more boring parts of the record; it's just one in a long, long line of comedown songs that have been flooding the airwaves for a few years now. The beats and hooks are simple and effective, but nothing you couldn't imagine Tove Lo or any other number of pop singers churning out.
Phantogram's Sarah Barthel and Josh Carter are no strangers to grim themes that border on nihilism, their music shimmering with sleek production that plumbs dark, foreboding inner worlds. Even by the Greenwich, New York-based trip-hop duo's standards, though, a dark cloud looms over the follow-up to their 2014 breakthrough. As they were creating Three, Barthel's sister—who was also a close friend of Carter's—committed suicide.
You’ve got to hand it to Sarah Barthel and Josh Carter for their work ethic. In the past nine years, they’ve transformed their duo Phantogram from an indie trip-hop venture à la Dead Can Dance to the most monolithic, festival-ready pop project on Republic’s roster. They’ve refined the core sound of Barthel’s powerhouse alto vocals and Carter’s glitchy arrangements to a diamond tip and embraced a blossoming interest in collaboration: from Miley Cyrus to Skrillex to OutKast’s Big Boi (who tapped Phantogram for multiple tracks on his 2012 album Vicious Lies and Dangerous Rumors, and later recorded an EP with them under the name Big Grams).
When Phantogram came around in 2007, the duo’s use of sampling freshened up a world that was, at the time, way too obsessed with chillwave and indie rock ballads. Josh Carter and Sarah Barthel mixed guitars, keyboards, and howling vocals for a slew of EPs, capturing the ears of fans who loved the spliced surprises of acts like the Beastie Boys and David Bowie. As they worked through new material, their grasp of production increased rapidly, and soon artists like Miley Cyrus and Big Boi were knocking at their door to collaborate.
Phantogram's third album, the simply titled Three, marks the point where their music lost any traces of originality and charm and simply became more fodder for the pop music machine. The duo of Josh Carter and Sarah Barthel started off making pop-informed music; they were never doing anything avant-garde or too daring. But as they progressed, their sound became less individual and weird in order to fit in with the prevailing tides of popular sounds.
For most of their careers, Sarah Barthel and Josh Carthel have pretty much relied on nostalgia in order to do their work. As Phantogram, their music has always resembled much of the sounds evoked by the post-punk revival earlier in the aughts in its poppier form. Drawing heavily on dream pop, electronica and trip-hop, all in equal measure, albums like 2010’s Eyelid Movies and 2014’s Voices come off well-rounded and calculated experiments between those two worlds.
After a yeoman-like collaborative EP with Big Boi, Phantogram discover their joie de vivre on Three, an album more unhinged and emotionally graspable than their previous work. The New York duo’s sound has always been a pastiche, blending scraps of trip-hop, synth-pop, indie rock and downtempo electronic, and here they build some truly mesmerizing records by allowing these components to exist separately within the same track. On single “You Don’t Get Me High Anymore” the verses and hook are bombastic, with propulsive snares and a melody so fuzzed-out it’s hard to tell if it comes from a guitar or a keyboard.
Third albums normally find artists planting ceremonial flags, often statements of mastery. Beset by the suicide of singer Sarah Barthel's older sister, Three arrives with a weight hovering over electro pop-hop duo Phantogram. Soulful follow-up to last year's Big Boi co-feature EP Big Grams, the Voices of Conquest-sampled "Same Old Blues" and boom-bap-crunched "Cruel World" and "You're Mine" all venture into sonic realms previously unexplored by the Greenwich Village, NYC, concern.