Sunday, February 10, 2008

Vampire Weekend...

Vampire Weekend - Vampire Weekend (released January 29, 2008; XL Recordings)
There are an infinite number of bands that sound like other bands yet still have enough originality to distance themselves from their heroes; that's the mark of a good band. Reinterpreting the past without straight-up ripping it off, Vampire Weekend's self-titled full-length debut sounds as if it's been culled from a myriad of influences. Extracting their musical direction from
Peter Gabriel's early solo catalog, King Sunny Ade's Nigerian juju polyrhythms, Paul Simon's Graceland, not to mention English post-punk (I hear some of The Police and The Cure in here as well as the decidedly un-English post-punk Talking Heads), this foursome from New York City couldn't have made a finer album, it's actually the first great record of 2008.

I was trying to pigeon-hole this band into a genre, but I really can't. And the closest thing I could find to a press release on them is from their own website, where they offer up this little parcel of info: "We are specialists in the following styles: "Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa", "Upper West Side Soweto", "Campus", and "Oxford Comma Riddim." Infusing styles from far and near, their self-fashioned classification would have you believe they've been all around this world. There's a nod to Beantown (via the Congo) and NYC (by way of southern Africa). There's also the whole UB40-meets-Gang Of Four reggae-tinged dub, with a hint of an Ivy League education, namely, Columbia University (where these lads all met each other).

Lead singer Ezra Koenig's voice is a pseudo-cockney inflected styling reminiscent of a young Sting's emotive yelpings, cross-pollenated with the Arctic Monkeys' Alex Turner's sonant vocalizations. That's pretty good company to be compared to. But it's the everyman songwriting that's got me impressed.

The album opens with staccato-organ blasts and into the jaunty Mansard Roof, both an ode to Victorian architecture and a retelling of the defeat of the once powerful Argentine navy. It's a heady sentiment, with two opposing viewpoints in the same song, it's as if it's a conversation. On one side, a proper English gent content to look out over Olde London Town above the roofs and industrial pollution, the second, a once-proud admiral watching his ships sink off the coast of South America. The most accessible song on the album is the stellar Oxford Comma, with both tongue-in-cheek lyrics and a name-check of Lil Jon (and a reference to his lyrics; "to the window, to the wall"). Also, there's a nod to the Dalai Lama in this track, calling attention to pop culture's over-reaching accessibility over the last few years. Nothing is sacred except pop itself.

A-Punk has a nice walking bass line, sounding as it if it's been lent from The Cure's early discography. Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa's lyrics act like a roll-call of New England prep school elitism; rhyming Louis Vuitton with reggaeton and Bennetton and an homage to Peter Gabriel's unnatural obsession with world music, perhaps triggering Vampire Weekend's interest in said phenomena. With its harpsichords and strings, M79 becomes part of a classical theme that's revisited again on the latter part of the album, as strings show up in the tracks Bryn, I Stand Corrected, Walcott and then used again to near-perfection on the album's closer, The Kids Don't Stand A Chance.

Campus is the quintessential college-break-up song, with these lovely little lyrics: "
Then I see you/ You're walking cross the campus/ Cruel professor/ Studying romances/ How am I supposed to pretend/ I never want to see you again?" I often wonder (usually aloud), "has there been more songs about falling in love OR falling out of love? The next track, Bryn, is a falling in love song, yet, there's a unrequited tone to it, a summer love ode with the line: "Wait for the season to come back to me..." And the following track, One (Blake's Got A New Face) is as "island" as it gets, acting an updated Caribbean calypso for the hipster set.

The triplet of closing tracks, I Stand Corrected, Walcott and The Kids Don't Stand A Chance are as good as any album closer I'm sure to hear this year, making this album a complete success front to back. Walcott is the "we gotta get outta here before we die" jam that all young artists write, filled with that suffocating agony of "home". However, the trip is to New Jersey (of all places!). I can relate a wee bit; I've spent almost every summer of my youth on the over-crowded beaches of Jersey, and one on the beach of Cape Cod's Orleans township. I'd be as well to reverse the lyrics to fit my own bullshit teen angst; getting out of NJ to reach the quaint flexed muscle of the Cape, reaching out into the northern Atlantic like a fist, daring the English to come back and take what was once theirs.

But alas, the final ode warns the "kids" that indeed, you don't stand a snowball's chance in Hades. Could it be that the shattered dreams of our generation rest solely on our parent's shoulders? There's no doubt that the preceding generation has left us with all of their problems, an all-encompassing, all-too-heavy burden that we have to figure out what to do with these; global warming, over-population, over-reliance on pharmaceutical cures for our perceived ills, polluted seas, food shortages, political corruption, racism, etc. Not to mention a serious oil addiction that seems a lot like the inner city crack-fest of the late 80s.

Before this review turns into a sociology paper, I'll leave you with this: the simple facts remain that this record is full of gorgeous pop melodies, laden with super catchy and hooky choruses, rife with wonderful west-African guitar riffs, and Caribbean calypso stylings. I'm doing away with the rating system, but if this was a paper and I was a professor, Vampire Weekend's self-titled debut would be the best of the new year. It's totally wrecking the curve; other bands are going to need to do some extra-credit work to catch up...


woolgathering... said...

you have convinced me. i will seek this band out.


Keri Hope said...

I hadn't listened to the album when you reviewed it, but downloaded it about a week later, and I'm completely hooked. I'm talkin' multiple plays per day...