Phantogram
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Sunday, December 25, 2016

Three | Phantogram



Inside the cardboard housing for Phantogram's third album, the inscription is simple: For Becky.

The two words summarize Three well. The jagged album, proudly nonconformist to smooth synthpop standards, is checkered with memories of Sarah Barthel's sister, Becky, who committed suicide during its creation. "Barking Dog," a Josh Carver-fronted track chronicling the afterthoughts of someone who has committed suicide, was already in consideration before Becky's death, but all things considered, it take new meaning here. Amid her coping, Barthel fuels her inner cynic on "Cruel World" ("I used to see beauty in people, but now I see muscle and bone") and on "Answer," she begs for just that: "Kindly be kind, wipe all the dirt from my eyes. I need an answer."

Tragedy and inspiration aside, the core of pop music – infectious hooks, heavy production – remains intact. While Three continues Phantogram's tradition of building tracks around harsh, unrelenting samples, the duo has delivered its most accessible, but darkest, album to date with some help from executive producer Ricky Reed. Spare "Barking Dog," which pools together with never-ending string samples, the samples lend themselves to supermassive choruses. Lead single "You Don't Get Me High Anymore" is arguably the most aggressive of the ten tracks, taking a harsh guitar sample and grinding it against the soundscape for a sucker punch of a hook, but "Run Run Blood," tinged with East Asian influences, takes the silver-plated award.

As the 35-minute set comes to a close, it's hard to grasp what kind of journey it just took listeners on. The album that begins with "Funeral Pyre," a hypnotizing track that paints the lingering image of a recently departed loved one, is the same album that ends with a danceable little ditty that instructs us to "shake, you know you want to shake, keep going, now" because "we all got a little bit a' hoe in us." But in retrospect, this is a confessional album of frustration, heartbreak, and loss. Despite the continuation of dark sonic influences, the closing track, then, offers the promise that this musical therapy session was a success.

Three is available now under Republic Records.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

50 Favorite Songs of 2016 (Part Two)


40. "Alarm" by Anne-Marie

Tinge trip-hop with tropical house and sprinkle in some strikingly emotive vocals, and you've got yourself Anne-Marie's "Alarm." Anne-Marie plays super-sleuth girlfriend of the year and uncovers her boyfriend's dastardly ways, making this track the perfect anthem during the anticipation of a break-up with a no-good boy (or girl).


39. "I Love You Always Forever" by Betty Who

Leave it to Betty Who, underrated dancepop sorcerer, to kick new life into a 20-year-old one-hit wonder of a song. Her take on Donna Lewis' 1996 hit borrows from the same mood board as the original but swells with more production than its predecessor. And let's be real: Who's delicate voice was made for the song.


38. "On Hold" by The xx

Glued together by a pitch-shifted sample of Daryl Hall & John Oates' "I Can't Go For That (No Can Do)," The xx's "On Hold" kicks a bit of new life into the trio, famous for their fuzzy indie drawl. While they're still as indifferent as ever vocally, the dance-mimicking production tactics add some grit to their demeanor.


37. "Warrior" by Aurora

In many instances on her debut album, Aurora keeps her listeners in suspense for the majority of each song before blowing them away with a whirlwind of a finale, but "Warrior" is not one of those songs. By the first chorus of the song, it takes a sudden but graceful liftoff, sweeping away the clumsy tinkling of a beat throughout the first verse. Her extended chants of "I'm a warrior, warrior, warrior" sit atop mountains, while thunderous drumbeats fill the canyons below.


36. "Muddy Waters" by LP

Let's get the obvious, expected statement out of the way here: This song sent chills down my spine when it accompanied the season finale of Orange is the New Black this summer. When Poussey smiles into the camera and the low hums of the track kick into place as the screen cuts to black... ugh, the feels. LP's shrill voice howls over the bellowing chorus behind her, making for paramount blasts of emotion when each hook hits.


35. "That's So Us" by Allie X

Allie X's stab at going full-on mainstream pop, "That's So Us," is easily her happiest outing to date. (Not that she wasn't mainstream pop dressed in pretentious imagery to begin with anyway, but I digress.) Rather than crawling back to a toxic ex or planning her vengeance, she revels in a relationship that clicks. It's the exact level of genuine exuberance we needed to hear from that squeaky little voice of hers for quite some time now.


