13
Feb
08

A Jangly Rant: From Vampire Weekend to Sordid Humor

A lot has been written about Vampire Weekend in a few short months.  Dave posted early on here about the hype (with the smooth title, “The Lost Boys?”), and the coverage has only intensified since then.  Moreover, his call out to me in the review, if I’m not mistaken, was due to the poppy/jangly sound of VW, something that seems to have been missed by many Indienet goonies.  For better or worse, I typically roll my eyes at the latest NYC indie/[insert some indie review site] band.  Even with Dave’s recommendation and my happy initial listen, it took my blogmates going to a show for me to admit I was more than curious.

Indie has become the new rock (this cycle is complete in the UK, and will take longer here) and its continued mainstreaming fuels a constant search for the next act outside that mainstream, just look at the NY Times covering “Black Kids,” a band with a few songs on Myspace in a review that nearly mocks itself.  It’s a vicious joke of a cycle.  The Brooklyn/NYC hype in particular has been less than stellar.  I have both Clap Your Hands albums, I’ve presented an academic paper on what happened with them in Birmingham, England at the International Association for the Study of Popular Music.  I certainly do not hold any issues with them, since I view their vision to sign directly with ADA, and not with a label, groundbreaking.  Yet, what we have, is a young band with some solid to great songs, and a singer who is a dead-ringer for David Byrne.  Yes, there are some great songs, but instead we get reviewers clearly with their hands down their pants.  Billboard, as if thinking it needs to trump the review of its Pitchfork/Prefix competitors wrote: “CYHSY is at the best point in the lifecycle of a band: un-styled, simply produced and deserving of the hype for what is — quite possibly — a nearly perfect album..”  I’ll let that comment speak for itself.  If the debut is the best CLHSY has to offer, no one will be remembering them in a decade.

So, what inspired this rant?  That would be reading many many reviews of Vampire Weekend’s debut.  I picked up the album earlier in the week, along with four other recent releases.  It is definitely the album that grabbed my attention after hours of listening in a near vegitative state on my “hi-fi,” as my Dad would say.  But it didn’t stand out because of any secret love I have for Congolese music.  The overuse of this angle in nearly all reviews, notably by indie music critics, is embarrassing.  What, are we living back during the days of “Graceland” and Deep Forest, when authenticity is ascertained by throwing some stereotyped “un-moderns” paltry recording fees, while millions are reaped by white musical elites?  There’s a lot of lazy reviews going on here.  We’re a blog, this isn’t our livelihood, yet our reviews are better than many of the sites throwing around shit about VW being some Congolese-worshiping indie mistros.  As Jason commented in replying to Dave’s posting, “I don’t hear much of the African influences in the two songs posted.”  That’s because there wasn’t on those songs, and there’s not on much of the album.  Yes, there are some, notably the constantly mentioned “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa.”  But, I wonder how many of these same critics realize The Police used reggae rhythms.  This isn’t genre-bending.  These are Columbia-educated smart kids, intelligent musicians who have heard different styles, and they’ve chosen to intermingle them in very traditional pop trappings.

The last bit, is what really got me rankled.  VW sounds A LOT LIKE early 80s jangle pop.  I thought I would read that in review after review.  I didn’t, instead I read about the Congolose Appreciation Society at Columbia, and how they formed a band, and wear nice clothes, sing about commas, and are producing music that is simply uncategorizable.  Actually, it’s pop, jangle pop more precisely.  My bet: all the free press CDs and press materials say the same thing about African rhythms, or something about Columbia’s excellent ethnomusicology dept.  Again, lazy writing.  Thankfully, not everyone missed the obvious comparisons:

Greg Kot writing in the Chicago Tribune:

“But in general, this is clean-cut new-wave music that echoes the chattering guitar lines and agile percussion of the early Talking Heads and Feelies.”

And, while also pointing to the common African mentions of critics, Popmatters gets it right too:

“Most predominantly among those sources are the high life sounds of King Sunny Ade, the jangle-and-strum dalliance of The Feelies and yes, though you have probably read this in every other review of this album, the Afro-metro ascensions of Paul Simon’s Graceland and, perhaps even more so, “Shaking the Tree”-era Peter Gabriel.”

One observant comment on Stereogum made by “kidacomputerok” (we’ll forgive his name) comments:

I liked them better the first time when they were called The Feelies.”

Yes.  These guys sound a lot like the Feelies.

