Monday, July 11, 2011

Vampire Weekend Indie

I tread on uncertain ground. How many years has it been since I swooned to the jingles of the Stones, the Beatles, the Incredible String Band, The Band, etc.? Ya gotta grow up somewhere. Who can choose to be born in Outer Mongolia?* The contemporary rock group named mysteriously Vampire Weekend burst out of the ground at Columbia University in the mid-oughts. I heard them first on NPR, driving away from the Post Office one early afternoon--which is very untypical, since I rarely follow contemporary music trends.

Whole decades have passed since I could claim familiarity with anything issuing from the sound towers. Nevertheless, a little of the old feeling came back when I heard the first tracks of this group's self-titled debut album. Bucking some unwritten prohibition, this group's modus is an upper-middle class cruise, hedonistically barren and amazed to have awoken inside the cooler. It's wonderful how deprivation concentrates the mind.

One of the commonplaces of popular music in America is its connection to youth. Traditional cultures tend to cling to old styles and folkways, but in the West, the growth of media over the last century has fostered a musical culture which thrives on novelty. As early as the 1920's, young jazz musicians were forming into small bands. After WWII, the decline of popular large swing or jazz bands, and the rise of the torch singer, laid the groundwork for the birth of rock and roll, based on the ascendancy of the guitar. When I was growing up in the 1950's and 1960's, rock and roll music--an amalgam of jazz, blues, country and gospel--was just beginning. I've written here earlier about Chuck Berry.

By the late 50's, rock and roll music had become an integral component of American teen-aged and young adult culture in America. Competing strains have defined its meaning or innovations for six decades--but a common theme over time is the underground youth rebellion. As a marketing strategy, aimed at the juvenile market, pop rock evolved into celebratory and critical modes designed to tap into adolescent rage and immaturity, emphasizing the generational struggles of each successive wave of youth looking for fresh sounds and its own avatar.

As rock passed into its putative dotage, eclectic consolidations and cross fertilizations have tended to make it seem as if rock's energy and drive may have dissipated somewhat--a trend common to any movement. Critics over the years have viewed this in terms of a loss of authenticity. But genuine originality and innovation almost always involve adaptations and a keen awareness of history. Rock's roots may be in jazz and country, but its strength has been in its hybrid multiplicity.

There's been a class issue as well. Disaffected American college kids jamming at semester break are suspect in the same way that White Swing Bands were in the 1930's. Going back and/or clinging to "the Source" may be more about nostalgia and obsession than a living tradition. The challenge, as time went on, has become finding something new in the orchestral combinations, or conjuring a lyrical statement out of fairly fixed alternatives.

What I heard in Vampire Weekend's first signature tracks was a sweet reprise reminiscent of Rubber Soul--45 years back--intelligent kids mixing seven-grain combos with witty half-realized lyrical salvos, unashamed and opaque. Its lively antecedents--punk, reggae, calypso, Afro-pop, late Brit acid-flower--are handled with ease. Mansard Roof or Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa might seem a tad antiseptic to those seeking the essential grunge, but I hear immortal innocence loud and clear--"can you stay up, to see the dawn, in the colors of Benetton?" There's a confident clarity coming through the rye.

Unlike so many recording artists of the last 15 years who seem to have approached composition as a promotional strategy, Vampire Weekend are so weirdly themselves, seemingly unafraid of being thought simple-minded. We tend to see the high R&R phenomenon in terms of the social upheavals of the Sixties--Berlin, Sputnik, the Cuban Missile Crisis, bombing of North Vietnam, the assassination of Kennedy, Selma & Watts, assassinations of King & Robt Kennedy--but it was also a period of unprecedented economic expansion begun during the 1950's.

Four decades later, we find ourselves a debtor nation, in economic decline, with rising unemployment (and a demonized labor force), seemingly unable to summon a political or artistic will to broker a revived social contract with capital. In our popular arts, political awareness and concern seems at a very low ebb. Is this a reflection of our belief that the arts can no longer be an expression of serious feeling about outward events and consequence, or an acknowledgment that our immediate future may be neither the fulfillment which used to be the presumed birthright of the resident middle class, nor the shangri-la-la magnet for the rest of the world's underclass?

If the world is getting smaller, perhaps the great musical melting-pot will foster a greater sense of cooperation (don't count on it). Like many groups these days, Vampire Weekend borrows or adapts from diverse indigenous--but now increasingly panchromatic--influences around the world. I'm not sure what Vampire Weekend's success so far tells us. Consider the lyrics of this piece called California English. If this kind of complexity seems to harken back to Bob Dylan's faux-intellectual patter, I might be excused for waxing nostalgic.

Wouldn't ever gag you with a spoon, my only true love
Never really heard you speak that way, it's unworthy of
Funny how that little college girl called language corrupt
Funny how the other private schools had no Hapa Club

Someone took a trip before you came to ski in the Alps
Your father moved across the country
Just to sunburn his scalp
Contra Costa, Contra Mundum, contradict what I say
Living like the French Connection, but we'll die in LA

Blasted from a disconnected light switch
Through the condo that they'll never finish
Bounced across a Saudi satellite dish
And through your brain to California English

No one sits inside a freezing flat and stays there 'til May
Leafing through a stack of A-Zs to surf the UK
Waiting with the wind against your face
And gel in your hair
Shivering in little undershirts, but don't seem to care
Find More lyrics at

Blasted from a disconnected light switch
Through the condo that they'll never finish
Bounced across a Saudi satellite dish
And through your brain to California English

