Phantogram’s highly polished debut, Eyelid Movies, is very much an album born of 2010, and their relatively similar output since then—most notably “Don’t Move” from their Nightlife EP—suggests that the Greenwich, New York-based duo would need to pivot further away from their original blueprint to avoid the dreaded sophomore slump, which is both very real and very pervasive, even for artists who seemingly possess an unassailable combination of discipline and talent. But by broadening their palette on Voices, Sarah Barthel and Josh Carter have also defanged their music, resulting in a litany of such inoffensive and undistinguished electronic music that it could soundtrack a smartphone commercial.
The album’s lack of focus stems from one fundamental change: Phantogram has become a gentler band, slowing their usual breakneck pace into something far more docile and stationary. Eyelid Movies owed its success in large part to the dynamism of its riffs, and the band has always been at its best when focusing on quick payoffs—slick, assertive earworms like Eyelid Movies’s “As Far As I Can See” that burst right out of the gate. Voices’s highlights borrow from that same approach, with songs like “Fall In Love” and “Howling at the Moon” relying on a combination of stuttering vocal samples and alliterative guitar lines. But when the melodies slow down, such as on “Bad Dreams” and “Black Out Days,” the duo seems almost bored by the leisurely pace, and the results are middling and convoluted. Riddled with meandering side paths and weak, unfocused beat breaks, the album’s numerous low points suggest a band lacking the discipline to engage in anything other than simple verse-bridge-chorus structures.
Carter’s apprehensive, weak voice, often disguised with either distortion, whisper-singing, or both, has persisted as Phantogram’s largest stumbling block since Eyelid Movies. The results are amateurish whenever he takes up the mic, and it’s in these moments that Voices tumbles from passable electronic-pop to clumsy bedroom diversion. The elegiac “I Don’t Blame You” is one of the album’s more uptempo offerings, but is rendered colorless as Carter lays down his usual filter-obscured narrative. Conversely, Barthel’s icy vocal presence plays into Phantogram’s natural strengths as so-hip-they’re-aloof electronic purveyors, elevating a track like “My Only Friend” into a chilly, chic vision worthy of Portishead. Unfortunately, Carter enjoys a much larger presence this time around, and as the two largely split vocal duties, Voices rarely has a chance to establish any momentum before getting tripped up by its own inconsistency.