Album of the Week: Phantogram, 'Three'


Phantogram, 'Three'
Phantogram, 'Three' (Republic Records)

Phantogram's music sounds like a movie soundtrack. This isn't a unique observation; the cinematic quality of Phantogram's music has been commented on since the New York duo put out their first album, Eyelid Movies, back in 2009. The songs are catchy as hell; Josh Carter's beats have garnered Phantogram fans in the hip-hop world (most notably Big Boi, who joined forces with the band for last year's Big Grams album), and Sarah Barthel has a voice that can move from sultry and husky to an innocent falsetto to an aggressively punk snarl — all within one song. There's always been a darkness to the commercial-ready, dance-floor jams Phantogram put out, but with their third full length album, Three, the band's personal struggles and loss push the heavy darkness to the edge.

If this were a movie, its characters would be marked by grief and torn apart by darkness. Halfway through the recording process, Barthel's sister (and Carter's close friend) committed suicide. That loss (along with the losses of Phantogram's heroes and inspirations, Prince and David Bowie) caused the band to take a break, and when they got back together to work on the album, those losses were weighing heavily on the band. This album seems to question life and love, and it asks what you do once you've decided the world is indeed cruel.

Confusing emotional ground forced the band to dig deep. Phantogram chose to record the album in California with producer Ricky Reed (who — local fans take note — has a hand in the soon-to-be-released Lizzo album). In the press release for Three, Barthel said the album is "about heartbreak, and having to push forward and move on —and how challenging that is." It's hard not to read "Same Old Blues" as the band trying to get into Barthel's sister's mind ("You can never save my soul/I think it's time to let me go") with an instrumental breakdown near the end of the song dropping the beat so heavy and fast it feels like the beat is dragging the listener down into themselves. Sounding a little like Nine Inch Nails, "Run Run Blood" starts with guitar bends before the synth kicks in and Barthel's monotone, repetitive and trippy voice beckons the listener to "say goodbye to your family." Phantogram contemplate searching for the next high (and we're not just talking about drugs here) in the shiny and poppy "You Don't Get Me High Anymore" (co-written with Dan Wilson). Carter gets to sing a little in the entirely sexy and heavy call-and-response tune, "You're Mine" where Barthel's voice is sampled into a scream in the background, buried under a pulsating and predatory beat.

The album wraps with song that might feel a little out of place. The final song, "Calling All," is the most danceable track, even going so far as to wink at the listener: "You know you wanna shake." The tropicalia beat allows for a little catharsis after all the heavy contemplation that leads up it. And while it might not be a happy ending, Phantogram kindly let themselves (and us) off the hook with the last line of the record, "Whatever you do to get by/it's all right."


Phantogram - official site

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