When Vampire Strikes

Vampire WeekendConsidering the next band pretty much got its start in the blogosphere, I’m a little late to the party on this one. But I don’t think tardiness has ever stopped me from enjoying myself. And besides…good music can always use publicity. “Blog Bands” as they’re known, groups that achieve status and reputation through the postings and writings of people who have heard them, are steadily on the rise. Even for the groups that get out to tour, have word of mouth and sign a deal, cyberspace writings, tags and search engine results are becoming more and more important to up and coming ensembles. Our friend Scott Reitherman and his group Throw Me the Statue provides a good example of how a few well placed authors and blog articles can help influence the rise of a smaller local group. I’ll also mention that the rise of this next group, in addition to their styles of music, breadth of their album, resemblance to some excellent groups of the past and ability to mix these things together make them perfect fodder for this blog. In 2007, Vampire Weekend started making some noise with a single or two. Coming out of New York (having all met at Columbia), this foursome (Ezra Koenig – guitar/vocals, Rostam Batmanglij – keyboard, Chris Tomson – drums, and Chris Baio – bass guitar) eventually signed a record contract and on January 29th put out their debut eponymous album. And I’m going to tell y’all something…it’s hot.

Most readers here will know my long standing opinion of pop and radio music. So when I say that this group’s 11 track, 34 minute pop inflected album is an achievement, some might think I’m joking. But this group becomes the next in a long line of musicians who have been able to take completely different musical styles and weave them into a cohesive tapestry that can absorb a listener. They also have a knack for emulating the 80s wave of Paul Simon‘s Graceland album, some of the Talking Heads‘ tracks and Peter Gabriel in bringing seemingly incongruous world music into the mix and making it downright fun to listen to, regardless of musical preferences. The album is so diverse in its sound, yet tied to the simpler and shorter blueprints of pop music that I can imagine any listener finding moments of happiness in all the songs, even if the style of one is more enjoyable to them than others. Furthermore, the simple yet poetic lyrics are easy to listen to, sing along with and understand. The group dubs themselves as artists of numerous genres that they’ve mixed and matched, including “Upper West Side Soweto.”

The album kicks off with “Mansard Roof,” an up tempo song leaning towards the indie rock spectrum of things. On first listen, one finds a graceful, short and moving song. On repeated listening, the less noticeable instrumentation becomes more prominent and provides a hint of just what’s in store on the rest of the album: a group of intelligent and accomplished musicians bringing numerous genre sensibilities to all of their songs. On “Oxford Comma,” a simple and out front drum beat backs an almost 50s sounding simple organ-like melody with a simple lead vocal track that ascends to moments of joyous falsetto. The guitar solo is simple and happy, never becoming too enamored with itself or too complex to enjoy. On “A-Punk,” the group takes on punk sounds reminiscent of the Ramones and Sex Pistols, yet again infuses it with a more manageable and less abrasive pop flavor. The end result is a mash-up that I’ve decided to call island punk.

“Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa” brings out numerous styles. At the beginning, you can hear the South African/Congol rhythms that conjure memories of Graceland. The lightly spaced and simple lyrics keep the sound light before exploding into a chorus where lead singer Ezra Koenig elevates his voice into a simultaneously exuberant and pleading rasp. “M79” moves into a peppy keyboard and string style that would fit perfectly on a Wes Anderson soundtrack. This style is backed with lyrics that oscillate between Simon and Garfunkel in the verses to Talking Heads in the chorus. Throughout, the strings and keyboards play melody and scale style, accentuating and reinforcing the infectious tune. Finally, the bridge brings to mind New Order‘s “Bizarre Love Triangle” further deepening the pool of influences this band pulls from. Now, I know what you have to be thinking at this point…there’s no way this group sounds like all of these things, and this author is just looking for an excuse to name drop. I assure you this is not the case. Somehow Vampire Weekend has managed to take all of these various influences and fuse them together in a style uniquely their own.

“Campus” continues to vary the feel of the album while returning to the indie core that connects the majority of their tracks. The staccato lead up to the frenetic chorus is an instantly attainable indie pop that also brings to mind a Killers tune on Xanax. “Bryn” comes out with a moving and again South African influenced guitar before settling into a verse structure with simple poetry influences backed by an easy bass line and drum rim shots. The poetry falls into place as Koenig sings, ” Lights by the ocean/A westerly motion that moves California to sea/Eyes like a seagull/No Kansas-born beetle could ever come close to that free.”

“One” is the one track on the album that falls a bit flat for me. While it’s sure to have its admirers, the song illustrates the lone time on the album that the heights Koenig attempts to reach just don’t quite work. The simple bass and video game like beeps and blips bring the song back from that, but the repetition of the chorus keeps this song a bit stagnant. “I Stand Corrected” shows a more somber side to the group. While the tempo kicks in with drums after about 30 seconds, the tone of the song and Koenig’s lyrics seem sadly apologetic. The strings in the background help keep this more subdued aura intact despite the driving beat. “Walcott” starts out with a frenzied wall of sound approach before settling into a verse segment that beautifully integrates more strings, this time in a style and structure hinting at the Beatles‘ “Eleanor Rigby.” Its force and motivation to “get out of Cape Cod tonight” bring to mind a fleeting and almost pleading joy at the release captured in the unstoppable train of the last 40 seconds. This ends abruptly leading into the album’s finale, “The Kids Don’t Stand a Chance,” which again captures strings and a well orchestrated band underneath lyrics accentuated with an ABCB rhyme scheme. The trilling instrumental segment at the end of the song provides a lush and fitting fadeout to this incredibly diverse album.

This record and group, while only in their infancy stage in terms of release and recognition, do an amazing job at showing that pop music doesn’t need to be denigrated and reduced to the meaningless lyrics and heartlessly packaged cookie cutter sounds that pervade the radio air waves. It demonstrates that when done correctly, the mixing of pop sense, short and simple songs, poetry as lyrics and diverse genre study can produce an album that will capture listeners regardless of their primary genre affiliation, and remain incredibly listenable throughout…perfect pop. Catchy without being syrupy, intelligent without being pedantic, Vampire Weekend has managed to take what they know and like about music and filter it into a refreshing sound that, while carrying influences from artists and styles past, remains indelibly their own.

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