Vampire Weekend

(Copyright © 2006 Piero Scaruffi | Terms of use )

Vampire Weekend (2008) , 7/10
Contra (2010), 6/10
Modern Vampires of the City (2013), 6.5/10
Father of the Bride (2019), 6/10

(Clicka qui per la versione Italiana)

New York's Vampire Weekend, featuring keyboardist Rostam Batmanglij and guitarist Ezra Koenig, meticulously crafted a baroque, hilarious pan-ethnic stew of hooks and grooves on Vampire Weekend (XL, 2008). Their mission is, first and foremost, retro-pop. The passionate aria of Mansard Roof evokes the age of the Brill Building and the Drifters. The old-fashioned romantic ballad Oxford Comma, featuring one of the catchies melodic progressions, harks back to the era of the Everly Brothers and Buddy Holly. M79 is classy, delirious music-hall with neoclassical harpsichord and strings to counterpoint a pub singalong. Secondly, it's party time. The pounding ska dance of A-Punk pokes fun at itself with a surreal break of flute and strings. The tuneful African stomp of Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa could have come from the pen of Paul Simon. These songs (all of them singles) have in common the same thing: an irresistible combination of catchy refrain and bouncy rhythm. Unfortunately the rest of the album does not live up to the standard of the singles. The Caribbean boogie of Walcott and the reggae rant of The Kids Don't Stand A Chance boasts cute arrangements and elegant melodies but struggle to flow with the same spontaneous verve of the early singles.

The elegantly arranged Contra (XL, 2010), whose sleek sound is mostly the work of keyboardist Rostam Batmanglij, simply refined the idea, shedding the few sharp corners. Hence the Caribbean-pop novelty Horchata (replete with Rostam Batmanglij's kalimba thumb piano), the jovial ska Holiday (with a masterful cello-driven a-cappella chorus), the festive Afro-pop of California English, the sprightly Run, that sounds like the synth-pop version of a Buddy Holly ditty, Ezra Koenig's best moments come when he draws inspiration from Paul Simon's pan-ethnic shuffles and singsongs, especially in White Sky (and less successfully in Giving Up the Gun). Alas, when they abandon the lightweight format, they sink into dangerous quicksands. They lack the deviant genius to make the silly punk-jig Cousins work. The baroque ballad Taxi Cab is aimless. The solemn reggae elegy Diplomat's Son, virtually a cover of Toots and the Maytals' Pressure Drop, is mainly notable for its detours (thus wasting what actually was a great melodic idea). The falsetto ballad I Think UR a Contra is too fragile to justify the slightly dissonant electronic background. And so forth. While the arrangements and the vocals are very visible, it is often the creative rhythms of Chris Baio's bass and Chris Tomlinson's drums that truly make things happen the right way.

Mostly, Modern Vampires of the City (XL, 2013) proves that the band has become one of the best interprets of the music of the 1960s for the generation whose parents weren't even born back then. In fact, the catchy Unbelievers and the bouncy Finger Back sound like (probably involuntary) imitations of Elvis Costello imitating the classics of the 1960s. The neoclassical organ pattern of Step evokes the era of the Hollies; the march-like, doo-wop-tinged ditty Don't Lie manages to sound like the Beatles, Dylan and Bowie in just a few minutes; and Everlasting Arms is a shameless imitation of Paul Simon. There are original variations on this paradigm, although one, the booming psychobilly Diane Young, sounds a bit out of context (Alan Vega backed by the E Street Band ). The other one, however, the effervescent Worship You is the album's best take on exotic fusion (with psychedelic overtones as a bonus). The rest, alas, is fodder (the odd invocation of Obvious Bicycle, the messy ballad Hannah Hunt, the cartoonish Ya Hey, the pensive Hudson) even when the intentions were good (the closing elegy Young Lion). Nonetheless, give credit to Rostam Batmanglij (guitars and keyboards) who is a force of nature when it comes to arrangements.

Ezra Koenig moved to Los Angeles and launched an anime show, while Rostam Batmanglij left the band to record I Had a Dream that You Were Mine (2016) with Hamilton Leithauser and the solo album Half Light (2017). After a six-year hiatus, a new Vampire Weekend album appeared, Father of the Bride (Columbia, 2019), which at 18 songs was the longest in the band's history, but it was hardly a Vampire Weekend album. The band's frontman Ezra Koenig had basically reinvented the project in collaboration with producer Ariel Rechtshaid and a cast of new cohorts, turning it into a more mainstream project. The baroque piano-driven marching bubblegum-pop of Harmony Hall, which would have been an international hit in the 1960s, is emblematic. Despite the carefully architected arrangements, the songs end up radiating a nostalgic vintage feeling. Stranger is a breezy blend of Paul Simon's Afro-pop, Caribbean music and George Harrison's Got My Mind Set on You. This Life borrows the guitar riff from Van Morrison's Brown Eyed Girl and flutters like the Byrds' jangling folk-rock. Peel away the sound effects, and there is a simplicity bordering on derivative. Married in a Gold Rush (a duet with Danielle Haim) is a delicately electronic Afro-ska-polka. Hold You Now (another duet with Danielle Haim) is a cute tribute to the folk-revival of old days, a pastoral folk elegy that samples a choir from Hans Zimmer's score to Terrence Malick's 1999 film "The Thin Red Line". The looping guitar motif in the brief Bambina (which would otherwise sound like Elvis Costello's power-pop) seems inspired by Pachelbel's Canon in D. It doesn't mean that the result can't be intriguing: Sympathy is a Bob Dylan-ian rant drowned in a flamenco whirlwind and boasts the best break of the album, a sort of scratching and tapping mini-jam. In fact, some songs can be viewed as comic musichall ditties, for example the Rich Man, a cartoonish blend of Afro-pop, country music and Turkish violins; or Flower Moon, propelled by frenzied Brazilian rhythm and derailed by a clownish Todd Rundgren-ian instrumental refrain. The rest of the songs, alas, are disposable, so a nine-song mini-album would have been just right.

(Copyright © 2006 Piero Scaruffi | Terms of use )
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