Check ’em out:

Yet, Pitchfork compares them to the Strokes.  At least they managed the blatantly obvious Talking Heads reference, but the jangle of VW moves it more into jangle than the art-rock of the Heads (why Kot comments on early Talking Heads).  The PF review in general though is pretty solid, unlike Uncut:

“Refusing to conform to rock archetypes, even styles – like Brooklyn neighbors Dirty Projectors and Yeasayer their debut features African flavours – VW show themselves possessed of great strength of character, unafraid to wear their hearts, or their intelligence on their sleeves.”

What empty rhetoric.  I guess we should all be thanking God for Brooklyn, the reinventors of the pop music canon.

Rock music is defined by not conforming to styles.  Did Michael Jackson conform?  Did Elvis Presley?  Did the fucking Cars?  Did U2?  Did R.E.M.?   No, no, no, no, and no.

All that said, as many have rightfully pointed out,  singer Ezra Koenig is the star of Vampire Weekend. While I find much of the music perfectly fits my favorite sounds of the 1980s, his vocals stand out, occasionally too for the wrong reasons.  At times, he’s nearly annoying, and reminiscent of Adam Levine of Maroon 5.  At other times though, he simply takes over the song with near perfect pop delivery.  While I don’t have much cultural identity in songs about Hyannisport, or walking the campus of Columbia, and I’m not usually found wearing boat shoes, these songs are simple and direct.  Another strong comparison for me is Sordid Humor, one of my favorite 1980s bands (or any era) and their lead singer Tom Barnes.  Both Koenig and Barnes share an affinity for geographical namedropping, such as the aforementioned Hyannisport.  I love that in songs, because it carries with it so much cultural meaning and impacts meaning-making.  Barnes would especially like to mess with listeners, such as a song about a whaling expedition called, “Des Moines,” which he recorded with his later band, Engine 88.  The song made you recognize what strong signifiers places represent.  He also penned my favorite pop music line ever,”practice makes perfect in a perfect world.”

My final issue in the many reviews of VW, is that so few have recognized the classic song “M79.”  Again, I don’t think most have actually listened to the album too much.  What a near perfect pop song.  Yes, I can heap praise too.  It’s worth the price of admission itself.  I’ll link to another blog that has posted a clip of the song here, while comparing it to the Hollies.

Finally, I’m posting a couple old-school Sordid Humor classics from their vinyl only debut, Tony Don’t, that won’t be found on Youtube on elsewhere.  I dare say, Sordid Humor were a band “refusing to conform to rock archetypes, even styles.”  I guess they were the Vampire Weekend of two decades ago, before the blogosphere.    It’s just not fair.

Sordid Humor – “Apollo XIII”

Sordid Humor – “Indian Ocean”

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8 Responses to “A Jangly Rant: From Vampire Weekend to Sordid Humor”


  1. February 13, 2008 at 6:42 am

    Definitely your most intense post yet! (this font is so small on this new format)

    I’ll properly comment when I have time to digest this whole thing!

  2. 2 Joe
    February 13, 2008 at 6:56 am

    feel free to change it, it’s not too small on my screen…actuall, damn, just the comment box is…at least this fixes the formatting. i like the dark background.

  3. February 17, 2008 at 11:33 am

    Fantastic rant/review! I realize I’m pointing out the obvious, but the African music connections are just a more efficient way of selling/hyping the band to other outlets. Yes, it’s jangle pop at heart, but what gets a listener’s attention is the pseudo-genre labeling such as Congolese, Paul Simon’s Graceland-esque, and the many other misnomers associated with this band. In truth, the album is a refreshing listen from start to finish, and maybe best heard on a warm, sunny day. But is it as ground-breaking as we’ve been led to believe? Not really.

    BTW, M79 is also a favorite of mine. Such a blissful opening.

  4. 4 Lisa Q
    September 10, 2008 at 5:26 pm

    hi- Random Sordid Humor maniac here. WOW. I can’t believe someone else knows the glory that is SH/E88/The Blimp…

    sweet.

  5. 5 ben
    November 24, 2008 at 11:16 am

    hey, do you have the rest of that sordid humor EP on mp3? I love their album but this is the first I heard of “tony don’t.”

    ben

  6. 6 jaycruz
    January 14, 2009 at 3:15 pm

    For me I can never disassociate the word “preppy” with Vampire Weekend. 🙂


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