On her compact debut, Lætitia Tamko’s inimitable take on DIY indie rock feels victorious. She explores ideas of home, community, and sharing space with others who don’t necessarily see eye to eye.
Just about 20 minutes into Lætitia Tamko’s compact debut as Vagabon, Infinite Worlds, she sings a line so cutting that, upon first hearing it, I had to remove my headphones and take stock of my surroundings. “What about them scares you so much?/My standing there threatens your standing, too,” Tamko sings on “Cleaning House,” broadcasting a simple but eminently resonant message that defines why these eight songs feel so important, especially now. It should be no secret that Tamko’s thought runs through the minds of all those made marginal by prejudicial thinking—and actual executive action. It could be your skin color, the way you dress, who you worship or love, but nonetheless that question flashes through the minds of those made to feel less. A simple, evocative guitar plucking in the background guides this sentiment with precision into the ear of a listener, and down into their gut.
Yet, Tamko’s inimitable take on DIY indie rock is never downtrodden. It’s victorious—even when her feats feel pyrrhic. Her soaring, winsome, and mutable tenor is unlike any of her peers in the New York scene. She also shreds. More importantly, Tamko’s first proper album is a stunning document of what indie rock can look like from a viewpoint that isn’t necessarily widespread in the genre. Infinite Worlds is an album interested in grappling with seemingly intractable and very personal questions about sharing space, finding a home, and fostering community in a world that can be caustic to those very actions.
Some of the songs that appear on Infinite Worlds started as rougher drafts on 2014 EP Persian Garden. Listening to the earlier work, it’s clear how much Tamko has grown. She moved to New York as a teenager from Cameroon, and until she graduated from college in 2015, music was more or less a hobby. Her Bandcamp demos eventually led her to the Bushwick community art space Silent Barn, and a venerable DIY scene that includes artists like Frankie Cosmos and Crying (members of both bands contributed to Infinite Worlds).
“The Embers,” the album’s opener, was originally a song called “Sharks,” and it has transitioned from whispered confession to empowering paean. The song’s anthemic, steady guitars and booming drums recall the sound of Modest Mouse or Built to Spill, but her voice is the anchor to all these songs. It’s a powerful tool that can move from soft to loud, confrontational to relaxing, with an uncanny grace.
Tamko shows this in songs like “Fear & Force” and “Mal à L’aise.” On the former, she sings about a failed relationship, isolation, and the search for a sanctuary. “I've been hiding in the smallest space/I am dying to go/This is not my home,” Tamko sings, alternating between breathy harmonies and straightforward delivery (Greta Kline, aka Frankie Cosmos, provides backing vocals). The latter is one of the most interesting songs on the album: a piece of gauzy, ambient pop, not unlike the Cocteau Twins. Sung completely in French, “Mal à L’aise” is a sound collage made of a spectral chorus of voices, processed and multiplied (including sampled vocals from Julie Byrne/Makonnen collaborator Eric Littmann). These sounds shuffle around in an indistinct musical space, which is both haunted and relaxed. It’s almost close to new age, conjuring up the work of Harold Budd or Grouper, but Tamko gives the airy vibe of this song weight with lyrics that touch on accepting social discomfort and embracing oneself.
Throughout Infinite Worlds, Tamko interrogates what it means to occupy space with others who don’t necessarily see eye to eye, be it parents, peers, or strangers. Sometimes imagining that ideal world leads to bouts of doubt, or even magical realism (see “100 Days”). But Tamko keeps coming back to the same point: the community you want to live in is one you have to make. Guided by a more mature sound, Infinite Worlds is the rock music we need nowadays, when it seems like home, wherever it might be, is getting farther away.