34. "Body Say" by Demi Lovato

Okay, so wow. Just days after I proclaimed her to be the Queen of Making Better Memes than Music back in June, Demi Lovato clocked me. To coincide with her joint headlining tour with Nick Jonas, she dropped "Body Say," a surprisingly impressive track that oozes sex appeal. God bless. And let's be even more thankful that she's given up that god-awful scream-singing racket (whoever told her she sounds impressive on "Stone Cold" needs to be fired) for a smoother pout, even if that approach was ripped from Selena Gomez's most recent work. This song does not need to be deleted, fat.


33. "Closer" by The Chainsmokers feat. Halsey

While I'm not immune to the ideology that The Chainsmokers are unbearable frat boy types who need a lesson in humility, I was an early adopter (and fan) of this track and had to separate the creation from its creators and limit my radio exposure so I could continue to enjoy it. It's nothing special, but it's catchy, damn it. I suppose I'm a sucker for the occasional Johnny one-note electronic breakdown; what else can I say?


32. "You Don't Get Me High Anymore" by Phantogram

Man, what an aggressive tune. Historically an unorthodox pop duo, Phantogram and producer Ricky Reed found the harshest sample they could and built a song upon it that will knock listeners off their feet. It's a demanding soundscape that lead vocalist Sarah Barthel manages to compete with as she rips through the verses, floats through the pre-choruses, and squeals into her upper register on an added descant at the track's close.


31. "Meteorites" by Lights

I would be a liar if I said I didn't initially sigh when I saw that "Meteorites" was being pushed as the first taste of Lights' Midnight Machines, the acoustic companion to her third studio album; after all, the song was arguably the most forgettable of the Little Machines tracks. That attitude changed within the first 90 seconds of the acoustic track's run time, though, and for obvious reasons. Dare I say it is her most striking translation of a song into an acoustic format since "Suspension" from her last stripped set?

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Lightning Round: 2014 Albums I Missed

Every year, there are always a few albums I accidentally overlook in the release calendar or purposely skip over to prevent myself from making a premature judgement on a new set. However, in order to gather the most accurate list possible for end-of-the-year charts, I tried to catch up with a few albums I haven't touched on yet. So without further ado, here are shortened reviews for the newest efforts from Kelis, Ingrid Michaelson, Phantogram, Sam Smith, and St. Vincent.


★★★★☆

Kelis is no stranger to the culinary world: She is a graduate of the world's most prominent culinary arts academy, Le Cordon Bleu, and her "Milkshake" is still better than yours, so it's no surprise for her newest studio album to be titled Food. With this set of tracks, Kelis serves up a dish of thirteen warm, soulful tracks. Among the cuisine-sampling tracks are "Jerk Ribs," a muggy groove filled with brass instruments; "Cobbler," a happy, summery piece clad with Kelis' soft rasp; and "Fish Fry Friday," which could have been pulled from an enticing trailer for a cheap western movie. Each track bleeds a consistent neo-soul and funk influences, much unlike the 2010 dance and electro-drenched Flesh Tone, but manages to recycle some general sounds without stumbling over any redundancies.

Kelis' son, Knight, opens this album with "Hi guys, are you hungry? My mom made food." I'm glad to say that both Knight and I are pleased that his mother didn't just microwave some leftovers. (Aren't you glad that I did these little reviews to ketchup with all of the great albums I skimmed over earlier? Wait, what did you say? The food references are only cool when Kelis makes them? Okay then.)

Food was released on April 22, 2014 under Ninja Tune.


★★★

The original queen of truly underground indie pop is back once again with her sixth studio album, but actually finally has the support of the radio for the first time since "The Way I Am." This time around, "Girls Chase Boys" revives Ingrid Michaelson's radio presence with its upbeat, cutesy sound and a vocal line that spans from low murmurs to high, fragile runs. Elsewhere on the album, we find Michaelson channeling a unique twist of modern country and alternative rock ("One Night Town," "Warpath," "You Got Me") and making mid-tempo pop ballads ("Stick," "Everyone is Gonna Love Me").

