Thursday, January 08, 2009

1/9/09 - Coming around on Vampire Weekend

I resisted Vampire Weekend for a long time, mainly because they went to Columbia and then proceeded to join a band and become stars, pretty much in that order; I did the first two things and then most emphatically did not hit step #3, which has, let's say, somewhat impacted my critical faculties when it comes to VW. Aware that their album was percolating upwards and outward, and hearing vague things about Afropop influences and a modern Graceland-type sound and how they were a "breakout band" and "up and comer" and all that, well, basically it made me want to chew my own arm off.

I'm coming down off the ledge now, though, having finally sighed and made my through their debut and finding, well, yeah, that it's pretty great. If I just pretend that they're all from Vermont or something and met while farming Christmas trees one winter I'm able to get enough cognitive distance from my jealously to take in the music.

So whatever, I've been listening to their debut obsessively for the last month, which makes me about 16 months behind the rest of the country, but so be it. What pleasantly surprised me about the album is not the afrobeat and baroque influences, but the way that the band effectively uses sonic space.

Contrast this with Axl Rose and his white whale, Chinese Democracy, where each song has, I'm estimating, about 8,000,000 separate tracks mixed in, all building songs that are decidedly less than the sum of their parts. Or, if you want to go the indie route, contrast it with something like The Walkmen, who delight in piling ragged loud instruments on top of each other.

Guns N Roses (well, sort of, really just Axl):

The Walkmen: "The Rat"

In contrast, take a song like "Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa", and marvel at all the empty space within the song. The intro is an interchange between the guitar and drums, and then the bass comes in. Having established a simple riff, the vocals then float in on top, but the simple guitar pattern and bass are still clear and distinct while still harmonizing with the verse melody. The riffs themselves on bass and guitar feature pauses and stops where the other instrument and vocals step briefly forward into the spotlight.

Then in the chorus, the riffs change slightly, while still leaving a lot of space for the vocals to come in and out, and finally the "Do-ooh-ooh-ooh" vocal melody loops back in over the vocal melody until it sounds like an instrument itself. The bridge features a mellow keyboard hook over drums and bass, and then we're back to the chorus again.

All of the instruments have so much space that the vocal melody is able to establish itself, wear the hook in, and then cede space back to the main instruments. As a consequence, the entire song has a feeling of airiness that lends it a certain dynamism that indie bands especially often run roughshod over. Spoon is the closest band that comes to mind, but to be honest Spoon often errs on the side of too much minimalism, robbing their songs of dynamics. VW has managed to put together songs that remain dynamic while still leaving enough space in to let the listener (aurally) breathe.

No comments: