MUSIC

Vagabon's New Album Channels Frank Ocean, Astrology, and Modern Feminism

"Vagabon" is a testament to fear and her ability to forge a path through that fear by having faith in oneself and one's community.

Can you remember the first time you understood that there was something powerful about music, something that could affect you far more deeply than patchworks of sound and rhythm should be able to?

Laetitia Tamko, who goes by the stage name Vagabon, recalls this very moment.

She was three, she told NPR, living in the Cameroonian city of Yaoundé, attending a gathering called a reunion. Standing in the middle of a circle of twenty-five women, the normally shy little girl was moved to enter the circle and began dancing.

On her sophomore album, Vagabon, Tamko conjures the kind of communal, ritualistic flow state that one imagines inspired her to join that dance so long ago. Vagabon is both tightly wound and expansive, concise and yet full of vast and rich internal spirit. In that, it resembles the collage-like yet cohesive songcraft of Frank Ocean, who was an early influence for Vagabon, though the album resists comparison, instead existing in a space of its own.

Vagabon - Water Me Down (Official Video) www.youtube.com

Lyrically, it blends millennial themes—a love of astrology, glitchy indie inflections—with much older influences that range from house to hip hop, African music to synth-heavy dream pop. On the first track, "Full Moon in Gemini," which was apparently actually written during a full moon in Gemini, Tamko sings with a rare kind of gentleness, placing her tender vocals over glistening strings. "Past the mad river / and the mountains / I wrote this about." Refusing to stay within any boundaries of genre or sonic expectation, Tamko orchestrates an expressive beat and bassline beneath the strings, giving the song a wry, subversive edge. It almost sounds like she's grinning, though sometimes a smile also means bearing teeth.

A similar progression happens on the quietly stunning "In A Bind," which begins with a folky finger-picking pattern that grows more processed and reverb-heavy as the song goes on. The song sounds like the last night before the inevitable end of a summer love affair; it would work perfectly in one of those montage movie scenes that follows a protagonist post-fling, leaving some idyllic countryside for city streets and watching the leaves skitter over the pavement as fall settles in.

Tamko produced the album herself, and you can hear the deliberateness with which each effect and instrumental part was added. Throughout the process of making the album, Tamko was very open about her insecurities about the music, frequently taking to Twitter to confess her fears that all the fans she gained from her first album wouldn't follow her as she explored new styles. Considering the amount of insecurity that plagues most artists even when they gain extensive recognition, it was surprisingly refreshing to follow Tamko on her confessional journey.

As expected, her fears were unfounded, as the album is delicate, experimental, fresh, and full of life. But if you're listening for it, you can almost hear the fingerprints of her self-critical thought loops playing out in the music. It's not hard to imagine the late nights she must have spent trying to perfect each sound, while simultaneously trying to release that desire for perfection.

If music is a map of the psyche, Vagabon's sophomore album is a lovely terrain to walk, if a solitary one. "I tend to be in isolation in general — I'm a homebody, I'm a nester — and because it's a part of who I am, my character, my personality, it's bound to trickle into the actual contents of the music," she said. Still, that's not to say that she's disengaged from the world around her. The album constantly mixes compassion and fierceness, braiding self-love with love for others. "All the women I know are tired," she sings on "Every Woman." "But we're not afraid of the war we brought on." It's a rallying cry that forgoes contrived feminist tropes and instead brims with truth.

Vagabon - Every Woman (Official Video) www.youtube.com

Sometimes she returns to more traditional indie roots, like on "Wits About You," but she uses them to express a message of solidarity that's somewhat rare in the Frankie Cosmos sphere of indie music in which she made her name. "I was invited to the party / they won't let my people in," she sings through a fog of grainy processors. "Well then nevermind, nevermind / we don't want to go to your function." From there, the song opens up; the mist falls away and clear waves of sound flow through, its bell-like clear tones and beat flowering like night-blooming jasmine.

Like much of her music, the album is warm and inviting, if protective of its tenderness. Tamko has spoken about wanting Vagabon to be a community, a place where people can come together in service of their own growth. Still, she seems aware that she was never meant to be part of the crowd—she is still that same little girl that leapt into the center of the circle of women. "I guess what I'm trying to say is that this album is me doing whatever the f*** I want, because I can do whatever I want, you know?" she said at the end of the NPR interview.

As a frontwoman and producer who maintains complete control of her own musical output, her own independence and autonomy may be her most generous gift of all. Vagabon sounds like the beginning of a journey through genres and into a growing sense of personal power. While perhaps not a conclusive journey in and of itself, Vagabon is a window into one of the most open hearts in music today.

