Nonesuch Records · October 18, 2019
Vagabon’s self-titled album is a beautiful, albeit sometimes boring, synthetic ride through the imagination of 25-year-old Lætitia Tamko. The second album from the Cameroonian-American multi-instrumentalist attempts to explore the compelling way instruments can be used to create cohesive soundscapes, but at many points lulls and doesn’t completely land due to the stagnancy of the album as a whole.
The balance of the various sounds in each track to create a blended sound is impressive, but oftentimes isn’t enough when paired with often uninteresting vocal melodies. Tamko’s voice has minimal accompaniment on “Secret Medicine,” which could have been transcendental with a more interesting main melody. Despite this, the backing to the track is beautiful, and the instruments are so well-balanced that they are hard to distinguish from each other.
One song where this technique is really effective in creating a captivating composition is “In A Bind.” With plucked guitar arpeggios throughout the song as the only distinguishable instrument, Tamko sings an eerie tune to ominous lyrics such as “I know that I was gone a lot last year / But I’d hope you’d still be here, here, here.” The song goes back and forth between the main melody and spiritual-sounding harmonies. Intriguing and smooth, this song is a standout from the album, overlaying passionate yet subtle instrumentals with melancholic vocal components.
The other standout from the album that accomplishes the same balance and intrigue is “Flood,” which was released as the only single from this album in early summer. The easing in of sound layers throughout the first verse builds to a passionate chorus where Tamko pleads “I know even if I run from it I’m still in it / I know I’ll hold you so close.” The energy is maintained through the rest of the song, and overall has a complex enough composition to keep the listener intrigued.
The two standouts on the album seem out of place on this record, given the instrumental-heavy nature of the other tracks. While the previously mentioned songs are narrative compositions – telling a story with a gripping vocal performance and well-suited instrumentals – most of the others sound like filler tracks where the emphasis is on the music and not the singing, which would be fine if the music was compelling. They lack the passion and sustained energy of “In A Bind” and “Flood,” and they feel static. While “Wits About You” has the potential to be dynamic, the soft and loud sections of the song don’t seem to fit with each other, and the song ends before the components are given the chance to interact.
It’s important to address that there are many white indie rock artists creating similarly static music and achieving genre-wide success doing it. Tamko’s abilities are certainly comparable to those artists, and are deserving of the same recognition and high regard. Despite some filler songs, Tamko’s innovative mind shows through on all the tracks. She clearly has the chops for making complex musical compositions and will have appeal to indie fans with an appreciation for the ethereal, but the album doesn’t commit enough a rock sound to be indie-rock, or to an electric sound enough to be electro-pop. While the album has the potential to capture an audience with Tamko’s breathtaking soundscape-creating abilities, Vagabon doesn’t fully commit to a sound or narrative enough to transcend beyond easy-listening, “pretty music” status.