Vampire Weekend: Fresh and Clean

March 22, 2010 at 3:44 pm (Music, Reviews & Articles)

Sometimes when you start to become too jaded and think that you’ve heard every possible band or artist worth a damn, and that there is simply little left worth listening to anymore that’s truly original, along comes a group that reaffirms that this art form we call music is not completely dead just yet. And in fact, with a band like Vampire Weekend around, perhaps there is actually some real hope for the future. They are definitely the best new band since the heyday of The Strokes, and perhaps the most joyous sounding since The Mighty Mighty Bosstones. If only there were more bands out there right now showing the boundless creativity of VW when they are firing on all cylinders, which appears to be on almost every song off both of their albums – 2008’s excellent self-titled debut and their recent chart-topping release Contra, which is definitely a worthy successor, and avoids the dreaded “sophomore slump” of most second albums. It’s definitely the first great album of the 2010s.

In a world of feeble imitators and pretenders, Vampire Weekend is the real deal. A band with excellent songwriting chops – extremely catchy and memorable pop melodies that lodge in your brain and remain there for weeks at a time; infectious, quirky rhythms and syncopated basslines (courtesy of drummer Chris Tomson and bassist Chris Baio, both extremely talented) that make you want to dance along (there is no way you can sit still while listening to them); not to mention a real flair for creativity and originality, which is hard to come by these days. There are at least a half dozen classics in their catalog so far, with surely many more to come. It’s easy to see this band growing and moving in new directions in the years to come. They simply show too much talent to wither up and stagnate.

I’ll admit that I paid VW no attention until recently when, thanks to a close friend, I got turned on to them. I am now quickly making up for lost time. And I already can’t wait to see where they go from here.

The band, which is named after an amateur film by lead singer and guitarist Ezra Koenig, formed in 2006 and quickly jelled into an extremely tight outfit that instantly lived up to all the hype that was thrown their way around the Internet. It’s truly amazing how a band of twenty-something, white, preppy collegiate types (they studied at Columbia) from the Upper West Side of New York City have learned to successfully incorporate African pop styles (among their many influences) into their music without it sounding like some mere gimmick. They have clearly studied, not only Paul Simon’s Graceland, but the sources that influenced that album, namely Ghanaian highlife, Nigerian Afrobeat and South African soweto music (in fact, the band describes their sound as “Upper West Side Soweto,” and “preppy West African guitar pop with equal parts of fresh and clean”). The seminal 1985 compilation The Indestructible Beat of Soweto has also more than likely made it onto their turntables & ipods along the way. Koenig cites Senegal’s Orchestra Baobab as another big influence, and shows an amazing talent for playing highlife-styled guitar. He also has a distinctive voice that sets him apart from the indie rock crowd.

In addition, VW show a deep affinity for Jamaican ska, Congolese soukous and 1980s American synth pop and New Wave, all thrown into the blender, filtered through an indie rock sensibility. Best of all, Vampire Weekend never fall into the bland, sterile “world music” trap that has befallen so many other bands. And they never come across like mere interlopers trying to steal another culture’s music.

Their songs also touch on bits of The Specials, 1970s punk, classical music (reflected on the song “M79“), The Mighty Mighty Bosstones, Peter Gabriel (who gets name-checked in the song“Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa),” and several 1980s synth-pop outfits. Lyrically, the hyper-literate kitchen-sink approach of both Elvis Costello and Chris Difford of Squeeze are also a huge influence on Koenig, as cited in many interviews.

They take all these many, diverse strands though, and truly produce something extraordinary and original out of them, and make the whole thing sound perfectly seamless, yet their best songs invoke feelings of familarity, as well. It’s like you’ve heard their songs all your life, and they sound like they could have come out anytime in the past thirty years, which gives them a timeless feel.

They have written many excellent songs so far, such as “Oxford Comma,” “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa,” “Cousins” and “A-Punk.” One of their most recent efforts, “Run,” just might be their best song yet, spiked with Human League synth flourishes by keyboardist Rostam Batmanglij, and an infectious, rubbery groove that literally defies you to not get up and dance. And if it doesn’t, then you need to check your pulse, Jack, because you just might be dead. They should clearly make this their next single, and release it to dance clubs. It could be a smash. I’m picking it as an early favorite in the “Best Song of 2010” category.

VW recently made their second appearance on Saturday Night Live, as part of a stop on their current North American tour. They reportedly put on an excellent show, though I haven’t had the chance to see them as of yet. But in the meantime, I’m getting up to dance to “Run” one more time, or perhaps any of their other meticulously crafted, highly rhythmic songs. I advise you all to do the same.

Jay Mucci

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