Things affect people on Phantogram’s latest and greatest
by James Brotheridge
Things affecting other things and people affecting other people are big themes on Phantogram’s new record. “Bad dreams never affect me,” sings Sarah Barthel, the main singer of the Brooklyn duo that also features Josh Carter. “I’m just a scene in a movie.” Elsewhere: “What would I do if I didn’t affect you?” and, later in the same song: “Strange, you didn’t affect me.”
Elsewhere, they muse on the question of whether anything they do will ever have any effect on anything at all.
Phantogram doesn’t need to worry. When it comes to Voices, they’re definitely having an effect.
Phantogram’s 2010’s debut, Eyelid Movies, had its moments. Barthel’s keyboard synth clicked with a solid foundation created by Carter’s guitar, giving the record an interesting indie-pop, mild, trip-hop flavour. But the sampling, programmed beats and Barthel’s breathy affectations sometimes made the songs feel cold.
It’s hard to say what they tweaked this time around; their style isn’t that different. Maybe it’s just a change in my tastes? Carter still contributes catchy guitar lines complimented by Barthel’s irresistible synth work. When Carter sings, his plain-dude, restricted range voice nicely contrasts Barthel‘s voice, which suits the music well but sometimes goes too far (like when she loses the “n” in “moon” in “Howling at the Moon”).
Then again, the improvement might be due to refined songwriting. Album opener “Nothing But Trouble” plums similar murky depths to Eyelid Movies but the band also shows some big pop chops on tracks like “The Day You Died” and terrific, pretty melancholy on songs like “Billy Murray”.
Why something affects someone is tough to pin down. No wonder Phantogram is so interested in the topic.
Arts and Crafts
When I plucked this CD out of the slush pile in late January it took me a few minutes to figure out if this L.A. alt-rock sextet’s name was NO or ON due to some visual trickery on the cover. It’s an ambiguity the band promotes as part of its creative ethos where the meanings of things get flipped. El Prado is titled after a bar in NO’s central L.A. neighbourhood of Echo Park which is apparently undergoing gentrification. Formerly down and out, the band, which features three Americans, two New Zealanders and drummer Michael Walker from Regina, would’ve been on the dispossessed side of the gentrification equation. An acute sense of melancholy and loneliness pervades the album’s 13 songs. “Wake in the dark, there’s a hole in your heart” is a sample lyric. Definitely worth checking out. /Gregory Beatty
Burn Your Fire for No Witness
Although she’s a contemporary artist, Angel Olsen’s sophomore album reminds me of what I liked best about indie music back in the ’90s: the emotional directness, the lack of glossy production and the sense of humor embedded in the sad-sack moments. On “Hi-Five”, an overdriven guitar backs the Missouri-bred singer as she throws a li’l country twang on lines like “Are you lonely too?/High-five/So am I”. Critics are rightly comparing Olsen’s vocal style to Hope Sandoval of Mazzy Star, but I can also hear snippets of Patti Smith and Dee Dee from the Dum Dum Girls in there. As a writer, she’s most effective when the songs are compact, like “Forgiven/Forgotten”, a perfect two-minute blast of sludgy riffing leavened by Olsen’s agile croon winding through it. I lost interest in the longer, meandering moments, but an intriguing record overall. /Gillian Mahoney
About 20 years ago, New York-based Cibo Matto released their art-poppish Viva! La Woman, a food-themed joyride born of a time when Björk and Luscious Jackson were lighting up pop charts with their ’90s neon sounds. Not so much the case these days, but thank the goddess–on-high that core band members vocalist Yuka Honda and everything else-ist Miho Hatori came back. Hotel Valentine is an adventurous and incredibly fun concept album about a haunted hotel. It’s a great antidote to the sun-hungry rock and gloomy experimental music I’ve been listening to this winter. The record magnifies all of the awesome from their earlier work, with Honda and Hatori bringing chops honed by their experiences with Gorillaz and Yoko Ono. Hope you enjoy the slightly unhinged, genre melting, beat-and-vox driven pop as much as I do –– it’s so good for you. /Amber Goodwyn