Major Label Debuts

The new records from St. Vincent and Phantogram are their first on a Big Four label. One fares the transition better than the other.

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When Phantogram released their sophomore record Voices a couple weeks ago, it seemed like nobody cared. The conversation that week was fixated on an early stream of the new self-titled St. Vincent album on NPR. I clicked through to a video for St. Vincent’s “Digital Witness” and had to skip an ad for the new Phantogram record. Once I had finished, YouTube recommended the new Phantogram single again. Finally, I clicked. During the video for “Fall in Love”, the album’s first single, I realized then that St. Vincent and Phantogram were approaching similar moments—their VEVO moment, so to speak—only it was going better for St. Vincent.

For this record, her fourth, St. Vincent departed British indie label 4AD for Lomo Vista, a new label under Republic Records, owned by the Universal Music Group. Similarly, Phantogram’s newest album, Voices, is their first for Republic. This marks the first major-label album from both bands.

Their paths to the Big Four were markedly different though. St. Vincent is the stage name of Annie Clark. It’s hard to find a review of any of her albums that doesn’t mention how she started as a background singer for Sufjan Stevens and was briefly a member of the Polyphonic Spree. But they’re important details. The story here is that Annie Clark has earned it. She put in her time.

Over four records, St. Vincent has been consistent but each successive album builds on the work that preceded it. It’s why reviewers will run profiles and reviews of her work under facile headlines like “Annie Clark is more St. Vincent than ever.”

Clark’s work has always been defined by a disconnect between the sonic and substance. The sweetness of Marry Me‘s melodies were always sharpened by Clark’s lyrics, often darker and more twisted than her angelic euphony might express. Actor heightened this strain between aural elegance and lyrical grit. Look at “Laughing With a Mouth Full of Blood,” deceptively one of St. Vincent’s most serene songs until it bares its teeth during the refrain: “All of my old friends aren’t so friendly/ All of my old haunts are now all haunting me.”

Actor also introduced some jagged electronics. On “Marrow,” Clark’s voice is as fragrant as ever, but the presence of glitches and punchy guitar chords give Clark’s work a new texture and nerve. Strange Mercy, St. Vincent’s last album, indulged a new penchant for twitchy guitar licks. The album’s first single, “Cruel,” opens with Clark’s soft alto, floating on an orchestral swell, before the chorus breaks with a fuzzy guitar riff. The interplay between these two elements are like sweet and savory. Clark’s latest, merely titled St. Vincent, continues this progression. Its edges seem rougher; its constructions are edgier. The brass of “Digital Witness” march forward with a sense of warped irony, while the noisy crunch of distorted guitars turn “Birth in Reverse” into a muddy funk jam.

There is always the worry with major label transitions that artists will be forced to make their music more accessible. If anything has changed with St. Vincent, it’s that Clark is more assured than ever. It’s easy to be dismissive when a musician’s fourth album is self-titled (or “underwhelmingly-titled” as one reviewer said), but it’s perhaps the most fitting name: this is the record St. Vincent has been working toward for seven years. As much as I hate to say it, Annie Clark is more St. Vincent than ever.

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I’d never thought of Phantogram and St. Vincent together until I started listening to both of their new albums heavily over the past couple weeks. Like St. Vincent, Phantogram’s sound relies heavily on a tension between the digital noise — synthesized drum beats and hazy overtones — and warm voices. Sarah Barthel and Josh Carter split vocal duties, but Barthel handles the majority of the tracks. Her voice is cool and ghostly, like a siren luring you into a dark alley.

In interviews, the duo has dubbed their sound as “street beat” and “psyche pop.” The beats show influences from R&B and hip-hop; the production is a mix of moody trip-hop ambiance and indie rock muscle. The band’s debut, Eyelid Movies, is eclectic — Paul Thompson at Pitchfork even compared the album to Beck’s Odelay for its genre-jumping. It’s inconsistent at times, but sounds like a band discovering their sea legs, often illustrating their range. The diversity of Eyelid Movies is its strength; it promised even better, weirder things to come.

Since the album dropped in 2010, the band has quietly been expanding its audience. “When I’m Small” was featured in ads for Canon and Gilette, the band collaborated with the Flaming Lips and Big Boi, and an original Phantogram track made its way onto the Hunger Games: Catching Fire soundtrack. All these placements seem like the work of a major label, slowly working doses of Phantogram into the collective pop culture bloodstream.

Voices smooths out the edges, but robs Phantogram of its capriciousness. “Fall in Love” distills the concept of “street beat” into an anthemic, radio-friendly single. It’s a terrific song, but unfortunately the same refinement of Phantogram’s hybrid R&B/rock doesn’t fare as well throughout the album. With the exception of “Bill Murray,” the album’s excellent centerpiece, Barthel’s performance throughout hits the same notes over and over. In particular, Carter-sung tracks like “Never Going Home” and “I Don’t Blame You” are safe, dull plays (even the song titles are bland). Though I like the idea of Carter’s tracks being the more sentimental ones (not unlike the dynamic of CHVRHCES’s Lauren Mayberry and Iain Cook), his vocal leads feel underdeveloped and overwrought. It’s a shame. Carter actually sang on my favorite track off Eyelid Movies, “Bloody Palms,” a track built around an aggressive riff that would have no place on Voices.

Was it simply too soon for Phantogram to make run at the mainstream listener? Between Eyelid and Voices, Phantogram released two EPs, both of which are hit-or-miss track by track. But they’re both more playful and experimental. “Don’t Move,” off of the Nightlife EP, is a strong contender for Phantogram’s best song to date. The song is actually brighter and more dynamic than anything else the band has produced. It certainly sounded like a step forward. What if Phantogram had spent more time discovering their sound, like Clark did over three albums, before making the jump to a major label?

From album to album, St. Vincent’s development has been iterative. Clark has taken what she has established and expanded carefully, meticulously. That’s not necessarily the right path for Phantogram. But whereas the appeal of Eyelid Movies was its unpredictability, the tragedy of Voices is that it sounds like squelched potential.

Kevin Nguyen is a founding editor of The Bygone Bureau. His only marketable skill is an above-average knowledge of European geography. He has been useless since the introduction of the atlas in 1477. Reach him by email or follow his Twitter account.