2014 has seen Phantogram become darlings of the mainstream, co-opted by Stateside telly behemoths Letterman, Fallon and Kimmel, although national exposure is no guarantee of quality.
The band’s second long-player arrives following 2009’s debut album ‘Eyelid Movies’ and 2011’s EP ‘Nightlife.
‘Nothing But Trouble’ starts with Massive Attack-like drums and whispered, ethereal vocals that bring to mind the fractured sound of Blonde Redhead’s Kazu Makino (a similarity prominent throughout). The tone of the album is set; love’s broken down, he/she’s gone, what went wrong?
‘Black Out Days’ is so now, beginning with the ubiquitous gargling so favoured by Ora, Rihanna or any of those dead-eyed fembots yet it also forces the exclamation ‘Aye, aye, someone’s been listening to The Knife!’ A pulsating bass line throbs throughout but fails to enchant.
The US hit single ‘Fall In love’ (released here 23rd June) is a thumpy ode about a union that’s hit the skids, Barthel blithely intones ‘You couldn’t see you were the car I crashed, Now you’re burning alive’ Apparently it was originally written with a rapper in mind, but on hearing it, Barthel insisted they kept it for themselves. Probably to be used to soundtrack a(nother) of Meredith ‘Grey’s Anatomy’ Grey’s travails. Dig deep.
The standout ‘Never Going Home’ is markedly improved with a great delicate opening before deploying Peter Gabriel-esque vocals and music (reminiscent of his innovative and influential four album stretch from 1977 -1982). The song features Flaming Lip Steven Drozd.
‘Bill Murray Burning Star’ is rendered even more confusing with lyrics that give no indication as to why the song’s called what it is; my guess is it’s based on his character in Lost in Translation. The song is pleasant enough and evocative of Beach House with its dreamy chorus which gives Barthel an opportunity to flex her vocal chords. ‘Celebrating Nothing’ seems destined for the EDM remix treatment with a pleading chorus of ‘give me a reason to stay alive (we’re gonna die)’.
MIA and Santigold affiliate John Hill co-produced, but, it lacks the insurrectionary and polarising oomph of the former and the day-glo joie de vivre of the latter. For an album that has garlanded so much praise it’s pretty unremarkable and forgettable apart from the occasional flourish and detour (especially the end to ‘Bad Dreams’ and ‘Never Going Home’) but they are never (long) enough to keep you grabbed or bothered. It comes across as a selection of insights with no cohesion; sounding rushed.
The ‘Heartache Upset Random Turmoil’ word generator is loafing on the job and phoning it with a plethora of ‘hearts, recognise, die, goodbye, leaving, truth, dreams, cold, alive, blame, God’.
The words –when sung – sound more appealing than written down, away from the context of the music the lyrics are gobbledegook, it strives for profundity yet the end result is trite and hollow.
All in all it’s a disappointing listen. Even the name Phantogram brings to mind a ghastly-ghostly ‘entertainer’ for a hen night. ‘Heeey, ladies, my name’s Count Dirkula …’
The promotional blurb protests that it ‘makes no concession to commercialism’ which doesn’t sit well with its attempts at trying to cover all bases. This is classic newspeak in its intentions.
These voices need to do more to be heard above the crowd.