Even more difficult of reviewing a band I am a fan, is reviewing one I have never managed to get.
If in the first case, it’s easy to be transported by the emotions on overemphasizing each single note, in the second I am conditioned by prejudices to devaluate that.
This is why it is a week I can’t make head or tail of this Vampire Weekend review.
Vampire Weekend, despite what I have been reading over the parabolas of music journalists and bloggers over the last 3 years that saw them moving from model students at Columbia University to worldwide new independent rockstars, are not revolutionizing rock music from the musical point of view.
Shaking ingredients is a trick used since rock was born, more than a new cocktail it can bring a new freshness. It can surprise but does not change.
Vampire Weekend music follows on the path of optimistic pop-rock. Bright students writing cheerful songs for the summer parties. The use of rhythmic influences from outside Anglophone countries spices up the songs. With obvious differences the formula has been used by Talking Heads, by Police, by Peter Gabriel. It originates from the work of seminal artists as Fela Kuti and several more. Arrived to Columbia University probably because of an album borrowed by their parents’ vinyls collection: Paul Simon – Graceland.
In addition to give indie-rock scene something to dance with, instead of the depressing tunes of heartbroken lovers, Vampire Weekend mix gave music journalism all the appropriate adjectives which are in desperate need to write about a new band.
Afro-Beat is back in fashion, clever titled songs as Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa explain the mix and the classification become easy. But Vampire Weekend‘s Africa is filtered through the all-white taste of upper class New York students who don’t live in Congo but dance Congolese Kwassa Kwassa in some University bars.
Their music is clean, aseptic, perfect. There is not a speck of dust in the drums, not a pinch of soul in its veins. Guitars are shiny and sparkling as the melodies they play. There is not a hint of grease, of dirt, of distortion. The shirts are ironed with no creases for a bit of groove to creep into.
It’s the youth that grew up with Mandela out of jail and doesn’t want to know what as happened to him before they were born. They don’t question the aim of those tribute concerts. Why he has been left rotting there for decades. “You can turn your back on the bitter world” they sing in Cousins and I start from this verse to deepen into Vampire Weekend world from their lyrics.
A difficult and incomplete job for someone not American, not even English. Texts are mostly obscure, they are not explicit but quite often hide some dubious words that I wonder if have any intentionality.
There is something ambiguous in the choice of language that goes together with their image. In the end this combination is the most interesting aspect they bring to the rock scene.
Reading through the lines is one of my forbidden pleasures, so it could be very easy for me to misinterpret Vampire Weekend. If theirs is a clever irony I am one of those going to fall into the trap. Fact is Vampire Weekend are the biggest contradiction rock’n’roll has seen since Bryan Ferry black tie closed the seventies in “haute couture”.
While they are about to enter the Cambridge Corn Exchange, tenths of girls who left the several Cambridge colleges, take the risk of messing up their perfect make up to squeeze to the front. If there is a natural place for Vampire Weekend to set a gig, that place is Cambridge, UK.
Three chandeliers hang from the ceiling, they recall the cover of their debut album. They also remind me of those movies set in a colonial environments when “whites” inhabit luxurious villas in the middle of the savannah, with lions at the gates and “blacks” serving tea in white ceramic.
The four guys arrive. They are immaculate as the fans were before the wait in the crowd. Cool western colourful clothes recall the sun of the Africa they love.
This is the Vampire Weekend‘s revolution. Not the music, but the image they bring into rock’n’roll clichés. They are not four rebel teenagers of the upper middle class who refused the parental status-quo assaulting their guitar in the basement. They are four excellent undergraduates that likely meets to rehears in a proper studio after the traditional afternoon tea and biscuits with their grandmothers.
Vampire Weekend image turn the concept of American college rock upside down.
A genre that blossomed from the opposition of the mainstream culture, the enemy, to espouse the “underground” culture. Theoretically, philosophically, actively, politically, in fashion and body care.
All of that is reverted. Vampire Weekend reread that mainstream culture learnt at school and use it to their advantage. It becomes a reference, not an enemy; probably not a friend either but definitely something to make a good use of. They sing it and the colour it with joyful melodies and steady rhythm.
Richard Serra is cited on White Sky the track opening tonight.
Cope Cod Kwassa Kwassa follow and beyond the clever title presents to the world the debut of Louis Vitton in a rock song. Rhyming it with Benetton and citing Peter Gabriel doesn’t cancel the oddity, actually it makes it into one of their most efficacious songs.
Vampire Weekend at a first glance sound innocuous. They are welcomed in admiration by those students that until today identify themselves more with a Louis Vitton bag than with an indie-rock band.
