A strong debut album

If you’ve never heard of PHOX until now, join the club. Despite a successful year in 2013, including South by Southwest, opening for The Lumineers at the iTunes Fesitval and a last minute spot at Lollapalooza, I suspect to most it will seem like the band sort of just appeared along with their self-titled debut LP this June.

Recording at Justin Vernon (Bon Iver)’s home studio, this six-piece indie pop band from Baraboo, Wisconsin, has produced a strong debut album, which should ensure this year will be more successful than the last.

PHOX opens the album with “Calico Man,” a quasi a cappella track that puts singer Monica Martin at the forefront. A driving force on this album, Martin’s voice has a wide range and a healthy dose of indie style, demonstrated in the bare, soaring melody on this track.

Many of these songs seem to be built around her voice, which remains constant as the band shifts to support and complement the vocal line.

PHOX’s sound is everything that is “hip” and “in” right now in indie music. It is a huge band that uses traditional instrumentation of guitar, bass, piano, drums augmented with banjo, trumpet, clarinet, strings and a myriad of other quirky instruments. Comparisons are easily drawn to bands like Florence and the Machine, Grizzly Bear (especially “1936”), The Lumineers, Of Monsters and Men, Bon Iver and countless others. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, but I hope that PHOX can show its influences a little less overtly and move towards a more unique sound on their next release.

However, PHOX does have an edge over your average indie band, and even some of the group’s influences, in one department: arrangements. Too often we hear bands establish a texture and instrumentation, and then milk that for three and a half minutes until the song is over. You won’t find that anywhere on this LP, as the band constantly changes something, whether it be instruments, feel, timbre or key.

“Kingfisher” is a great example of this, opening with a sparse melody played in unison by a few instruments and then moving into a lush section section filled with vocal harmonies. Then, they move back to the first section, adding bass drum, banjo and flute to differentiate from the first verse. Halfway through this verse the bass and drums kick into a dance beat that leads us back to the lush section from before, this time with an even bigger sound. Finally, the track ends somewhere between these two sections, mixing the dense, reverb-filled chords of the B section with the sparse opening melody. All this is done with a subtle grace that is really incredible, and it happens constantly throughout the album, showing the band has some serious writing chops.

Unfortunately, arrangements alone don’t make a truly great album, and I felt this one was a track or two too long. “Shrinking Violets” and “Satyr and The Faun” seem to mostly just add time to the album, giving us more of what we’ve already heard.

Despite this and a few other minor gripes, PHOX has given us a strong debut, even if the band hasn’t quite separated itself from the pack yet.

3 1/2 stars out of 5.

DOWNLOAD NOW: ‘Kingfisher’