Phantogram’s major-label debut, Voices, adds a brighter sheen than their previous efforts via producer John Hill, who oversaw Shakira and Rihanna’s current hit and produced Santigold and Wavves as well. Otherwise, it’s not terribly different from their previous Barsuk releases: Phantogram’s songs remain richer in sonic detail than they are in melody, harmony and vocal prowess. Sarah Barthel’s breathy cries often dissolve into the dense trip-hop fog, and when John Carter takes the mike on the album’s most fully realized ballad, “Never Going Home,” and well as on its weakest, Flaming Lips-copped cut, “I Don’t Blame You,” he struggles to navigate even the simplest melody.
The songs — “Nothing But Trouble,” “Black Out Days” and “Bad Dreams” — all feature poetry as bleakly generic as their titles. Every other song references death: “Baby, don’t die on me” starts “Never Going Home.” “Give me a reason to stay alive/ I’ve got the feeling we’re gonna die,” goes the chorus of “Celebrating Nothing.” “My Only Friend” features the awkward couplet “As long as you are alright/ I will know to die.” In “Howling at the Moon,” Barthel blithely sings, “Yeah, I will crucify my dreams to be on your side.” But even if a woman were to make such a self-negating, retrograde commitment, how could she actually crucify a dream?
Despite all this, Phantogram are poised for a commercial breakthrough. Their songs have appeared on several TV shows and film soundtracks (including The Hunger Games: Catching Fire), and several dates on their upcoming tour have already sold out. They just the kind of mid-level indie act that major labels endeavor to exploit: Their atmospheric sound lumps them in with a thousand fashionable dream-pop acts, while Barthel’s dusky synths and crepuscular beatbox grooves offer a lighter alternative to aggressive, less radio-friendly duos like Sleigh Bells and Crystal Castles. But with so many acts covering such similar territory, the bar for this brand of gauzy electronic pop should be set high. Phantogram set it low and fail to clear it.