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Phantogram Conjure Their Own Spell of Warm, Eerie, Nightmarish Melancholia on ‘Voices’

SPIN Rating: 8 of 10
Release Date: February 18, 2014
Label: Republic

There are times when the hazy dream pop on Phantogram’s second full-length flirts with the grimly wavy sound proffered by better-established bands like Beach House and the xx. But what makes this upstate New York duo’s darkness uniquely compelling is their seamless blending of hip-hop influences with horror-film beats, which insures that their particular brand of brooding is complex and surprising, instead of simply sullen.

Since their 2009 full-length debut, Eyelid Movies, Sarah Barthel and Josh Carter have dedicated themselves to complicating their sound. Between two EPs, they appeared on the Catching Fire soundtrack and collaborated with Big Boi on late 2012’s Vicious Lies and Dangerous Rumors, which was a leap of faith for both parties: the Outkast MC experimented with far dreamier synths than his usual fare, while Phantogram brought more rhythm and swagger to their own.

Voices flaunts the duo’s expanded range, opening with the superbly jolting single “Nothing But Trouble,” which begins with Barthel singing, “Do you ever have the feeling that you constantly been dreaming this is life?” It’s a perfect starting point for a collection of songs that toy with mall-goth angst shrouded in earnestness and sensuality. “Howling at the Moon,” another standout, finds the duo at peak seduction, with the repeated line, “At night I cry and howl at the moon” drawn out and sung as if all the words were released in one desperate breath, juxtaposed with a vampiric Bauhaus beat.

“Bill Murray” pushes us back in Beach House’s direction, though personalized with a warmer approach to melancholia and a fluid beat teeming with static. (Hopefully Carter and Barthel get their wish, and Bill himself agrees to be in the video.) “I Don’t Blame You” builds to a distortion-filled climax, with Carter’s deep voice sullenly chiming in (he also shows up vocally on the sweet but not extraordinary “Never Going Home”) and providing a perfect transition into the more energetic “Celebrating Nothing.” And while Voices begins with a punch, it ends with an appropriate whimper: “My Only Friend” starts off quietly and never loses its calm even as it grows more grandiose, its final, piano-driven 15 seconds serving as the satisfying conclusion to a tightly packed dream, familiar but never overly so.