BY PARKER KLYN
When people ask me what my favorite band is, I always default to Vampire Weekend. The New York indie rockers were the band that helped me get into independent music that falls just below the mainstream, and I count their most recent album, “Modern Vampires of the City,” among my personal favorites.
However, whenever they decide to release a new album, the lineup will look slightly different, as producer/songwriter/occasional vocalist Rostam Batmanglij left the band last year. Rostam, more than any other member of Vampire Weekend, had leaned towards interests outside the band. He’s written and produced music for some of the biggest names in pop and R&B, including Frank Ocean, Solange and Carly Rae Jepsen. He was also the first band member to come out with music of his own, when in 2011 he released the “Wood”/”Don’t Let It Get To You” 7-inch, as well as scoring his brother’s film.
Now after last year’s collaborative album with Hamilton Leithauser, Rostam has released his debut album titled Half-Light. Where Vampire Weekend’s music is sleek and stylish, Rostam’s solo music is decidedly uncool. Hip pop culture references are replaced with wide-ranging affirmations. Ezra Koenig’s dexterous singing is nowhere to be found. Instead, Rostam’s sighing, almost timid voice layered with reverberation, gives the songs on Half-Light weight. There are very few guitars, but there are marching pianos and beautifully arranged string sections, giving the album a decidedly pastoral feel. This is chamber pop with an emphasis on the chamber.
Half-Light gets off to a wonderful start with its first four tracks. Opener “Sumer” almost sounds like a Christmas carol, with its sleigh bells and children’s choir. But when the harpsichord enters halfway through, it becomes reminiscent of “Step,” one of Vampire Weekend’s best songs (and one of Rostam’s greatest productions). “Bike Dream” evokes those classic feelings of awe traveling to a place as vast as New York City. I especially love the chorus, an affirmation of pure bliss: “You’ll catch your breath / You’ll sleep into the day / To wake up with sunlight across your room.”
The title track features vocals from Kelly Zutrau, lead singer of the great indie pop band Wet, and it’s a heartfelt ballad about a one night stand where one of the participants wants something more than that. The refrain is a phrase that can easily be imagined being mumbled at the break of dawn: “Baby, all the lights came up / What are you gonna do?”
“Wood” and “Don’t Let It Get To You,” songs that are six years old, make it onto Half-Light. While I like them individually as singles, the former is a little bit too patient and plodding, exaggerating its six-minute runtime. Later, “I Will See You Again” is stunningly beautiful; I just wish it were longer than interlude-length. “Hold You” is an interesting experiment in trap, with great vocals from former Dirty Projector Angel Deradoorian, but I wish the song at the track’s base was better developed.
If there was one knock against Rostam’s production in Vampire Weekend, it’s that a few of their songs had touches that were, for lack of a better word, annoying. “When” has an awkward and off-putting spoken word passage that makes me want to hit the skip button, and “Rudy” has distorted, layered vocals that feel out of place against the song’s pretty instrumental. Still, these unappealing moments are few and far between.
Luckily, the album concludes just as well as it begins. To that end, I’d challenge anyone to find a stronger trio of songs to close a 2017 album than the stretch of “EOS,” “Gwan,” and the reprise of “Don’t Let It Get To You.” I’ve written a lot on “EOS.” Long story short, it was my very favorite song for all of last year. It’s the only song I’ve ever heard that sounds simultaneously heart-wrenchingly intimate and galaxy-spanning, and I love it just as much within the context of the album.
“Gwan” is probably my favorite non-“EOS” track on Half-Light. It has a driving classical string section with a reminiscent and nostalgic chorus: “Sometimes I laugh when I think about how well you know me.” And even with Rostam’s constant affirmations on this record, the song ends with a coda that looks into the unknown: “Are you ready?”
I’ve listened to Half-Light over a dozen times, and I still don’t feel like I’ve discovered everything there is to find within the record. Yet, similar to Vampire Weekend’s music, I don’t feel like I need to understand every little secret or motivation behind every lyric on Half-Light. With music this good, “meaning” might not have any importance at all. Half-Light could mean something different to everyone.