Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Shadow of the Vampire

This week on Pop Culture America with John and Dave, we're going to do something I wish we did a lot more of: we're going to take a long hard look at music, which is odd because music is very tricky to look at. Mostly it's sound. But we're going to look at it anyway because that's just the kind of never-say-die types we are.

So in preparation, I'll be posting album reviews of some interesting new releases all through this week. First up, one of the most hyped new bands to come along in awhile. Do they deserve all the promotion? Find out in my review of ...

Vampire Weekend -- Vampire Weekend (p. Rostam Batmanglij)

The eponymously titled debut from Vampire Weekend arrived with a great deal of fanfare back in January. They were hailed as purveyors of a new genre of music. "World punk," some called it.

This collection of songs is amiable and breezy, but there's very little new going on. Which is okay. There is no more overrated "virtue" in music than so-called originality; it's usually just a rationale for unlistenable twiddling. Give me the most obvious chord progressions and rhythms in the world and if they're executed with a fair amount of conviction and joy, I'm on board.

Vampire Weekend take their cues from a number of early 1980s new wave sources; they marry the lightweight pop of Haircut 100 to the calypso rhythms of Burning Sensations (great lost band) and mix them up with the dub experiments of XTC and the Clash. The result is catchy and jittery and awash with lush touches like string sections and waves of synthesizers. It's also more than a little emotionally disconnected.

Things start, appropriately enough, with a song about looking down on humanity from a high perch. "Mansard Roof" sets the tone right away with its galloping programmed drumbeat and old-school synth swells as a setting for singer/lyricist Ezra Koenig to gaze at "the hot garbage and concrete" of the people below.

The contrast between nimble, tick-tock guitar riffs and lush synthesized counterpoint is the band's primary move. It's an effective one for the length of this brief album (just over a half hour), but if Vampire Weekend is going to be as good as their press promises, they're going to have to find a variation or two somewhere down the line.

Their style is at its best on the single "A-Punk," which sports a fantastic, jumpy guitar riff in the verse that breaks down into a surprisingly pretty synthesizer swirl on the bridge. The lyrics about a woman named Johanna and her brief encounter with a judge, while smart (ish), don't delve below the surface. At this early stage in their development, the VW boys are all semi-clever wordplay with no real heart.

It would be a fatal flaw if the music weren't so infernally catchy. Primary credit has to go to multi-instrumentalist Rostam Batmanglij who provides tasty flourishes all through the record's 11 brief tunes. I particularly like his harpsichord intro on "M79." The rhythm section also comes through with special notice for bassist Chris Baio. These island-centric, dub rhythms are a tricky lot and he handles them dextrously, pushing his bass-lines up into the melody where bass-lines normally fear to tread.

Some of the lyrical concerns are grabby. Koenig paints a vivid picture of the band's native Northeast with songs evoking Cape Cod and Walcott, and not in a complimentary way. Interestingly, when Koenig envisions escaping those Massachusetts environs, he imagines escaping to the promised land of New Jersy, exactly the place that Bruce Springsteen dreamt of escaping from a generation or so ago.

Times change.

Vampire Weekend is a band with obvious skill and a tunefulness that are both all too rare in the music world these days, and that makes them worth keeping an ear on. But this debut album, engaging and pleasant though it is, remains a trifle.

2 1/2 stars.

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