Music Features

On This Day: Shakira Liberated Everyone's “She Wolf”

"I was in the studio in a bad mood that day, then I got inspired and went to a corner and I wrote the lyrics and the melody in 10 minutes. The image of the she wolf just came to my head, and when I least expected it I was howling and panting," Shakira said.

By Fabio Alexx

11 years ago, on July 10th, 2009, Colombian singer Shakira released the first single off her third studio album.

"She Wolf" is a synth-pop banger built on a B minor progression. It was, in many ways, an insane song, born out of the singer's own frustration and ennui.

"I was in the studio in a bad mood that day, then I got inspired and went to a corner and I wrote the lyrics and the melody in 10 minutes. The image of the she wolf just came to my head, and when I least expected it I was howling and panting," Shakira said.

Though the music was composed by John Hill and Sam Endicott, lead singer of post-punk band The Bravery, the lyrics were all Shakira's own. "[Shakira] contacted him (Hill), asking if he had any stuff," said Endicott. "We never had her in mind. We just made the thing independently of her, and then she liked it a lot, and she sang over it. She used some of the melodies we put in there and then wrote these crazy lyrics about being a werewolf. And that's how it happened."

Shakira - She Wolf www.youtube.com


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MUSIC

Season of the Witch: 9 New Albums to Ring In Fall

It's witching season, and the wave of releases from the week of Friday the 13th did not disappoint.

It's September, which means that fall is almost here.

That means that it's technically Halloween, and thankfully, artists have given us all the music we need to soundtrack the Northern Hemisphere's brief descent into the cold (and our planet's eventual descent into a heat death because of climate change, but that's another story).

Here are some of the best new albums released within the past few days (as well as suggestions about what autumnal activity they'd best accompany).

1. For getting a pumpkin spice latte on your way to the last party of the summer: Charli XCX, Charli

Charli XCX throws it back to her early days on her latest release, which is sweet, synthetic pop colored with overtones of millennial anxiety. The music is all crisp snaps, tightly wound arpeggiation, and glittery peals of guitar; at its best, it manages to sound as sincere as the average Carly Rae Jepsen track. While songs like "White Mercedes" can feel a bit artificial and saccharine, Charli hits her stride on slower songs like "Official," with its twinkling bell motif, heartfelt lyrics, and delicate build combining to form a charming pop ballad. This album may not convert too many new fans, but Charli's legions of dedicated followers are sure to find a lot of bittersweet euphoria in their queen's newest release. At the end of the day, it's the perfect album to spin while watching the sun set on another summer.

Charli XCX - Official [Official Audio] www.youtube.com


2. For running away to live in the woods and/or sprinting through a field of wheat carrying a sparkler: Angel Olsen, All Mirrors

Angel Olsen's 7-inch features two songs—"The Lark" and "All Mirrors" and both of them are wild, cathartic, and spellbinding. Over the past few years, Olsen has transitioned from sad-folk songstress to pop wannabe to a powerful, fully actualized combination of both, and you can hear that newfound confidence in the expanded vision of both these songs. In particular, "The Lark" soars to new heights, guiding the listener into and out of a dream state with its carnivalesque string section and heartbeat-like rhythms. It's the perfect song for getting lost in the woods and watching the sunset from besides a secluded lake that you'll never be able to find again, no matter how many times you go looking for it in the future. It's also perfect if you want to feel like you're starring in your own angst-ridden autumnal music video. In truth, these songs can feel excessively theatrical at times, enchanted by their own imaginations, but that's part of their charm.

Angel Olsen - Lark www.youtube.com

3. For when you're suddenly paralyzed by climate change panic at the county fair: Jeremy Ivey, The Dream And The Dreamer

This quiet album takes a macroscopic look at time and history, exploring the lostness that has always defined the human condition. Ivey's music evokes the faded California vibes of icons like the Mamas and the Papas and the Blue Jean Committee but veers towards country and the folk-pop gloom of early Bright Eyes or Iron & Wine. Ivey is a detached and impartial narrator, viewing the world through a thick fog and speaking more in metaphor than in specific and tangible observations. Through this lens, his carefully spaced-out observations about impending doom will feel familiar to anyone conscious of the state of the world but still going about their everyday lives. In spite of this, the album maintains a dogged optimism, buoyed by its resolute tempo and slightly weather-worn awareness of just how much humanity has already survived.

