The Vacant Lots – Departure (Sonic Cathedral)
A fine debut from Vermont psych-punks, The Vacant Lots – thrilling and inventive, with help from famous friends.
To those who like their guitars fuzzy, bass abrasive and vocals reverberant, it’s no secret that a wave of American bands has, for some years, been putting ours to shame in the fields of neo-psych, noise-rock and post-punk revivalism. Austin, Texas, boasts the only worthwhile version of any ‘psych fest‘ event going, while on this side of the pond, with The Libertines headlining Hyde Park and The Kooks somehow still filling secret guest slots at Glastonbury, it’s as if we still haven’t quite pulled the plug on landfill indie.
Vermont duo The Vacant Lots have been part of this enviably fertile stateside landscape for nearly half a decade and with this long-awaited debut album, Departure, they only sharpen the contrast. Releases may have been sparse but the band have been quietly busy making famous friends, among them Sonic Boom, Dean Wareham and Alan Vega, all of whom have made a tangible impact on Departure in their respective ways.
Wareham’s contribution, playing guitar on Tomorrow, is easily the least interesting of the three. The song is decent – think Wooden Shjips with more structural discipline – but it’s tough to see what he brings that the Lots couldn’t deliver themselves.
To more positive effect, Sonic Boom’s influence is audible throughout. Quite apart from the fact that he mixed and mastered all eight tracks, the pulsating synth loops on Before The Evening’s Thru, among other examples, give more than just a passing nod to his side of Recurring, the final Spacemen 3 LP.
Alan Vega, meanwhile, is a far more recent addition to the band’s phonebook. So recent, in fact, that his contribution doesn’t extend much beyond the coincidently (not to mention thoroughly) Suicide-esque 6 AM. It’s a shame, because his remix of lead single Mad Mary Jones gives a thrilling clue as to what this album could have been had The Vacant Lots received that surprise breakfast invitation a few months earlier.
As you might have guessed, Departure is a difficult record to analyse in any terms other than those artists who have clearly influenced its creators, but it also demonstrates that there is such a thing as being derivative but also kind of inventive. Anyone can rip off a Jesus and Mary Chain song, but few are smart enough to pair the atmosphere of their early demos with the drones of Silver Apples (Paint This City), or use a White Light/White Heat-type chord progression as a canvas for sparkly, New Order-style synth magic (Make The Connection).
As a palette of influences, Departure isn’t going to blow the minds of anyone well versed in the genres that it borrows from, but when the arrangement is this good it’s difficult to care. For someone willing to make the distinction between creative appropriation and mere pastiche, it’s a strong debut by a band with far more than good connections and impeccable taste going for them.
All words by Will Dix. More writing by Will can be found at his author’s archive.