Vagabon – Infinite Worlds

Vagabon is the project of Lætitia Tamko, who was born and raised in Cameroon before relocating to New York.  She is one of the latest to enter the emerging new indie rock scene with youth on her side and an acclaimed debut major label LP (See: Car Seat Headrest, Mitski, Jay Som, Japanese Breakfast and Crying).  But while the aforementioned artists all either brought something new to the table or produced work with extremely high lyrical and musical quality, Infinite Worlds sounds derivative and lacking full form.  It strikes me less as a sharp and expansive major label debut and more as a project that shows promising signs but hasn’t yet found its focus.

The record kicks off with its lead single, “The Embers”, a classic soft-loud, 6/4 indie/emo song that contrasts muted verses with big, emotional choruses.  I can’t help but hear a lot of Sorority Noise in the melody, cadence and structure, but that comparison aside, the vocals, despite their passion and clean production, fail to deliver a gut-punch lyrically, the metaphor of choice – “I’m just a small fish / And you’re a shark that hates everything / You’re a shark that eats every fish” – leaving something to be desired.  The sonics, rife with ‘explosvie’ guitars, don’t really bring anything new to the table, either.  Second-sequenced “Fear & Force” manages better, mixing acoustic arpeggio verses with sparse, minimalist programmed-drums and synths on the chorus and features Tamko singing “Freddy come back / I know you love Vermont”.  The personal details are welcome, and the track’s two-thirds through guitar and drums rush are both unexpected and exciting.

“Minneapolis”, sequenced-third, falls back on familiar indie rock rhythm and progression, but the drums are mixed really high relative to the guitars and bass, which barely come through at all, and the instrumental outro and crashing, half-time coda is neither catchy nor interesting from an arrangement perspective.  The album then detours again, into “Mal à Laise” another synth, snap and programmed-beats affair, and one that comes in as by far the longest track on the record (five and a half minutes).  There is reverb soaked French dialogue, spoken word-samples, and an airy, transience that sounds more similar to something off a Washed Out album than to anything else on the record.  It’s an interesting piece of minimalist electro and ambient music and displays Tamko’s variability, but it feels out of place as the centerpiece on an otherwise guitar-led record.

The backside starts with the two-minute “100 years”, which chugs along with a minimalist guitar-bass-drums arrangement (the drums are, again, especially pounding), and Tamko delivers a passionate vocal performance, but I don’t love the messy production, there is no solo, and the song never finds a rhythm in its smattering of tom-heavy beating.  “Cleaning House” moves back to acoustic finger picking and airy, atmospheric synths, but I really don’t care for the double tracking and heavy reverb on the vocals, which obscure some of Tamko’s best lines on the record, like “You only get to say these words because we enabled it / You only get to speak this way because we once stood for it.”

The record’s penultimate track, “Cold Apartment” is one its strongest.  Everything seems to come together – the pounding Mumford and Sons bass drum, the dramatic guitars returning softly from either side, the melancholy and wrought vocals as Tamko builds to a climax of “And we sat on my cold apartment floor / Where we though we would stay in love.”  It’s, again, not bringing anything new to the table, but it’s a well-written song, well-arranged, well-structured, and features a strong vocal performance.  The record then ends with its best track, “Alive and a Well”, which sounds like it was recorded in a single take (no overdubs) of acoustic guitar, vocal and guest vocal from Crying’s Elaiza Santos, who harmonizes beautifully with Tamko.  The French lyrics sound great, and the stripped-back nature of the track, with the heavy emphasis on melody, indicates to me that this style may far better showcase Tamko’s songwriting strengths than the noisy, electric guitar and drum rock tracks that pepper the track list.

Almost all of these songs are flawed in some way, through structure, style, lyrics or, most frequently, production.  Tamko can write decent lines that, combined with her impassioned singing, succeed in revealing herself to the listener, but at 29 minutes and 8 tracks, one of which is largely instrumental, there just isn’t a lot of interesting rock music going on here.  The guitars do not sound sharp or detailed, instead fuzzy, vague objects in either channel alternating between loud and soft.  There isn’t a huge emotional scope, as the songs are lyrically minimalist and scarce.  The longest track is a sound cloud-quality chillwave song.  I can see enjoying this record, it doesn’t sound bad as background music, its fairly melodic and Tamko can sing, but as far as thirty minute indie rock records go, Mitski’s Puberty 2 kicks the fucking shit out of this album, and if you can’t at least hold a torch to that bar, you’re either not doing enough or not doing it well, or in Vagabon’s case, both.

Score: 5/13

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