M79 is the name of a grenade launcher used by Marines in Vietnam, this until the song arrives to the first line and you discover it is also a bus crossing Central Park.
California English brings its load of ambiguity citing “Contra”, the word that also titles their latest album. In the hand of Vampire Weekend it is a remote tourist resort in California, for the rest of the world a guerrilla fighter sponsored by CIA to combat Sandinista in Nicaragua.
Cousins is the song that suggests “You can turn your back on the bitter world”, where bitter in fact is the sentence that invites to ignore the world. Everything is well hidden in another gem of a pop song which is the constant formula that keeps fans dancing, apparently unaware.
I don’t want to imply all rock music has to be socially and politically concerned, I appreciate the need of leisure but I find difficult to understand the need of inserting odd words and dubious statements if it is all about having fun.
Taxi Cab goes “Like a real aristocrat…” and Run opens with “Every dollar counts…” to bring capitalism into rock’n’roll and the concert into their biggest hit.
A-Punk causes the educated euphoria that Trinity College students can let themselves go for a favourite song. As Christ was crucifixed at 33, the noble word punk is crucifixed here, 33 years since it was invented. Deprived of any meaning it had since. Punk doesn’t go beyond the title, not into the lyrics and, it goes without saying, far from the music.
The chorus-with-hiccup “Look outside at the raincoats coming, say ‘oh'” is catchy as much as it is annoying “‘Ey, ‘ey, ‘ey, ‘ey!”
One (Blake’s Got a New Face) and The Kids Don’t Stand a Chance keep the audience happy. It doesn’t come everyday that an independent album tops Billboard top 200 album chart. The image of the girls from Contra cover is hanging, huge, from the back of the stage pointing her lit eyes to the crowd. They change colour giving the clean face a ghastly look.
Contra is not very different from Vampire Weekend debut. They keep walking the road from New York to Soweto and Diplomat’s Son (!?) doesn’t move their musical proposal an inch further.
Ezra Koenig finds some seconds to adapt a rare B-Side, Boston (Ladies of Cambridge), written for the Harvard’s girls of Cambridge, Massachusetts, to dedicate it to the British girls of the old, sweet, original Cambridge, UK. Birthday present for a city that just turned 800 years.
The finale sees Giving Up the Guns introducing Campus, a rant against a professor. It works as a perfect assist and medley with Oxford Comma which is another tirade, about the uselessness of a grammar rule. If Franck Black was wondering “where is my mind?” when Vampire Weekend were babies, twenty years on it seems proper education gave them very clear answers. To the point of deserving two songs.
With two albums published is easy to guess what’s next. Horchada is their first single from Contra, another landmark Vampire Weekend song with a couple of mysterious verses “In December, drinking horchata, I’d look psychotic in a balaclava” which become even more mysterious in Mansarda Roof “The Argentines collapse in defeat, The admiralty surveys the remnants of the fleet”.
While Walcott, their first ever song closes the show and people head to the merchandise stall, I sit in the press area asking myself where these guys are bringing rock’n’roll.
15 years since Oasis brought the working class to top the chart and Blair to 10, Downing Street, Vampire Weekend bring New York Bourgoise to a decade destined to have a Tory government in a couple of months. I don’t believe in coincidences, history mirrors the society.
Dancing to the happy, vaguely exotic rhythms that invite to turn the shoulder to the bitter world, Vampire Weekend bring ambiguity into the dance floor.
A band which music sounds pleasant and innocuous, by four guys which appearance challenges anything your parents have been telling you about rockstars. Their daughters stand on the first row keen on being noticed, hoping to enter the after show party. Instead of causing their mums worries they must generate envy in their forbidden thoughts.
It suits Vampire Weekend in a strange way, but it does. I post here an answer I was asked several times about holding gear during the three songs photo set.
Obviously if you shoot with one camera and a zoom the problem does not exist and you can dress as you please.
When you have 2 cameras and few lenses and you need to change them and be quick, the question arises.
Any camera bag is not a solution for concert photography. They are bulky and press pit (when existent) are usually very narrow, so you are not operational with it and most important disrupt the efficiency of your colleagues. Leave it just under the barrier.
While shooting I keep all my stuff in one of those multi-pockets jacket, I find it very useful.
It does not look cool, at the gig a girl told me I looked like an explorer ready for a safari, (I answered I heard I was going to listen to Africa beat), but if you are not going to photograph a gig to look cool (I can tell you many photographers in the pit do) but to take cool pictures, that is my favourite option.
It holds many lenses, you can even hide a flash (you never know), everything is at your hands and relatively protected from shocks, dust and flying pints.
If you have a better solution, or want to share your way, let me know in the comment box below.