Four tracks into Infinite Worlds, Vagabon’s eight-song debut, we get a plot twist. For the first three songs, Infinite Worlds is an exercise in fuzzy, melodic, emotionally wrought indie rock. Lætitia Tamko, the Cameroon-born and New York-based musician who records as Vagabon, has a tremulous, expressive voice; she can belt without losing this empathetically shattered quality. And if the album had kept going like that, sounding a bit like Waxahatchee or Hop Along and giving off that serious and catchy heartbreak, it still would’ve been a great album. But track four is where things take a turn. “Mal à L’aise” is a bloopy synthscape, one that vaguely recalls turn-of-the-millennium retro-futurists like Solex or Buffalo Daughter. Over a warm bed of cheap keyboards, Tamko speaks in French, her first language, burying her voice in the track so deeply that even those of us who speak the language have to strain to understand it, while a gooily haunting vocal sample hums over her. “Mal à L’aise” isn’t the most effective song on Infinite Worlds — in fact, it’s probably the worst — but it shines as a clear indicator. Infinite Worlds isn’t just another lo-fi indie rock record. It’s something else.
To hear Tamko tell it, she had no idea that any sort of DIY indie scene existed in her adopted hometown until she’d already begun posting her own music on Bandcamp, until she’d been invited to play at the Brooklyn venue Silent Barn. She’d moved to New York as a teenager, first living in Harlem and then in Yonkers. She’d gone to college for computer programming. She’d started a career. On earlier records, like 2014’s Persian Garden EP, you can hear a voice striving to be heard, to get something out. Those songs sound like indie rock, in the mid-’10s DIY warehouse-venue sense, but there’s an urgency and a focus to them that we don’t often hear in other artists from the genre.
A couple of the songs from that EP show up, re-recorded and retitled, on Infinite Worlds. These days, even singing the same songs, Tamko sounds like a different artist — more muscular and confident, with cleaned-up recording quality and a full band playing behind her. (Tamko herself plays synth, guitar, drums, and bass on the album, but she has other musicians playing, too, and indie luminaries like Frankie Cosmos and Crying’s Elaiza Santos lend backing vocals.) Even with a beefed-up sound, though, Tamko’s songs are almost uncomfortably intimate: dispatches to one or two listeners, people who will recognize the stories to which her lyrics allude. “I’m sorry I lost your cat / It’s just that I was so damn mad,” she howls, and it’s up to us to wonder how getting angry might lead someone to lose another person’s cat. Then, a song later, we have to mentally fill in more details: “Freddie, come back / I know, you love Vermont but I thought I had more time.” But that specificity works for Tamko. We might not recognize the exact situation, but we know the feeling, especially in the way she delivers it.
And when Tamko does let loose with something more universal, it can be devastating: “We sit on my cold apartment floor where we thought we would stay in love.” On that last line, she hits the word “love,” drawing that o out, turning it into a battle cry. Tamko has talked about how identity is something she’s always thinking about, and she is, after all, a black woman working in a deeply white milieu. When she reaches up for big notes, she has none of the retiring timidity of so many indie rock singers, male and female. But the way she uses that voice doesn’t have a whole lot to do with any traditionally black genres, either, at least not that I recognize. Instead, at those huge and crashing and cathartic moments, the singer she reminds me the most of is the Cranberries frontwoman Dolores O’Riordan, who is not somebody I was expecting to reference in a record review in 2017. Tamko has that same yelpy raw-nerve intensity in her voice, and that same willingness to absolutely go for it vocally, no matter how painful what she’s singing about might be.
That visceral instinct, and that lack of willingness to conform to genre norms, might also be what leads Tamko to create a song as singular as “Mal à L’aise.” It might also be what gives us “Alive And A Well,” the cathartic gut-scrape of a solo-acoustic song that ends the album. Infinite Worlds is a short album — eight songs in less than half an hour — but it still has room for left-turns like those. Tamko is capable of pulling those songs off, in confined spaces, without ever sounding like she’s compromising her own voice, like she’s biting off more than she can chew. She’s only getting started, but she’s already told us, with this album, that she can do anything. From here, I expect her to do amazing things.
Infinite Worlds is out 2/24 on Father/Daughter Records. Stream it below.
Other albums of note out this week:
• Dirty Projectors’ inventive and restless self-titled breakup album.
• Thundercat’s lush and spaced-out soul-jazz meditation Drunk.
• King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard’s stargazing psych-rocker Flying Microtonal Banana.
• Power Trip’s furious thrash attack Nightmare Logic.
• Pissed Jeans’ intense scuzz-wallow Why Love Now.
• Kingdom’s versatile, forward-looking dance full-length Tears In The Club.
• The Feelies’ twitchy indie rocker In Between.
• Los Campesinos!’s giddy, emotive indie-popper Sick Scenes.
• Oddisee’s thoughtful, forward-thinking rap album The Iceberg.
• Baked’s fuzzy, classic-rocking Farnham.
• Six Organs Of Admittance’s mystic drone-folker Burning The Threshold.
• Xiu Xiu’s hard-to-swallow art-popper FORGET.
• Career Suicide’s hardcore barrage Machine Response.
• No Thank You’s chunky, introspective debut Jump Ship.
• NE-HI’s lo-fi garage rocker Offers.
• Dude York’s grand, anthemic Sincerely.
• Wild Pink’s alternately spacey and anthemic self-titled debut.
• Shadow Band’s baroque folker Wilderness Of Love.
• Unearthly Trance’s doom metal grimefest Stalking The Ghost.
• Youngish American, Vampire Weekend drummer Chris Tomson’s debut as Dams Of The West.
• Strokes side project Summer Moon’s debut With You Tonight.
• The Antlers frontman Peter Silberman’s solo debut Impermanence.
• The Internet member Steve Lacy’s solo debut Steve Lacy’s Demo.
• Brokeback’s expansive psych-folker Illinois River Valley Blues.
• Grimes collaborator Aristophanes’ solo move 人為機器 (Humans Become Machines).
• DRYNX’s smoothly funky Horse Matrix.
• Clap Your Hands Say Yeah’s blog-rocking comeback The Tourist.
• No Joy’s Creep EP.
• Luxury Death’s Glue EP.
• Adam Torres’ I Came To Sing The Song EP.
• Half Waif’s form/a EP.
• CLOSENESS’ Personality Therapy EP.
• La Neve’s American Sounds EP.
• Vorhees’ Black Horse Pike EP.