Album Review: Baio - The Names (2015 LP)

Carving one’s own niche is difficult at the best of times, but it’s a whole new ball game when the name of one of the world’s most popular bands precedes you. Vampire Weekend bassist Chris Baio rises to the challenge on his first full-length solo release, The Names.

Immediately apparent is how different the nine tracks are from his work with the band: dance beats replace string arrangements; droning synths are favoured over harpsichords. It’s still pop, but Baio takes his cues from new-wave and experimental electronica, and his fondness for the two carries the mood of the album. Perhaps his move to London a few years ago was the catalyst: from the cover art of the singles, to the sound of the music; the album has a distinctly European feel.

That’s not to say America isn’t still present - it is, both in language choice (phrases like “copacetic”) and ideas (the album is named after a DeLillo novel). In fact, the record articulates a number of concepts from its namesake book; in particular, it is concerned with the conflict between language’s power to either open the world or control it: “I’ve never heard a lyric that I really liked / Every lyric I’ve written is a lyric I despise”, Baio sings on “Endless Rhythm”.

But where he finds language limiting, music is a worthy substitute: “All The Idiots” feels like a retro conception of the future; the distorted percussion in “Scarlett” is tempered by Spanish guitars, and “The Names”, “Needs” and “Matter” are all concise, infectious pop numbers. The aptly-named “Brainwash yyrr Face” - one of the highlight tracks - sees Baio singing about a “blurry, fitful sleep” to an appropriately hazy backdrop.

A closer look reveals the specific cultural touchstones Baio draws from - such as on standout single “Sister of Pearl”, which name-checks Bowie’s “Boys Keep Swinging” and takes its title from Roxy Music’s “Mother of Pearl”. The tune is immediately likeable, and feels as abstract and colourful as the album’s cover art. “It is what it is / until it was what it was”, Baio sings on the track. It’s a fitting sentiment: carefree on its face, but hinting at something more. One gets the sense that The Names is purely intuitive - only, a good deal of thought has gone into producing that response.

Review Score: 8.9 out of 10

The Names is out now.