Monday, February 1, 2010

Thoughts of an Aspiring Music Snob: Week 44 - Vampire Weekend

Chris is trying to compensate for his lack of musical knowledge by immersing himself in one new artist each week. At the end of the week, he will write up a brief summary of his opinions. You can read about the origin and parameters of this project here.

For a brief time in high school, I played drums in a band called Crash Pulse. Crash Pulse had two songs in their repertoire - "Louie Louie" and "Smells Like Teen Spirit" - both of which conveniently used pretty much the same chord progression and required no actual singing capabilities.

Fortunately for our neighbors, Crash Pulse's lifespan amounted to one Saturday afternoon. Later on, in college, I helped play avant-garde versions of "Workin' On the Railroad" with some friends in a group called Matricidal Tricycle. There was also The Subtle Doctors - the name co-blogger Andrew Pankin and I adopted for our Guitar Hero duo. And just last month, I joined a Rock Band ensemble known as Butter Dick.

Why do I mention these short-lived novelty musical acts at all? Because each and every one of them sports a better name than Vampire Weekend.

Wikipedia tells me that Vampire Weekend derives their name from frontman Ezra Koenig's amateur film of the same name. So I watched the trailer to the film, which somehow has ended up on YouTube. It looks awesome. I totally would go to the theater to see a schocky B horror pic called Vampire Weekend.

But as a band name, it really irritates me. I'm not sure why. Maybe because it contains a little too much of the "Look how quirky we are!" vibe. Maybe it's because the band name suggests some sort of ridiculous association with the supernatural that's never actually fulfilled ("We get a lot of requests from what seem to be goth kids on MySpace," says bassist Chris Baio, as if confused as to why).

Good band names are hard to come by. Even "The Beatles" is a pretty lame pun on The Crickets and the word "beat". But Vampire Weekend? I've been in plenty of drunken joke ensembles over the years, trying to think of a band name this bad. I almost have to give them credit under the "so bad it's good" clause.

Vampire Weekend? Really? Vampire Weekend?

And if you think this opening section is an incoherent rant, oh boy, just keep reading...


ARTIST OF THE WEEK: Vampire Weekend

WHAT I KNEW BEFORE: When I started making my first tentative steps into popular music last year, I noticed that Vampire Weekend was generating a lot of buzz. I queued up their most famous song, "Oxford Comma", on Grooveshark, only to turn it off after about thirty seconds, absolutely disgusted at the high-pitched nasally melismatic vocals, the meaningless references to obscure punctuational practices, the peppy, repetitive, thin-sounding organ. I haven't gone near them since...until last Monday, that is.

MY LISTENING: I listened to the eponymous Vampire Weekend (2008) every day this week, and their new album, Contra (2010) three times.

WHAT I LIKED: Vampire Weekend has gotten a lot of press for their catchy and unique rhythms. Most publications usually refer to them as African-influenced, or something like that. After listening to them all week, I'm pretty sure the constant references to African music are nothing but an image that the band perpetuates (much like their Ivy League blue blood personas), to separate themselves from the hordes of other New York indie ensembles. But that's not to say that they don't deserve credit for these rhythms. The beats throughout most of their songs are playful and distinct without ever being overindulgent, and they're also a hell of a lot of fun, bobbing through skillful syncopations and keeping the listener guessing as to which beat is going to be accented next. And I can appreciate any band that knows how to use a marimba.

Most tracks are constructed with minimal instrumentation, leaving such rhythms plenty of room to breathe. I think this minimalism is another essential aspect of the band, and one that hasn't gotten nearly enough press. There's catchy melodies and neat little rhythmic sequences, yes, but a lot of the magic of these songs comes from the band's restraint. Their refusal to elevate their thin sounding melodies and wispy keyboard lines is what makes their songs so good. As a result, the tracks feel both intimate and intricately-constructed, the pop equivalent of a small mechanical music box.


Like I said, I'm pretty sure the whole "We're upper-crust East coast prep school kids thing" is played up for more than it's worth, to give the band an identity. But behind this very deliberate image, I feel that there's still something in their attitude that I object to. Vampire Weekend's music is wry, cynical, and somewhat removed from the world. This helps give it a twist of that aesthetic irony that hipsters seem to eat up. I think that this disillusionment is perhaps the defining trait of our generation. But when your music is so reserved, it ends up almost having no effect.

A middle-aged professor asked me a few years ago what, exactly, my generation believes in. I replied that I don't think my generation believes in anything. We're cynical and jaded, mocking idealism in all forms, too disillusioned to even summon the energy to act the iconoclast. People my age tend to go through life laughing at the naivete of any direct expression of emotion or sincere social idealism. I'm not sure that this is a good thing, and I haven't figured out if Vampire Weekend is a merely an effect of this sort of droll apathy, or just another cause. I'm not even sure if it makes a difference, but (for me personally, at least), the overall effect of their music was something I wasn't entirely comfortable with. Like a miniature piece of clockwork, or an 18th-century symphony, I could appreciate the craftsmanship that went into the creation of their art, but in the end, their art seems nothing more than the sum of this craftsmanship, with no real emotions or ideas attached.

This criticism isn't entirely fair. Especially by their second album, Vampire Weekend has gotten better at expressing sadness and longing ("I Think Ur A Contra" might be the best song on the disc). But too often mere disaffection is substituted for this longing, and even their happier songs often sound too cautious, too scared of genuine expression. It's as if the band is so hyper self-aware of their own identity that they're afraid to use that identity to say anything interesting.

But in the end, it's easier to hide underneath your cardigan than project your beliefs to the world to be criticized, isn't it? I suppose I can't blame them. But I can't say their music did that much for me, either.

Does this criticism make sense? Am I totally off-base here? Like I said, I still haven't quite worked out my feelings as to this particular aspect of their aesthetic.

WHAT I DIDN'T LIKE: As I said earlier, their name. Vampire Weekend? Really?

WHAT I LEARNED: I learned about the following things: horchata, kwassa kwassa, Nicaraguan rebels, and what a mansard roof is. Tell me this band isn't trying too hard to portray themselves as upper-class preppies.


Because, let's face it, it's quite possibly the only song you've heard by them.

This may only be because I have a soft spot for harpsichords.