When Phantogram came around in 2007, the duo’s use of sampling freshened up a world that was, at the time, way too obsessed with chillwave and indie rock ballads. Josh Carter and Sarah Barthel mixed guitars, keyboards, and howling vocals for a slew of EPs, capturing the ears of fans who loved the spliced surprises of acts like the Beastie Boys and David Bowie. As they worked through new material, their grasp of production increased rapidly, and soon artists like Miley Cyrus and Big Boi were knocking at their door to collaborate. It’s a warranted attention; the duo know how to bang downbeats. But for the first time in a long while, they bite their own tail here, chewing up their own style on Three to create what sounds like alternative dance floor remixes and half-baked slow songs.
It’s not a lack of creativity. Lead single “You Don’t Get Me High Anymore” doubles up on that. Carter nabs a drum break from Eddie Bo’s “Hook And Sling Part 1” and then takes a joyful “Oh!” from the singer and pitch corrects it, filtering that word until it replicates a distant submarine echo. The band’s trademark bass synth sinks repeatedly, while Barthel belts lyrics about anxiety and nightmares. The track swirls in their usual deceptive way, tricking listeners into dancing to a dark, eerie song with an innovative hook.
It doesn’t take long for Phantogram to steer that creativity into bizarre places. The few samples that stand out feel out of place. Strings kick off “Barking Dog” so that it sounds like a courtyard performance at a fine art museum, and, though beautiful, it ultimately sounds like an ad interrupting the record because of its sudden appearance and lack of alteration. “Run Run Blood” subtly glues horns in its background and ties a few indian string instruments into the mix, an enticing offer that creates a distinct groove, but they cancel one another out by the time synth comes blaring in.
That’s the issue with much of Three. Phantogram write songs that urge you to sing along, but they slather them in synth, particularly of the bass variety. The result is a puddle of six or seven watercolors swirling together into a purple-brown hue, never quite turning into an entrancing onyx nor retaining the vibrancy of its singular colors. They take their best talent (the creative reworking of others’ products) and lose its appeal not in their own buzzy, crunchy synth, but the clean synth of highbrow pop. Co-producer Ricky Reed plays a part in this, but the two agreed to any suggestions he’s responsible for.
“Same Old Blues” rocks choppy percussion and thin organs in its chorus well, but they then weaken the song’s clear attempt at a country appeal — loose guitar slides hint at the open-backed freedom of a Toyota zipping through San Antonio — with help from a more massive bass synth and a wannabe belching guitar solo. Even when Phantogram turn things down for a slow dance, like on “Answer”, it feels like a lukewarm Sam Smith track. They’re itching for a larger pop sound, but they never choose a single direction. All they know is that they want more synth and they want it to win you over.
Phantogram do wield a few quality dance songs in the progress. Barthel flexes her vocal strengths here, especially on numbers like “You’re Mine”. “Cruel World” sees Carter at the top of his board, twisting knobs and inserting samples for a snappy, clean-cut package that feels cut, bound, and wrapped to its perfect form, whereas others, like closer “Calling All”, pump listeners up for a gym workout or body rolls at a club with a little less effort. They may be glossier collages than Phantogram’s past work, but the 10 songs on Three urge you to move.
The record interacts with your brain and ears simultaneously for an engaging listen. Attentiveness isn’t necessary, and for some listeners, that’s ideal, but it signals a dip in originality. For longtime fans, Three works as an experiment for a pop-loving dance floor. For newcomers, Phantogram sounds like they’ve already remixed themselves, and not particularly uniquely. It’s enjoyable. There are a few flashes. But by the time you make it home, few, if any, of the songs stick out in your brain.
Just over half an hour long, Three feels as burnt out as that runtime suggests. It’s got its singles and the duo’s regular penchant for production, but it hangs together like a collection of B-sides. The follow-up to 2014’s Voices isn’t a sign of their growth. It’s a reflection of collaborations exhausting the duo, settling for songs that could punch harder, hook quicker, and — even for the kids craving dance — warrant replays long after this year ends. So, yes, Three is a Phantogram record in that it’s a well-crafted release, but it lacks the originality Phantogram prided themselves on.
Essential tracks: “You Don’t Get Me High Anymore” and “Calling All”