Review Summary: Beautiful contrast
Deception and contrast are no strangers to music, particularly more complex forms of music such as progressive rock, jazz, and classical music. After all, it's neat to hear something that will catch you off guard once in a while instead of remaining a one-trick pony. While plenty of albums are placed in this "one-trick pony" category out of remaining dedicated to a certain crowd and comfort zone, contrasts and sonic shifts are often welcome to change the pace a bit. However, one thing that's a bit less common is having numerous simultaneous contrasts within a single song or piece and successfully offering something worthwhile to numerous crowds as a result. However, trip-hop/indie pop act Phantogram seem content with using contrast as one of the primary tricks in their arsenal with their second album Voices, particularly with a combination of catchy pop hooks illustrating the forefront of the production and complex, densely layered guitar/keyboard instrumentation used as a backdrop.
Actually, you might have already heard a clip of the single "Fall in Love" assuming you don't have AdBlock on your computer, because it was played and promoted extensively on Youtube for quite a few months. The clip, clocking in at about twenty-or-so seconds, serves as a good little taste of what was to come with the full-length, defined by a solid hip-hop beat and a sense of bombast in the electronic instrumentation despite relatively tame vocals. Sarah Barthel and Josh Carter display both a sense of confidence and restraint; they extend their vocals, but not enough that it would sound forced or cliched in tandem with the dynamics in the music. "Never Going Home," putting Carter's vocal work in the spotlight, uses mellow guitar work and puts him in a more vulnerable position, but as the dynamics build and the keyboard layering nearly overtakes even the beat, the vocals are what pull things through. Carter's limitations in his vocal range don't stop him from displaying some real passion in one of the album's biggest climaxes. Barthel's the more-prominent singer throughout the record, and also displays a nice variety of emotions and adapts well to changing dynamics. Additionally, the harmonies the two employ are quite sublime in songs like "Fall in Love," opener "Nothing But Trouble," and the mellow ballad "Bill Murray." The reason I bring up the vocals so much is because this is where the album's biggest contrasts lie: between the singing and the instrumentation.
Whereas the vocals are quite pop-oriented and rely on big hooks to carry them across each track, the instrumentation isn't on the same page. There aren't many instantly accessible earworms present in the backing keyboard and guitar melodies despite what's going on in the aural foreground; in fact, half of the time, the music doesn't even fit with what the vocals seem to be shooting for. Going back to "Fall in Love," Sarah's vocals are a bit airy and light compared to the massive beat being delivered in the chorus, and yet that's oddly where this album's beauty lies. It's not supposed to be taken at face-value; it's almost like a "listen for the catchy melodies and vocals, buy for the subtleties that lie within" scenario. "Celebrate Nothing," for instance, is initially defined by its bouncy, light-hearted beat; however, give it a few more spins and you'll notice a more three-dimensional piece defined by a lush keyboard backdrop and heavily over-dubbed vocal harmonies combining with Barthel's passionate delivery. The only thing that works against this album at times is that the beats and overall vibe of the experience end up blending together after a while; it'd be nice to hear a few more tempos being tried or a few more ballsy experiments attempted. However, considering the poppier elements of the record, it's not a big problem in the grand scheme of things.
"Phantogram" is a pretty fitting name for the duo that delivered this album, seeing as it defines images that are two-dimensional but appear as three-dimensional instead. Voices straddles the line between both dimensions, making it a very unique record in its own right; Sarah and Josh have created a very well-written balance between depth and melody that sets them apart from many pop acts that are around today. Deceptive contrast can sometimes be annoying, but when done right it's a real force to be reckoned with, regardless of what genre it's being employed in; Voices is proof of that.