How far can you take a DIY project without many resources? I’m sure singer-songwriter Luke Dean asked himself that question a lot during the making of I Don’t Know What to Do Now, his solo release under the name Vagabonds. Recorded in coffee shops, living rooms, and other random locations across the Midwest, the album reflects a variety of limitations — specifically in budget and instruments. In fact, Dean didn’t even own a guitar for much of the process. But such limitations often bring out the most creativity and deepest emotion, and that’s the case with this inspiring, intimate, and all-around impressive half-hour of indie rock.
Bringing the palpable feeling of Mansions and early 2000s Brand New, I Don’t Know is as raw an emo record as we’ve heard in years. It’s both stripped-down and layered, with dense textures from elements as basic as an acoustic guitar and vocals forming the artist’s sound. In the vein of Jesse Lacey, Dean often overlaps several recordings of his voice to build a harmonic wall and bring out more feeling. In that manner, he overcomes his constraints as a vocalist not merely with cover-up, but with the focus on rawness. The fact that the album was recorded with low-quality microphones adds to this, as the fuzzy playback strikes a deeper chord than if it was clear and polished.
In “A Self Fulfilling Prophecy”, Dean only needs a few layers to get the job done. With the aid of shimmering guitars and a mood-setting horn, he treads through the song like a bruised romantic. He adds more vocal tracks in “Deja Vu (I’m Still Afraid)”, allowing the growing heartfelt intensity in his voice to make us realize that our doubts and regrets makes us one of the same. Track three culminates with spoken word (“Even if I was as bad as I think I am, that doesn’t make me any less worthy of being cared for”), which imprints that message perfectly. “Ambulance (I Am Nothing)” and “Nails” continue to highlight the power of simplicity. In the former, scant strums give time for the words to sink in. Then, in the latter, a short duration gives little to be missed in Dean’s summary of relationship struggles.
The candor musical approach reminds of Bright Eyes in that Dean delivers nothing but the essentials. The people who merely label Conor Oberst’s project “sad” are ignoring the warm intimacy — and they’ll miss exactly what Vagabonds does so well throughout I Don’t Know. The Grand Rapids, MI native conveys himself realistically, allowing the 11 songs on his debut to come across as sincere and instantly relatable. His lyrics are an uncensored diary. In “Nineveh”, the line “I close my eyes and I see violence / I am darker than you think” spills out in front of low-quality drums, reflecting his brokenness in more ways than one. Dean’s storytelling abilities also shine through, as he turns a tale about his struggles into a vision of optimism under God’s plan on closer “Teeth”. In the finale, he channels his inner Cody Bonnette (As Cities Burn) and Levi the Poet, ending the album on a hopeful note as he sings “hallelujah” repeatedly.
A DIY work ethic is one of the most admirable things to have in music — not only because of the potential results, but also because it’s incredibly taxing. We like to talk about experience over destination, but what Dean has done with I Don’t Know What to Do Now is ultimately reflected in his title. Making this first Vagabonds album comes across not merely as a journey but more so a marathon. The finished product finds him weary but satisfied, as he has the whole world in front of him. A lack of resources is challenging enough, but Luke Dean reminds us with this enduring and engaging indie/emo effort that having little doesn’t make us little.
Indie/Emo | Blood & Ink Records