Standing in the middle ground between the two distinct patterns on this album are the refreshing, inspiring "Afterlife" and the aforementioned "Girl Chase Boys." On a piano-driven ballad titled "Over You," Michaelson calls in the help of "Say Something" hit makers A Great Big World; it's one of many collaborations on the album. Overall, I'm impressed with the album, even with its intermittent country influences; the album holds a very soft, comforting sound to be enjoyed by all music lovers. With quality music, I guess I can forgive her for stealing Lana Del Rey's Steelfish cover concept.

Lights Out was released on April 15, 2014 under Cabin 24 Records and Mom + Pop Records.


★★★☆☆

Phantogram's reappearance on record store shelves was awaited by many long time fans of indie-pop and electropop. Following up from their 2010 debut, Eyelid Movies, the duo dropped Voices earlier this year and attained some popularity from singles "Black Out Days" and "Fall in Love." The singles sample exactly what you'll find on Voices; dark, chunky synths, glitching sound samples, and light vocals from Sarah Barthel; she alternates vocals with the other half of the duo, Josh Carter. It's an average synthpop outing, but nothing that pushes the envelope. Adding a little more focus to their general sound and tweaking some production styles could skyrocket Phantogram into the ranks of Chvrches and Little Daylight.

Voices was released on February 18, 2014 under Republic Records.


★★☆☆

Sam Smith is currently caught in his fifteen minutes of initial fame and his loneliest hour simultaneously. After features in songs with Disclosure and Naughty Boy, Smith was officially launched to stardom with "Stay With Me." Fast forwarding from June until now, we've had plenty of time to listen to Smith's debut album but have sadly added "Stay With Me" to the encyclopedia-sized book full of songs that were officially re-played to their death; at least it's in good company with Train's "Hey, Soul Sister" and most of Adele's 21.

In terms of a full-length album, In the Lonely Hour offers exactly what "Stay with Me" already delivered: heartbreak in a downtrodden singer-songwriter form. Heartbreak can be translated into an album format, but it takes skill to make each song unique. This year alone, Coldplay was able to translate the subject successfully with varied productions and songs that were both bittersweet by reflecting on past love and accepting the reality of a break-up, while Banks stretched heartbreak and bitterness into an album with a running time of almost an hour without unnecessarily repeating herself lyrically or sonically. However, Smith sadly wallows in the same wishy-washy ways over guitar and piano based tracks for the entirety of his debut, making this lonely hour seem like a lonely eternity.

In the Lonely Hour was released on June 17, 2014 under Capitol Records.


★★★☆☆

With a glistening Metacritic score and nearly universal acclaim, St. Vincent's eponymous fourth seems like a good catch when looking simply at critical reception. However, from the album's unhinged opening track, "Rattlesnake," to the militarist second single, "Digital Witness," St. Vincent proves to teeter along the line between strikingly unique and completely exasperating. When she's off her indie-static high and slows down on "I Prefer Your Love" and "Prince Johnny," mainstream pop fans can find a much more congenial refinement of the artist. 

On the cover, she sits on her throne and channels Florence Welch by purposely age-advancing her image; while Welch went for a forty-something woman with a vintage obsession, Vincent aimed towards the eighty-year-old queen of a fictitious, futuristic society. Lyrically, she conveys a member of a much younger generation: disgruntled, misguided teenager. Perhaps the most colorful selections from this set include "Take out the garbage, masturbate" ("Birth in Reverse"), "Feelings, flash cards / Fake knife, real ketchup" ("Huey Newton"), and "Follow the power lines back from the road / No one around so I take off my clothes" ("Rattlesnake"). 

Depending on your tolerance for gritty guitars, choppy synth lines, and deranged vocal techniques, you may or may not find a few gems hidden in the rough here. If you're anything like me, St. Vincent is an album that may be slightly enjoyable by yourself, but opening up this can of worms while your friend is with you for a nightly hangout or an afternoon drive may not be the smartest idea; you might scare them away.

St. Vincent was released on February 25, 2014 under Loma Vista Recordings and Republic Records.

© Aural Fixation
Maira Gall