Chris Baio

REVIEW: Baio strikes out on his own with colourful debut “The Names”

Words by Susie Garrard

Though Vampire Weekend may have been quiet for a couple of years, bassist Chris Baio has not been idle. After teasing tracks over the last few months, he has finally released his debut solo album The Names, under the moniker Baio.

Having first arrived at the idea of solo album back in 2009, Baio has taken his time to pin down exactly what it was he wanted to produce. Relishing the freedom of autonomy, The Names has Baio’s stamp over every aspect. There is a graphic influence across both the music and the visual aesthetic,. Bright and angular sounds are wrapped up in graphic imagery and modernist design. Exploring what it was that he liked about modern art, Baio realised he was drawn to “colourful abstract stuff”. And that in itself could be a good description for The Names.

Taking the album title from Don DeLillo’s 1982 novel of the same name, Baio liked the idea that names are identity, and expression. With that in mind I’m not entirely sure where the title for opening track Brainwash yyrr Face comes in. But it’s a strong entry and a confident sound, with a glitchy, 8-bit style intro that has something playful to it – reminiscent of Popcorn or Gameboy game soundtracks. While Baio’s high baritone vocal is velvety and new wave, the synths wash it back down to earth. He’s worked hard at stepping up from bassist to frontman, and it works. His vocals are wonderful, and the arrangement exudes strength.

Title track The Names also shows off Baio’s vocals, melding an 80’s feel with the kind of tropical vibe we know from Vampire Weekend. Possibly on the lookout for some strong role model material, Baio cites Roxy Music’s Bryan Ferry and David Bowie as big influences. And the feel of that era really comes through on The Names, and especially heavily in the following Sister Of Pearl. An homage to Ferry with theatrical piano and playful yet clipped vocal line that drops down into an Elvis style vibrato. The inspiration may be pretty evident, but Sister Of Pearl is nonetheless of great track on the album and is definitely an ode to rather than a copy of Roxy Music’s Mother Of Pearl.

But The Names isn’t just some kind of throwback in a sharp suit; the electro style extends to the club scene and DJ sets. House beats are the grounding on a lot of the tracks, and the release has the feel of a DJ mix. I Was Born In A Marathon starts out as a kind of electronic interlude that breaks down to silence and starts up again as a whole new song, bringing Baio’s vocals back into the picture. Other tracks segue neatly into each other, not in the way albums used to with effects and lead ins, but in the inherent writing. Which makes The Names an incredibly cohesive record by nature.

Needs is possibly the ballad of the album, with narrative lyrics and leaning more heavily on the vocal line than other songs. The sentiment is a love song, but Baio doesn’t quite go soft on us with a more thoughtful approach. And swiftly followed by instrumental All The Idiots, we’re launched into a darker feel full of club beats and repetition and laser sounding synths keep the 80’s thread running through. Baio has a great sense for layering up instrumentation, All The Idiots is just one of the masterful soundscapes on the album.

Pulling up the iconic influence again, Baio has his Bowie moment on Endless Rhythm. Bringing the keys back in, there is less of Ferry’s quirk and more of Bowie’s lyricism. Segueing neatly into the final track Scarlett, military rolls and choral effects build on the kind of epic style that is hinted at in Endless Rhythm. There is something almost like Arcade Fire in the orchestral delivery, but this devolves into summery guitar melodies and die away synths that sign off on the electro side.

Released with the hope that The Names is given life outside of Baio’s past efforts, one listen to the record is enough to confirm that this it is coming from a completely different place. And a few more is enough to convince me that The Names stands well in its own right as a great album.