Monday, March 20, 2017

album review: 'infinite worlds' by vagabon

So a couple months back there was a thinkpiece published that tried to equate alternative genres with the alt-right in American politics, and it was stupid - amazingly so, there was a very good reason why Anthony Fantano did a Stinkpiece episode on it. Now I already ranted about this on Twitter, but for speculation's sake, let's try to get to a point that the author completely missed. Let's put aside how it completely ignored the much more diverse scene that is punk, or how it seemed completely ignorant of the strident political leanings that ran through alternative rock and country, and not just in the 90s but now as well, or how the piece seemed distinctly out of its own depth and uncomfortable even broaching the idea of alternative or conscious hip-hop.

No, let's talk about indie rock and raise the question: is this genre and the market that it primarily targets predominantly white? Well, given that we all live in the internet age and listen to everything and it's far from the only genre where you could ask that question, you might have a shot at making that argument... presuming of course you ignore Bloc Party, TV On The Radio, and a host of smaller acts with black members that have existed over the past thirty-five years and never really got the attention of critics or the mainstream public. There might be an uncomfortable truth there: that the majority of rock critics, who on aggregate were middle class white guys, tended to favor and promote music that spoke to their worldview - as much as I might like them, I'm not ignorant to why The War On Drugs, The National, and Real Estate are popular in the indie rock scene.

But it seems like slowly - often agonizingly so - that both the population of critics and preferred tastes are starting to diversify and we're seeing more acts in indie rock outside of the hipster type get critical appraisal - almost to the point where it can ring as a little patronizing and tokenizing to even bring this up, so even despite this intro I'm going to try to avoid it. And into the scene comes Vagabon, who has attracted a lot of attention for its frontwoman, multi-instrumentalist and producer Laetita Tamko. Growing up in Cameroon before moving to New York, she found a scene that cultivated her eclectic style and gave her a platform for thought-provoking lyrics that certainly attracted my interest. Hell, given how stale some indie rock can feel, I'd definitely appreciate a fresh perspective, so what did we get with this debut Infinite Worlds?

Well, it's pretty good for what it is, and pretty good for a indie rock debut. I won't say it's reinventing the wheel when it comes to sound or grooves or hooks, which for some people will be enough to throw it aside, but I do think there are seeds of quality here, albeit not quite as pronounced as I'd typically prefer. I'd argue the biggest strength of this record comes in the writing, which means I'm inclined to be more favorable to it, but I'm also not going to say that it blew me out of the water or is without issues either.

And let's start with my biggest problem with this release: I'm not exactly wowed by Laetita Tamko as a frontwoman and singer. She's not a bad vocalist in a husky, kind of drippy, very mid-90s indie/alternative style, with hints of more strident and higher multi-tracking, but if you're familiar with this type of singing and presentation, you'll not really be wowed by this. I think a considerable part of that is placing her against this type of instrumentation and production: guitars that can occasionally pick up some seething edge when they aren't graceful and liquid, punchy bass melodies, and drums that actually have a surprising amount of texture and grit to augment the grooves on tracks like 'Fear & Force' or 'Minneapolis' or 'Cleaning House' or especially 'Cold Apartment'. Again, these tracks don't exactly have a lot of structure to them beyond some decent crescendos, but there is some intensity that comes with the fizzy percussion breaking into a heavier pickup on 'Fear & Force', or how the back half of 'Cleaning House' seethes against the acoustic melody, or the heavier groove of 'Cold Apartment'... and I just wish Tamko could match the instrumentation's intensity beyond her throaty, willowy vocals that can feel a shade too reserved. Of course, that's also ignoring the centerpiece of this record, which is a gauzy electronic piece with overlapping hazy vocals against a sparse pop and skitter of a beat that goes on five minutes and doesn't remotely fit with the rest of the instrumentals here, which doesn't even touch on how the last notes of that repeated melodic phrase end weirdly. And yeah, that sort of slightly askew melodic progression is common across this record, especially when it syncopates with the groove, but it's a lot easier to integrate into rougher punk tunes than that sort of spacey piece.

But what I want to get into more here is the writing, and in part it's a big reason why I brought up the whole piece about the lack of diversity in certain brands of indie rock... namely because it's a common theme that runs through a lot of this album. Right from 'The Embers' she establishes she's the outsider, the small fish in a big pond with the sharks - be they critics, unfamiliar audiences, or fellow musicians - but what's telling in the next few songs is that she really isn't all that different in themes and execution than many of her sensitive contemporaries. Lingering and misbegotten love, miscommunication and heartbreak while encountering an old friend on the road - if anything, one of the strongest thematic undercurrents is a lack of concrete space and home that she can call her own, an insecurity that contributes to some of the melancholic tones. But if I'm being honest what I find a lot more compelling is when it seems like Tamko is speaking more about her space in her genre, which is why 'Cleaning House' is such a standout, not just defining her place but highlighting the underlying insecurity that comes with certain 'sensitive' indie types seeing their space popularized by people who are not like them. And then on the closer 'Alive And A Well' she goes further and speaks to how the audience treats such acts: disposable for moments of cathartic response, leaving them in spaces of discomfort even as she tries to unpack where she eventually wants to land. It speaks to the same underlying instability that runs through this entire project and gives it its tension, and while she doesn't shy away from the lines that so many defensive 'genre defenders' have likely thrown in her direction stepping into indie rock, she understands the roots of that emotion, because on some level, she shares it.

And yeah, that lends to a sense of populism that makes this project work for what it is. Again, it's a little short for this sort of debut, and it's not reinventing the wheel sonically, but there are tones and progressions I like amidst the ones I don't think work, and that's enough for me to give it a solid 7/10 and a recommendation. I'm not about to give it the same overwhelming praise so many other outlets have, but this is solid, and if you're curious and you like this brand of 90s indie rock, check it out.

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