A Voice

I don't like the album cover on this one. I know we're not supposed to judge a book by its cover, but it reminds of these terrible, uninteresting covers whose focal point is some or all members of the band. It seems like such a waste. You have an opportunity for a visual accompaniment to the sound within. Maybe I'm too attached to these things, but the album cover always makes up a part of my listening to an album. Putting the faces of those responsible on the cover looks like wasteful cult of personality to me, a good marketing move, and with that usually the relinquishment of any artistic pretension.

This one has some clear advantages on similarly questionable covers, though. For one, it doesn't hurt that the people picture are in the far end of the attractiveness spectrum, especially lead singer Sarah Barthel. The woman is quite stunning. Secondly, it shows the entire band. These two people are Phantogram. But most importantly, it's not a simple photo of the two sitting around looking good. The silly lighting effect put in place probably just to keep it from looking bland also serves the purpose of setting a space for this sound. Again, call me overattached, but to me, the album sounds like it was recorded in the same room that picture was taken.

That is to say the album is dark, but more than that, is it hollow. Light – or sound – is barely coming in through the blinds, though, as with it lights, this dynamic contrast makes what is there stand out all the more. To say it is hollow, then, is no slight against it.

The sound that does come out is mostly Sarah's own voice. It is most of the time belied by a barely-melodic bass drone and a high rhythm section. It is also loud but I do mean high, in that is seems to be more to the center of the sound spectrum than in most recordings, where it tends to occupy a lower position, regardless of volume. These drums thus form the most significant partner to Sarah's voice, not so much as a contrast to it, but complementing it, and competing with it for your attention. It is the most inventive of all sections of Voices' music by far. These drums are often fast and unpredictable, inspired by the most creative hip-hop counterparts, countering Sarah's elongated vowels on most songs.

She nearly single-handedly presents the melodies we latch on to, hence the hollowness. It's almost like a rap album where no one is rapping, but singing. Even choruses feel emptied out, like they're lacking in substance, in sound, and thus somewhat fail to lift you off your feet. I've been listening to it steadily in the past days, but I'm unsure how these songs would fare on the dancefloor. I can imagine my drunk self ecstatic at the early sounds of Black Out Days or Howling at the Moon, but I don't know if everyone else would be as excited.

Everything in the production contributes to the hazy atmosphere the cover suggests. Every instrument, most of which are completely digital, sounds like it's coming through smoke. Even her voice, the only organic-sounding thing on the album is always reverberated is a way that takes away some contour her crystalline voice might have had. This is not Chvrches' Lauren Mayberry's laser-cut voice. In fact, this is in many ways the opposite of Chvrches production. Everything there comes across as very close to you, very digital, very sharp, straight out of the soundboard and into your ears. Here, you can always see that darkened room from the cover, and the band playing in the back, where they can be barely seen.

Again, this is no complaint. The production and song structure as a whole nearly perfectly balance out the "organic" and "inorganic" elements. In a way, this is the direct opposite of my last review, Daft Punk's Random Access Memories. That was, in essence, analog instruments making electronic music. This is fully digital, but what they're doing is very "real." In the intersection between these two realms lives the glitch, and while this is most evident in tracks like I Don't Blame You, glitchy electronic sounds are all over. On the less positive side, some songs rely too much on repetition, which unsurprisingly correspond to the album's weakest songs. What is surprising, however, is that these songs are also sung by Josh Carter, who, while by no means an incompetent singer, seems to understand that the stronger songs need Sarah's stronger presence. If only he'd sung the other weaker song, Fall in Love, an overly poppy that feels almost out of place in this dark room.

Their first album, Eyelid Movies, came as a recommendation from a friend but I couldn't get into it. I suppose I never gave it a proper chance, but halfway through I just gave up. It wasn't bad, it just wasn't gripping, and I had better things to do. Maybe it's the expensive production, maybe it's improved songwriting, but this one left an impression on me early on, especially the offbeat guitar riff and trippy beat of The Day You Died, which survived for days in the back of my mind after listening to it once. It doesn't seem urgent or lasting in any significant way, but the few things it does to stand out – especially, the creative drumming – is well worth the time.

Voices: 7.9