My taste in music has come a long way since I was fifteen, learning to play guitar, and thought that the only good songs were the ones with wicked loud power-cords. Even so, sometimes I just need to get back to my roots and listen to some blistering, fist-pumping guitar rock. Enter Nico Vega. When I learned that this L.A. trio, the same band behind the riotously pleasurable single Cocaine Cooked the Brain, would be releasing their first full length it instantly became one of my most anticipated albums of 2009. Now, several months later, if the album doesn’t deliver everything I could possibly have hoped for, it does pack a fist-full of intelligently frenetic rock that left me panting and satisfied.
The album’s first track, “Burn Burn,” launches out of the gate with catchy dance beats and soaring vocals punctuated by ethereal, psychedelic breakdowns. If it becomes clear that Aja Volkma is the star here, guitarist Rich Koehler and drummer Dan Epand give her an expansive and textured canvass to work with. The next few tracks keep laying it on thick with guitars hedonistically overdriven to the cusp of abstraction. The result is what feels like the strange but beautiful love child of Pat Benatar and Death From Above 1979, with Karen O from the Yeah Yeah Yeahs filling in as godmother. Each song bristles with kinetic beats and piercingly earnest vocals that left me wondering why I hadn’t been listening to more guitar rock all these years.
Beginning with “Underground” the album takes a surprising, if not always satisfying, turn toward lighter indie rock. While the guitars and wailing vocals still show up on some songs, others, like “Wooden Dolls,” become much more mellow. For the most part, these middle songs are pleasurable and fun to listen to, but there’s also a noticeable break in the album’s cohesion. Still, this choppy middle section includes songs like “Gravity,” that serve a heavy dose of sweaty, dancehall fun, as well as moments of striking beauty. “Iron Man” for example, evokes a gravelly Fiona Apple, and “Rabbit in the Bag” synthesizes some of the earlier raucousness with greater tranquility. Finally, the album finishes off with “Beast,” a hard rocker that, in the context of the other songs, provides a fitting conclusion with all the fury of the first half plus some of the textures of the later songs. It’s a fitting song that, if not totally filling out the emotional arch of the album, bookends what turns out to be a phenomenal debut full-length.
In the end, Nico Vega’s self-titled album is the kind of record I’ve been waiting for for years without even knowing it. It’s far from perfect (not to mention the band’s dubious company on Myspace Records), but still drips with the emotional soul of a band that I hope will have a long future.