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Vampire Weekend - Vampire Weekend Print E-mail
Saturday, 01 March 2008
ImageIt’s hard to know exactly when it happened, but at some point in the early 2000s there was a seismic shift in the indie rock aesthetic. For 25 years the influence of the Velvet Underground had loomed so large over the underground that nearly every band – from Mission of Burma to Sonic Youth, Yo La Tengo to Pavement – had to go through the Velvets to find themselves, and as recently as the late ‘90s it didn’t appear that fuzzy guitars, deadpan vocals and outsider sentiments were in any danger of relinquishing their hold on the music made for and listened to by those ideologically opposed to Top 40 radio. But with the advent of peer-to-peer trading networks, independent music began to change, slowly but perceptibly, and a new generation of bands began to spring up that looked to another seminal New York band for influence – art-pop legends Talking Heads. By 2005, it was their influence that echoed through every yelping vocal and twitchy guitar from Modest Mouse and Arcade Fire to Clap Your Hands Say Yeah and Sunset Rubdown. Now in 2008 African pop is everywhere, and there are no shortage of bands ready to carry the mantle of David Byrne and his fascination with polyrhythms and non-Western pop forms. Add to that list Vampire Weekend.

The latest band to make the leap from blog sensation to the pages of Rolling Stone and the stages of late night TV talk shows, Vampire Weekend continues indie rock’s continuing shift away from guitar-bass-drums dynamics toward a kinder, less pretentious form of songwriting. Written and recorded by four college students at Columbia University in the winter of 2006, their self-titled debut is startling in its immediacy, a vividly textured and irresistibly giddy patchwork of West African guitars, orchestral music, garage rock and ‘50s pop. And while they aren’t as willfully nerdy or avant-garde as Talking Heads, their openness to explore whatever stylistic idea they want puts them in that band’s tradition. More than just about any album you’ll hear this year, theirs is one whose appeal is obvious from the very first spin.
From the soft farfisa chords and swirling strings that give way to frenzied marching drums and the taut guitar spirals of the opening “Mansard Roof” to the reggae keyboards, layered violins and pensively sing-songy vocals of “The Kids Don’t Stand a Chance,” it’s an album that never wavers from its decidedly genial tone. But as welcoming and unthreatening as it is, it’s loaded with youthful vigor, with songs careening and bounding with a live-in-the-studio energy, with the sizzling hi-hats and skittering guitar lines of “A-Punk” and the clanging distorted piano and get-out-of-Dodge sentiments of “Walcott.” The aura of academia hangs over the songwriting, with mentions of the Holy Roman Empire and disdain for proper punctuation mingling with the college melodrama of “Campus,” where the song’s protagonist suffers a meltdown and ends up sleeping on a balcony after seeing his former flame cross in front of him. With so much energy bouncing around the album, it’s abundantly obvious that this is an album made by a group of guys in their early 20s, and it’s never in question whether they’re having a good time.

As much as David Byrne’s influence can be felt throughout these 11 tracks, it’s Paul Simon’s influence that you hear. Vocalist/guitarist Ezra Koenig might be a bit more playful but his soft tenor and boyish lilt is more than a little reminiscent of Simon’s thoughtful vocal gait, a comparison that becomes all the more obvious with the mélange of African and Caribbean tones. Along those same lines, you can hear shades of Buddy Holly in the hiccupping vocals and the vintage guitar tones of “Oxford Comma,” and Jonathan Richman is the picturesque narrative with silly mentions of Peter Gabriel and Benetton in the whimsical “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa.”

But even while the fingerprints of influences can be detected with close listens, the band’s use of lush string sections and prancing harpsichords makes them more than just another American band with a fixation on pan-ethnic pop music. Though they do well to maintain the sound of four people playing in a room, it’s those touches of cellos and violins that push their songs into another dimension of craftsmanship, adding flourishes to already memorable melodies. Case in point, “M79” takes an otherwise unexceptional melody and wraps it in layers of harpsichord and flitting strings, and just that adds an austere edge to the imperfect clinks and clangs the band allows in the mix. It might be an album whose main appeal is its infectious joyousness, but nearly every track has a moment where you’re reminded of just how much subtle imagination went into these songs.

In the end, despite the high-minded mixing and matching of non-Western genres that few American listeners have ever encountered, the appeal of Vampire Weekend is simple: it’s an exceptionally fun album. Even so, one could criticize the album’s general lack of peaks and valleys, as despite the diversity of textures and tones, the songs vary little in their aesthetic pull. Further, the songs tend to adhere to a pattern where verses and choruses balance each other by one being stripped down and mid-tempo and the other being sonically verdant and fast-paced. But apart from the lack of emotional peaks and valleys, it’s a remarkably enduring album, one with enough odd twists to reward repeated listens and enough pop efficacy to sound good long after you’ve already explored it. In short, it’s one of the very best examples of indie rock’s paradigm shift, a perfect example of why distorted guitars and contrarian poses aren’t quite enough anymore.

Produced by keyboardist Rostam Batmangli, the album suffers none from the band’s relative lack of experience. In fact, the album is perfectly layered, with the reverb-heavy electric guitars, snapping drums and svelte vocals all present high and upfront in the mix. Few modern production touches are obvious, and there’s nothing about this album that would mark it as having being made in the last 30 years. That said, the vintage feel is perfectly suited to the arrangements, and the sound crackles out of the speakers with a vibrancy that very few albums have achieved. There may not be a lot of intricate touches that can be teased apart by high-end equipment, but the end result is an album that sounds good no matter what your budget is.

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