Noise 101 : CD Reviews for Jan 14 Reflector
God bless the nerds who make beautiful music. From Buddy Holly to Brian Wilson to David Byrne, the musical world has always appreciated educated, uptight bookworms who are also able to lay into a beat as if their lives depended on it.
Vampire Weekend are a different sort of entity, however, in that they deliberately wear their nerdy tendencies on their sleeves — so much so, that the band has as many detractors as they do fans. They have been called snooty, condescending bandwagon-jumpers, and everything else that suggests either a holier-than-though mentality, or that these four Brooklynites are simply followers in an indie scene that has no room for such intellectualism.
So two years after their much-hyped debut, Vampire Weekend has returned with their equally-hyped follow-up.Contra proves to be a few things at the same time: a continuation of what they’ve done before; a call-to-arms for further exploration; and proof that the band is here to stay.
But let’s get back to the nerd factor. One of the reasons why Vampire Weekend are so enduring, despite their obvious smarts, is frontman Ezra Koenig’s ability to write geeky lyrics in a funny and self-deprecating manner, as if he knows his references to Oxford commas (off the first album) and college Hapa clubs will be met with derision and is willing to take the heat — “I can’t help talking this way,” in other words.
Consider this line from the ska-inflected “Holiday”: “A vegetarian since the invasion/She’d never seen the word bombs blown up/To 96-point Futura.” What’s most remarkable about that verse — besides the fact that it may be the only instance of a typeface being mentioned in a pop song — is that, when accompanied with the buoyant bounce of the music, it comes off as gloriously tongue-in-cheek. Why mention the typeface, or the exact size of the font? Because details form the heart of great songwriting, and Koenig is nothing if not a master of detail.
On that note, so is the whole band on a purely musical level, as Contra is full of surprises that delight and entrance. Their understanding of the balance between pop songcraft and worldly accents here reach the heights set by Paul Simon on his album Graceland; that is, the marriage of African music and catchy pop feels natural and necessary, rather than off-putting and forced.
Within their singular sound, the band, and especially multi-instrumentalist/producer Rostam Batmanglij, adds details and flourishes along the way that keep listeners on their toes. Current single “Cousins” features the most disjointed beat that can be danced to since Devo’s cover of “Satisfaction,” and yet still finds room for tolling bells, yelping bleeps that blur the line between man and machine, and furious guitar picking that seems influenced by Hawaiian ukulele players. A slight echo on Koenig’s voice in the intro to “California English” makes it seem as though he’s speaking in tongues, before it explodes into full technicolor magic with Queen-worthy backing harmonies and occasional outbursts from a string section at war with itself.
The highlight, however, comes late with a wonderful closing double-punch. “Diplomat’s Son,” at over six minutes long, starts off as a low-fi yet fleshed-out take on dancehall, accented by samples of M.I.A.’s voice, before breaking into an unrelated bridge that is steeped in deep reggae, only to crash back out into the light of the original song. It’s “A Day In The Life” for the college set, and a compelling voyage into uncharted waters.
The final track brings it down to the personal and atmospheric. “I Think Ur A Contra” builds with swelling synth orchestration behind Koenig’s aching vocal, as he pines for a woman who spurned him. “Never pick sides/Never choose between two/But I just wanted you/I just wanted you,” he sings, showing that even library hermits know the rules of love.
But what does “contra” even mean? Why is this girl being called one? A look in the dictionary shows that the definition of contra is: “Against; in opposition, or contrast to.” Then again, on Wikipedia, one of the choices after searching the word “contra” is the group of Nicaraguan counter-revolutionaries who fought the Sandinistas in the early ‘80s.
Either way, it doesn’t really matter what the girl is being called; in reality, it’s Vampire Weekend who are the contras. They’ve fought an uphill battle since the beginning, dealing with the haters as well as the over-anxious hype machines that saw them as fakers and the next real thing, respectively. On this remarkable second album, the band shows that they can take the abuse, and — most impressively — thrive under it artistically.
More tracks on the racks
The idea of the crossover artist isn’t new, but the amount of these endeavours that prove to be successful can be counted on one hand. 30 Seconds to Mars, as fronted by Jared Leto, has worked hard to establish credibility within the artistic community. Some of the band’s dedicated fans were collected together to record the very present crowd vocals, and Leto even tracked down genuine monks for the eerie ending tune. Leto’s vocal range holds its own, though, so don’t let the “actor” label deter you. —Gabrielle Domanski
Nearly a year before his VMA fiasco with Taylor Swift, Kanye West performed for the program VH1 Storytellers. This record of the show blends egotistical smack talk, words of wisdom and rants. Seemingly, rants called shotgun when riding in the car with music. It is within such recognizable songs as “Flashing Lights” and “Stronger” that he decides to tell us that he is labelled a villain. In “See You In My Nightmares” and “Robocop,” West spends more time repeating lyrics awkwardly with an orchestral backing band than putting on the poetry. Mr. West, tone down your behavior, bring back the music and Obama won’t call you any more names. —Kevin Rushworth
Even if you knew this already, it bears repeating: back in the day, Elvis Costello was a punk. He wrote short, raw songs, his lyrics seethed with the anger of the Clash, and — most importantly — he put on intense and sweaty live shows. This performance at Hollywood High School in 1978, the second in a series of vintage concert recordings being released by Universal, is prime listening for anyone looking for music to shake their fists to: the entire band is fast and loose, yet never sloppy and always hitting their mark, and Costello seethes with intensity throughout. Punk rock doesn’t get any better than this.
Reflection Eternal “Just Begun”
Over a mellow jazz sample courtesy of DJ Hi-Tek that’s worthy of A Tribe Called Quest, Talib Kweli, along with former Black Star partner Mos Def and up-and-comers J. Cole and Jay Electronica, create flowing Golden Age rap that may soundtrack your next smoke session (or make-out session). This, along with single “Back Again,” makes waiting for the duo’s 10-years-in-the-making sophomore album even tougher, and is a welcome change from Lil Wayne-led gangsterisms.
Animal Collective “Brother Sport” video
The track itself is incredible: as the conclusion to the band’s already-being-deemed-classic Merriweather Post Pavilion, it stretches over six minutes and encapsulates broken-beat techno, soaring indie rock, and Afro-Brazilian tribal folk flourishes. But the video, although making little-to-no sense, offers a perfect visual pairing for Animal Collective’s singular brand of music: hyperkinetic, colourful, and childlike in its imagination and fearlessness. This band just can’t stop blowing minds right now.
Portishead “Chase The Tear”
Portishead are one of the last remaining groups that know the meaning of dynamics, space, and suspense; they also know how to turn those traits into something beautiful. On “Chase The Tear,” a hauntingly repetitive keyboard line meshes with softly forceful drumming, as Beth Gibbons delivers another gorgeous and fragile vocal performance that sticks in the ear and refuses to leave…until the song simply stops dead. Proceeds from the track go towards Amnesty International.