Sweet carob rice cake
She don't care how the sweets taste
Fake Philly cheese steak
But she use real toothpaste

Cuz if that Tom's don't work
If it just makes you worse
Would you loose all of you faith in the good Earth

And if it's all a curse
And we're just getting worse
Baby, please don't lose your faith in the good earth

Blasted from a disconnected light switch
Through the condo that they'll never finish
Bounced across a Saudi satellite dish
And through your brain to California English

One critic--Mike Powell--in January 2010--seems to see some social conscience in it:

"Ezra isn't writing about college or Northeastern geography anymore (terrific), but the loud nouns are still there. Take "California English": "Sweet carob rice cakes, you don't care how the sweets taste/ Fake Philly cheesesteak but you use real toothpaste/ 'Cause if that Tom's don't work, if it just makes you worse/ Would you still lose all of your faith in the good earth?" In other words, what if all the products and symbols that gave your life meaning-- and status-- fell away? What if you replaced the organic toothpaste with Colgate? (Which still "says something" about you, namely "I don't have the time, inclination, or money to give a shit about toothpaste.") Would life still look as rosy? Or, roughly, "Who gives a fuck about an Oxford comma?" These aren't ad-copy platitudes about the irrelevance of image-- if image didn't exist, he'd have less to write about. His point is simple: Image is important, but don't think yours is better than anyone else's, especially if it's constructed by things you buy." --Pitchfork Album Reviews

If product placement takes a back seat to intelligent discrimination, we all stand to gain from an increased preoccupation with sensible choice--assuming that buying is the premier political statement we can make in the consumer world of Tomorrow-land. What does it cost to make the wrong choices in the marketplace of ideas?

Pipe this into my favorite green super mall and I'm back in business. Is it a limited franchise, or a messianic call to arms? I can't tell, because I'm so far from the sources of my own innocence I've forgotten the address.

It's going to take a little time

While you're waiting like a factory line
I'll ride across the park
Backseat on the 79

Wasted days you've come to pass

So go I know you would not stay
It wasn't true, but anyway
Pollination yellow cab
[ Lyrics from: ]
You walk up the stairs
See the French kids by the door
Up one more flight
See the buddha on the second floor

Coronation rickshaw grab

So go, I know you would not stay
It wasn't true, but anyway
Racist dreams you should not have

No excuse to be so callous
Dress yourself in bleeding madras
Charm your way across the Khyber Pass

Stay awake to break the habit
Sing in praise of Jackson Crowther
Watch your step along the arch of glass

Back in the Sixties, we thought we were living through a dark time, but dreamed of a better world. Dreams die hard, but sometimes we get lucky. The law of unintended consequences says that for every virtuous intention, there will be a contrary effect. The best things often arise in the unlikeliest of places. Honesty is not a quality which only grows out of deprivation and injustice. It can be bought and contorted into all kinds of weird shapes. Who are these guys, anyway?


*If you had, you'd live a life our ancestors did, maybe, like, thousands of years ago, chasing little ponies and herds of--? If you think they lack a popular music culture there, think again.


Craig said...

My wife's been to Mongolia several times, but I didn't go along. She always seems to get invited in the winter months. But I do know some Mongolians. They never really bought into Mao and their educated elite is more fluent in German than Russian. VW reminds me a little of Elvis Costello, gone baroque.

Curtis Faville said...

Look at the faces of those Mongolians. They look exactly like the Navajo faces in Arizona.

Right down to the reddish cheeks, and not quite oriental eyes.

Tibet and Mongolia should be left as is. The Chinese want to turn everything into noodle soup.

jh said...

this music if you must call it that is pogo stick music all the kids bounce up and down like they are on pogo sticks

it takes almost no effort whatsoever to make guitar licks stick on electric guitar

this band is generic
this band is like 400
other putsy bands that sound
just alike you can go to a modern

gathering of rock party music held every spring for the disillusioned and benighted college crowd and you can listen to a whole days worth of this shit and it all sounds just the same
full of ticky tacky
oh sure
you can make a case for innovation
and creativity
but is it

it's all pop fed pop directed and pogo stick expressed
they gather in mobs and bounce up and down to pogo stick movements

at least they betray some sign of having read something and they know geography

but it is a spin off spin doctoring of spin pop go with what works make it sound freaky new and spoon feed it to the kids that go gaga over electric funky afro rhythms...and the art of video for sales


not cohen
not dylan not townes van zandt
not joni mitchell not
mark knopfler
not gram parsons
not johnny cash
not robert fripp
not john lennon
not the who
not nick cave and the bad seeds
(the only band worth mentioning anymore)

these are kids brought up on the diet of music is for sale
make it peppy
make it pogo stick


Curtis Faville said...


I can understand your frustration with a group like Vampire Weekend. I'm not making any claims to expertise with respect to popular rock & roll tradition, which I don't follow much at all. Like you, I think a lot of what I casually hear sounds derivative and bland.

This group, however, sounded a bit fresher and "sweeter" if I may use that descriptive.

Perhaps you could be a bit more specific about what the group's weaknesses are, so we'd be able to understand what makes them less than splendid.

Admittedly, the music is aimed at the juvenile audience, but that's been true of popular rock & roll music from its beginnings. Whether that is a problem for anyone looking for deeper meanings, I leave to you to decide. Johnny Cash--whom you mention--has a decidedly greater appeal to an older audience--I think he always did.

We're talking about 'teen music here. In that context, how do you think it rates?