Gryphon Graham, the man behind Brooklyn trio Phone Tag, used to professionally blog about the economy, but there’s no hint of impending collapse anywhere on his band’s self-titled debut. Even when his lyrics attempt to dig into darker material, the bubbling, tropical chillwave behind him (not to mention his breathy falsetto) cauterizes things to the point of dreamy distance. The incredibly clean production proves his technical ability and provides ample opportunity for gentle swaying, but too often feels over-tamed to the point of aloofness.
Graham’s intelligent, poetic lyrics on cuts like “Compass”, in which he equates a distant love to a difficult journey through mythic sights, often seem to be entirely disconnected from the music that surrounds them. On that track, he sings that “lies compound/ they grow just like a cancer/ that explode, metastasize, and kill the host,” a chilling, carefully picked warning. But the gurgling, woozy synths and bouncy bass seem better fit for easier fare, and his lilting delivery certainly doesn’t change that connection.
When the intended effect of the tune, though, is a dreamy whirlpooling, there are few albums that could beat Phone Tag. The waterfall guitar picks and bleary-eyed exhortations of “Never Leave” fit that bill, the loping rhythm and impassioned delivery syncing up in a way that the disc often just misses. One of the few tracks in which Graham croons in a lower register, the song’s sauntering beauty begs for connection. “If I could see your face/ I know it would be true,” he moans, a moment of simple honesty overpowering the complexity.
The deeply layered electro-grooves of “Promised You” somehow fuses New Wave with ’90s R&B, whirring tones futzing around in the background as fluttering synths flit from ear to ear. With a deep well of glittering production gems this expansive, Graham’s existential questioning fades into obscure ear candy, an extra blanket of sweetly sung drama, the lyrics intended impact softened. Phone Tag is a technically accomplished album full of easily likable tunes, but Graham’s overtures of emotional impact are betrayed by his own easy-going production.
Essential Tracks: “Never Leave”, “Promised You”