Dams of the West is the solo project of Vampire Weekend drummer Chris Thomson. Vampire Weekend is a favorite band of mine, and I’d place their first two albums in my top 5 all time. In particular, I’d say chief songwriter Ezra Koenig is perhaps the best lyricist working, and his partnership with the recently departed Rostam Batmanglij the best songwriting duo in the last decade of indie rock. Rostam released an okay album with Hamilton Leithauser of The Walkmen last year, and even bassist Chris Baio, a DJ by trade, put out an underrated synthpop/electronic album a couple years ago. Thus we come to CT, as he’s known in the group, and his solo debut. While the post-breakup Beatles all found success in their 70s solo endeavors, Ringo was wise to feature all his former band mates (and others) to bolster his well-received LPs. But CT writes all the songs, plays all the instruments and sings all the vocals, and the results are not good. They are bad.
First, the not terrible. The record actually has a tight and cohesive concept. CT said he had found himself with lots of free time after VW took a break post Modern Vampires. Recently married and entering his thirties, he decided to write a record about the in-between phase he found himself in, still beholden to his reckless youthful tendencies but slowly accepting the domesticities of modern adulthood and married life. Pretty much every song on Youngish American is tied to this concept, and through it we get a pretty thorough picture of CT’s life during the making of this record (not unlike Sun Kil Moon’s latest release). The music here is also pretty unoriginal but also inoffensive – it sounds like a college band that is obsessed with Vampire Weekend trying to put their own spin on that undeniable, preppy, 2010s yacht rock aesthetic. He plays all the instruments admirably, and the production is shaky in places (usually when he puts that Strokes-esque fuzz on the vocals) but usually fine, if not safe and predictable. The strings sound completely canned relative to VW’s string arrangements, but, generally, the songs themselves, the melodies, they’re fine.
And those are all the good things I can say about the record. Now on to the bad. First of all, the artwork is fucking awful. The font, the color scheme, the Photoshop are all atrocious. Lyrically, this album is about as cringe-worthy as it gets. Take all the subtlety, nuance and intelligence of Ezra Koenig’s best work and multiply it by negative one, and you have CT’s lyrical palette. There is no tact. There is nothing clever. The record is completely devoid of all the charm that makes a Vampire Weekend lyric sheet such a treat. CT is obviously going for a more straightforward, transparent approach than the tricky and opaque Koenig, but almost every line sings makes me want to insert the proverbial foot into his mouth. Here are a few out of context:
“And it feels like the ranch in Montana I once worked on / Where I learned when you butcher a cow it’s gross so you should try to keep your gloves on”
“I’ll make you pasta with a red sauce when I know you’re PMSing”
“I should read the paper / I never really do that much”
“Let’s take a van and go for a ride / My face could use a tan on the driver’s side”
“Can I be more than just a sad, sad, white man? / Who dreams of dying in Montana / In a bathing suit of all the good / With a belly full of manna/ Underneath the big, big, big sky”
Basically, the whole shtick with this record is that CT is talking about the small trivialities of the domestic life, comparing it to his glory days, complaining about his desire to keep getting hammered and hoping we can glean something about maturity and adulthood and life. But his life just isn’t interesting at all. There is nothing surprising, there are no charming, ‘huh, that witty observation does in fact point to an overlooked facet of the American middle class!” moments. Take “Flag on the Can”, where he starts the song with the groundbreaking “If I drink a Bud Light do I love America? Or only when there’s a flag on the can.” Wow! Did he just suggest that one who resists to indulge in corporate American capitalism doesn’t necessarily become un-American? Radical! Man, this guy would love Bob Dylan! (This is the same song in which he desires to be buried under that big, big, big sky. Never mind that ‘enormous’, ‘gigantic’ and ‘colossal’ all have three syllables.)
Most of these songs do have a consistent theme running through them, but they are peppered with details that lie in some uncanny valley between so meaningless it’s kinda funny and interesting. On “Pretty Good Wifi” (yes, that’s the song name) the topic is generally about materialism, but CT sees fit to mention that he’s “Eating stale Duncaroos and drinking half and half Snapple”. “Death Wish” is about updating his habits to live a healthier lifestyle, but I think there’s a difference between Danny Brown rolling on half a gram of molly night after night and how CT “Didn’t really start to floss until [he] was 31”. Later he utters the regrettable “Jesus was probably short and not super thin / He didn’t need to be perfect / He just tried to fix the fixable things,” which I’m pretty sure came straight out of an original song penned by my fifty-year old Sunday school teacher. “Tell the Truth” is about marital vows and his relationship with his wife, but he can’t muster up anything more specific on the chorus than “Tell the truth, keep my word, promise something then deliver it.”
This whole record is a lyrical face-palm, and because there are no musical or compositional risks – not a solo, not a coda, not a tempo change, key change, interesting arpeggiated arrangement, chorus harmony, breakdown, intro or outro – there’s not really a lot to stare at other than the lyrics, which are clearly intended to be the focal point of the album. The concept of writing a song about your day to day life, mining the details for gems representative of the banality of being a thirty-year-old married white dude, is not necessarily a flawed concept. But it couldn’t have been executed with less savvy. This is what it looks like when a guy with no lyrical chops, or songwriting chops, can only put out an indie pop album because he hasn’t had to win anyone over, because no indie label would ever sign this act (although I guess it’s a step up from ‘contemporaries’ like… Hippo Campus (shudder)). His baritone vocal is not charming. His guitars are completely generic. Every song is verse-chorus-verse-chorus, maybe with a bridge thrown in there if he’s feeling edgy.
You could throw on this album in the car, with your mom or dad, and they will ignore it, and then if you ask if they like it, they’d listen for a second and go, ‘yeah, it’s upbeat, it’s nice.’ And that’s about the level of magnification at which you can enjoy Youngish American. It’s such a disaster, band mate and close friend Ezra didn’t even shout it out on his own biweekly radio-show. CT may, at times, be the funniest and most personable member of VW, but he’s unfortunately confirmed what any fan of the band would have long suspected, that he has by far the least musical talent. Though I can’t say I was prepared for this level of embarrassment.