May 24, 2007

If the Internet reinvented the idea of the overnight sensation, Voxtrot were some of its first guinea pigs—a bunch of kids in their late teens and early 20s who suddenly found themselves digital darlings off the strength of a couple self-produced, self-released EPs recorded in the sweltering heat of a Texas summer, home on break from college, high off the powerful fumes of first creation. Riding a Belle & Sebastian/Felt/Smiths fixation, baby-faced frontman Ramesh Srivastava synthesized his heroes well, flashing a precocious talent for pairing perfect jangle-pop melodies to strikingly poetic images that belied his youth (“I saw the years go by in triple lines of grey”).

A decade ago, the effort would’ve gotten Voxtrot signed to a small indie where they could’ve perfected their craft in relative anonymity until finally maturing into “a great band.” But it’s the Internet age. Drop a couple head-turning singles, get the right review or two, and the next thing you know you’re in a foreign world of large venues and bidding wars. If you don’t believe me, go ask Dan Deacon in a few weeks.

But with the instant sugar rush of Internet fame comes the inevitable hangover and the pressures of avoiding the all-too-predictable sophomore slump (or, if you prefer in this case, freshman slump). It’s a daunting task for any artist, let alone one in his early twenties suddenly forced to deal with coming of age in the public eye. So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Voxtrot is a chronicle of Srivastava’s messy collision with adulthood, a record at times brilliant, at times uneven, and at all times a work of transition, showing Srivastava grappling with themes of innocence and experience, death and rebirth, nostalgia for the past versus excitement for the future.

But Can Voxtrot Do the Foxtrot?

For a group labeled a blog buzz band, Voxtrot’s debut is the opposite of what you’d expect. Devoid of a hit single, Voxtrot is a grower: dark, brooding, and much less instantly gratifying than anything the band has previously done. On first listen, the time changes sound frenetic to the point of being rushed, lacking the fluidity of the early EPs. But on repeat, the twitchy hyperactivity settles nicely, revealing the knack for melody and sing-a-long hooks that Voxtrot has always demonstrated.

The sound is rougher than the band’s twee beginnings would suggest, with Srivastava at times taking on a Ted Leo-esque bray, and lead guitarist Mitch Calvert rifling off guitar solos eerily reminiscent of Albert Hammond Jr. Yet with swooning strings courtesy of the Tosca Orchestra and the occasional melancholy piano ballad, Voxtrot still aren’t about to make anyone forget that Srivastava spent a good amount of time in the U.K. soaking up the Cherry Red and Creation discographies.

Most jarring are Srivastava’s lyrics. Whereas his earlier efforts felt like poems converted into songs, the new lyrics lack the same elegance—they’re blunter, more forceful, more self-loathing. On “Kid Gloves,” Srivastava pouts, “Cheer me up, cheer me up, I’m a miserable fuck / Cheer me up, cheer me up, I’m a tireless bore.” Nearly emo in his sense of melodrama, Srivastava articulates a quarter-life crisis with just enough affability to end up on the right side of self-indulgence. Barely.

And Yet, They Seemed So Happy In The Hot Tub

It might not be the type of thing to send the hype machine racing, but Voxtrot remains a compelling enough statement to justify the inordinate amounts of excitement thrown around the band, yet nowhere near a fulfillment of the enormous potential they’ve shown. An angry, sad, and intriguing work, Voxtrot might detail Srivastava’s period of feeling sinister, but he’s not
there just yet.

Originally Published at Stylus

Grade: B-

MP3: Voxtrot-“Kid Gloves”
MP3: Voxtrot-“Blood Red Blood”

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