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Tales From the Third Floor: Phantogram’s Voices

So there I was in the frightening third floor of the HMV in Toronto. For those not in the know, the third floor houses all of the sort of ‘fringe’ genres compared to the ubiquitous Rock/Pop which can be found on the first floor. Up there, you have punk, metal, EDM, hip-hop, folk, jazz, classical and so on and so on. Sort of a cross-section of ‘scene’ genres. If you’re into the scene, then you know what’s up and what you’re looking for. To the casual jewel-case flipper, it’s daunting. I know specific names and have heard of specific albums, but even triumphs of the genre can seem daunting if you’re not that familiar with the genre. Every song that’s played when I walked in there has had people screaming in it.

I am a pretty big fan of a lot of the electronic music that I’ve heard, but I am absolutely clueless when it comes to genre classification beyond that point. Labels like “ambient house” and “local prog-trip-hop” darted out at me and as I read the labels, I would nod slowly to myself. I would say “man…I like prog,” or “I can dig some ambient music”. Really, I have no idea what is going on there, but it’s such a thrilling combination of words! Presumably they’re not mashed together too often, or they wouldn’t have labels beside them. “This some deep shit,” I think (it probably also has a cool cover, which helps). Of course, I don’t know what I’m talking about – but if I listened to it, then perhaps I would. Those descriptions would suddenly be illuminated as I match the words to the music, not considering that I don’t have much of a vocabulary to discuss electronic music (mostly I check Wikipedia after the fact and go “huh, that’s what I’ve been listening to”). Also, I could hate it.

I put the CD back down and retreat over to the listening station. After a moment of “man, these are just the artists with the best marketing”, I stuffed that bullshit away and reassured myself that a) it is a genre-specific listening station and b) it has ten albums on offer! A lot more than the standard three.

To cut a long story short, the one that ended grabbing me was Voices by Phantogram. I dig their name, I dig their aesthetic, and I dig the gnarly riff that opens the album on “Nothing But Trouble”. It reminds me of the Flaming Lips “Race For the Prize”, where the riff sounds like it’s coming from in between notes and emanates from the machine it’s played on by pulling it apart rather than by playing it on its own terms. While this would prove to be the exception rather than the rule, I was nevertheless hooked.

The connection between this band and the Lips is not the last one to be made, either, as Lips member Steven Drozd makes an appearance on “Never Going Home”, the verses of which employ a Radiohead-esque forlorn guitar part with what sounds like a drunken buzzing underneath, putting the song off-kilter at just the right angle for the close-harmony vocals of Sarah Barthel and Josh Carter (Phantogram themselves) to come in, but it strangely pulls up where you expect it to dive, to an uplifting chorus of “If this love/I’m never going home”, awash in synthesizers.

For the balance of analog and electronic instruments, experimentalism and pop hooks, this album is a fascinating listen. It’s not a new game that they’re playing at, but the execution is excellent. Sarah Barthel has the kind of voice that would have had a synthetic orchestra thrown behind it in the 80s, but instead of bombast is ducking and weaving from riff to riff, synthesizer to guitar to beat and pulling you through by the hand and bringing you out to the other side. Josh Carter, who shares the vocal duties with Barthel 50/50 lives much of the album under effects but also provides some of the most anthemic moments on the album (on the aforementioned “Never Going Home” and “I Don’t Blame You”)

The sense of dark and light that is depicted so clearly on the cover on both members’ faces is evident in every song on the album – nothing here is pure happiness or pure melancholy, but always somewhere in between, in flux as the songs go on. The constant movement forward ensures that the album is bereft of dull moments, and makes the 43 minutes breeze by. Often times, I get really excited at the outset of an album, as I’ll hear the first track and note so many different things this band is doing and establishing their sound in my mind. Twelve songs in, however, and I’m already over the sound and all the elements have been gone over multiple times. Of course, an album produced by all the same people at all the same time is going to have a cohesive sound but sometimes there just isn’t enough variance in the tracks. Not so with Voices. It’s a fairly eclectic and thoroughly modern album – one I’m glad I braved the third floor for.

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