Phantogram has been easy to miss. The duo of Sarah Barthel and Josh Carter released their debut LP “Eyelid Movies” in 2009, just when the modern synth-pop movement in alternative music was beginning to take form. But those who paid attention to Phantogram’s debut found in “Eyelid Movies” an impressive take on trip-hop: a brighter, more accessible and eclectic version of Portishead’s “Dummy.”
“Voices” followed in 2014 with a heavier and darker sound, and while the album didn’t match the quality of Portishead’s similarly dark, self-titled sophomore effort, it was a respectable follow-up record. Phantogram’s third album, “Three,” however, is as unexciting as its title.
The album opens with the somewhat promising “Funeral Pyre,” which continues to develop the heaviness of “Voices” by exhibiting an almost post-rock weight. It resembles Sigur Ros’ brilliantly intense record “Kveikur” and represents an intriguing new direction for Phantogram. Unfortunately, the duo fails to explore this territory, instead venturing into generic dance beats and bland, meaningless lyrics. It doesn’t get much more forgettable than “You Don’t Get Me High Anymore,” an uncharacteristic and unoriginal single on which Barthel replaces her dreamy, subtle vocals with what sounds like a decent imitation of Ariana Grande or Sia. “Cruel World,” on the other hand, could have found a place on “Voices,” but its less creative use of Phantogram’s signature electronic elements results in a rather boring track.
“Barking Dog” is at least somewhat interesting, and is a strong ballad that introduces Carter’s singing just in time after witnessing the disappointing transition of Barthel’s voice. While it should have been a bit quieter and more subtle—something that can be said about several Phantogram songs throughout their discography—“Barking Dog” is comforting evidence that the duo can still put together an emotionally affecting song. “Answer” is encouraging as well, an unsettling piece that builds from a piano ballad to a dramatic climax while Barthel and Carter trade verses.
These two highlights are not enough to salvage “Three,” however, which concludes with the confusing and annoying “Run Run Blood” (the lyric “Extra, extra, read all about it” is almost cringe-worthy), the fairly straightforward rock anthem “Destroyer”, and the unremarkable dance tune “Calling All” (“We all got a little bit of ho in us” is definitely cringe-worthy).
What’s most disappointing about Phantogram’s “Three” is that it displays the loss of an artist’s unique sound. Any evidence of their former trip-hop identity is gone, Barthel’s airy vocals are nowhere to be found, and Carter’s powerful, unexpectedly raw guitar playing, which shined in “Voices,” only makes a couple appearances here. I will listen to their next record with hopes of redemption, but for now, Phantogram has never been easier to miss.