Album review: Phantogram – Three

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Phantogram may have adjusted their influences somewhat on their unimaginatively titled third album Three, but they haven’t adjusted their style. Taking the lead from their 2015 EP collaboration with Outkast’s Big Boi, featuring production from Skrillex amongst others, Sarah Barthel and Josh Carter’s previous trip-hop leanings remain but the emphasis is more on R&B and its dalliances with EDM. The Avalanches-like patchwork sampling is still a major theme with at least two tracks heavily referencing Moby’s blues- and gospel-underpinned 1999 album Play. Three also sees a welcome, upward shift in the quality of the band’s songwriting but this often comes at the cost of their indulgent and crude genre-blending, often covering several styles in the space of a four-minute song.

‘Same Old Blues’ packs serious power as a sublime pop song. It keeps building on itself constantly with melodies that soar and a vocal performance by Barthel that tries to capture some of the pain she must have felt when her sister committed suicide earlier this year. Like many of the tracks here, there are also jarring and awkward intrusions from genres including dancehall and cliched dubstep appearing like it was 2010 all over again.

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It’s fleeting, thankfully, and like the pre-chorus of the equally rambunctious ‘You Don’t Get Me High Anymore’, which slows down to the Korg M1 synth sound from early 90s house music, it shoehorns in samples that betray their previous ease at the cut-and-paste sound that helped identify and establish them on earlier tracks such as the elegantly jittering ‘As Far As I Can See’ and ‘When I’m Small’.

Sarah Barthel has a great pop voice and on Three she consistently wrings every drop of emotion from even the most hackneyed of lines, and so it’s a drudge when Josh Carter is given lead vocals on a Phantogram song and then, very quickly, interest starts to slip. Carter has an indie boy warble which tries to equal the swagger of Barthel on songs like ‘You’re Mine’ where they swap vocals, and the relief when he disappears back into the shadows is considerable. On the string-plucked ‘Barking Dog’, he gamely attempts urbanite mumble-core in the vain of Ben Gibbard (‘Death Cab for Cutie’ and ‘Postal Service’) but it refuses to stick. On the indie and electro-goth swagger of album highlight ‘Run Run Blood’, Barthel’s warnings of swarming bees and prowling lions make mincemeat of her partner’s attempted menace.

‘Calling All’ has seven different writer credits and ends the album in an out-of-sorts, anonymous style with its brashest and most crass attempt at appealing to the mainstream; the repetition of the line ‘everybody’s got a little bit of hoe in them’, refuelling endless conversations around cultural appropriation. ‘Calling All’ could quite possibly be Three‘s breakaway hit and will certainly become a rally cry at every festival the duo play over the next 12 months. Whilst there’s nothing wrong with this, it does pose the question of how much a band has to adjust to increasingly narrow themes to sell music in 2016. Phantogram have made a album that competently and repeatedly attracts the attention it so greedily craves but they have also lost a little of themselves in the process.

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