Jeremy Ivey - "The Dream And The Dreamer" (Full Album Stream) www.youtube.com

4. For getting stoned before watching a horror movie in your friend's basement: Djo, Twenty Twenty

Part 70s trip-rock, part hyper-modern synth music, Djo's newest release is the perfect way to impress your friends with your hipster music taste, or to follow your bliss while wearing a skeleton costume and feeling your poison of choice set in. "Tentpole Shangrila" is a highlight, blending Tame Impala's dreaminess with Flying Lotus's experimental textures, Radical Face's folky warmth, and guitar lines evocative of George Harrison's later work. Spacey, ethereal, yet deeply human and always expressive, this album has the makings of a modern classic.

Tentpole Shangrila www.youtube.com

5. For going searching for the Blair Witch and/or possessing your neighbors: Jenny Hval, The Practice of Love

This is electronica with teeth. Hval's music is high-anxiety, spiteful, and ritualistic, and it feels like an incantation from start to finish. Hval and her counterparts shriek, sigh, and whisper their ways through these maze-like songs, which sometimes feel more like collages than cohesive musical entities. Laden with dozens of instruments, from reverb-drenched horns to trap beats, The Practice of Love is classic Jenny Hval, who's basically Stevie Nicks with a MIDI synthesizer and a little less cocaine, or Cascada with a book of words like rabbit hole and church bells. Sometimes it's not clear what scenario this music is intended for, as it often feels too cluttered and abrasive to be chill but too eerie and disjointed to work as a club soundtrack—but then again, maybe that's the point.

Jenny Hval - Ashes to Ashes (Official Audio) www.youtube.com

6. For late-night drives and road trips: Sampa the Great, The Return

Sampa the Great pulls from [?] a number of impressive features to create her intricate and expansive debut album, but the rapper always takes center stage. Kendrick Lamar is a clear influence here in terms of the album's sonic makeup, lyrical complexity, and Sampa's subdued yet declarative flow. It's the kind of music that sounds effortless, though in truth it's anything but. Melding hip hop with jazz with African rhythms and Motown influences, The Return is a modern symphony that marks the entrance of a powerful and mature voice in rap. This is Sampa the Great's debut LP, but it's definitely far from the last.

The Return


7. For when you're decorating for Halloween: Devendra Banhart, Ma

This album sounds like what would happen if a Woodstock-inspired hippie took guitar lessons from a traditional Venetian balladeer. Here, acid-fueled, Jefferson Airplane-type basslines meet breathy Lou Reed vocals, but the arrangements veer away from traditional rock band stylings and become elegant, abstract, and warped at times. Hints of Spanish guitar run up against nostalgic elements of woodsy folk, and together they meander quietly, occasionally giving up the restraint and surging up into walls of electronic sound. The album is whimsical and light as cream, a fusion of genres tied together with gossamer strings. It's the perfect album to play while filling your entire house with pumpkins.

Devendra Banhart - Taking a Page (Official Video) www.youtube.com

8. For summoning demons and/or watching the news: Chelsea Wolfe, Birth of Violence

Chelsea Wolfe became well-known for her unique brew of harsh noise and folk as well as her Marilyn Manson-meets-Lana Del Rey aesthetic. On Birth of Violence, she leans towards her psychedelic-folk side but doesn't relinquish any of her prophetic mysticism or propensity for dark themes. Thematically, the album is a look into the corruption at the heart of America, a glimpse into some of the wounds that plague the nation and that have gotten us where we are today. In that, it's some of the most eloquent and subdued protest music of the era, ideal for languishing in a haze of doom-and-gloom or for summoning a few demons of your own.

Chelsea Wolfe - American Darkness (Official Video) www.youtube.com

9. For letting loose at the Halloween party and/or getting lost in the local haunted mansion down the street: JPEGMAFIA, All My Heroes Are Cornballs

This is blissful, gorgeous R&B at its most succinct and effortless. JPEGMAFIA blurs Frank Ocean's experimental dreaminess with grit and nuanced bursts of rage. This is the perfect soundtrack for a Halloween party; it sounds like losing your mind, but in the best possible way. Blurring industrial noise with abstract samples and bars that will leave you with your jaw on the floor, All My Heroes Are Cornballs is dark acid rap for the schizophrenic Twitter era. Listening to it can feel like being lost in an abandoned mansion that's much bigger on the inside than it seems from the outside, but once you surrender to the labyrinthine hallways and strange noises, it can feel like a macabre kind of freedom.

JPEGMAFIA - Grimy Waifu www.youtube.com

Honorable Mentions:

The Lumineers, III

(Sandy) Alex G, House of Sugar

Alex Cameron, Miami Memory

Long Beard, Means to Me