Saturday, April 3, 2010

Vampire Weekend Contra 2010

What does a band need to be good? I've thought about this from time to time, and there's three things that every good pop/rock band needs. First, you need a good singer. For many listeners, this person does not have to actually have a good voice as long as they have attitude. I prefer those singers that are actually good singers, but I like some of those attitude guys, too. Next you need good songwriting. It's a big plus if you have at least two songwriters, since any one writer has maybe 5-6 rock songs in them, and if you only have one writer, then you have to repeat ideas just to finish one record. Third, you need a drummer. The drummer needs to keep time well at a minimum, and they also need to add interesting touches or unusual rhythms. That's all you really need.

Plenty of bands have gotten by with no more than the above essential elements. I hope I haven't offended bass players, since my brother is a bass player. You really don't need a great guitar player (think Grand Funk). Mostly any skilled keyboard player will do, unless the band is keyboard based (Bruce Hornsby, Ben Folds, Elton John). My point is that the above three ingredients are essential for any good band, and these ingredients are the only truly essential elements.

Vampire Weekend is an excellent example of this theory. They have a delightful, high tenor in singer Ezra Koenig. The songwriting is credited to all four band members, and it certainly sounds to me like at least two of them write melodies. The lyrics are fairly cryptic most of the time (at least I don't usually know what they're about), but they work well within the music and Koenig's phrasing helps them work. Christopher Tomson is a fine drummer. The band uses African and Reggae derived rhythms quite a bit, and this adds a significant level of interest to their music. If everything was basic rock rhythms, this record would be just another decent pop record. With Tomson on the kit, the songs sound fresh and different, especially since these rhythms are being put to use in what are otherwise modern pop songs, which is unusual. Chris Baio is fine on bass, and Rostam Batmanglij is the keyboard/multi-instrumentalist that makes the vast majority of the music heard here.

Horchata opens with one of those African rhythms, and there's that staccato plucked guitar/marimba sound so common to Nigerian music. White Sky follows in a similar vein and is accented with excellent percussion and a wordless chorus that is great fun. Holiday is a fast ska/reggae rhythm with a cool keyboard part and driving guitar, all with fun vacation lyrics. California English is another quick-paced ditty that uses that African plucked guitar sound and big backup vocals on the chorus. Taxi Cab, Run, Cousins, and Giving Up The Gun are all strong songs with interesting instrumental and rhythmic touches, and good lyrics and vocals.

Diplomat's Son milks it's Reggae light thing a bit too long, and I Think Ur A Contra ends the record on a low note, a slow ballad that features Koenig's vocals and adds a string section that can't save the song from it's own inertia.

That's ten songs, and the first eight are very good to excellent. This should be the soundtrack to the coming summer. It's fun, poppy, and clean pop/rock with interesting songwriting, solid singing, and a great drummer. Batmanglij adds plenty of interesting little sounds to the mix, and is a creative keyboard player as well as a good guitarist. It's not deep or heavy or particularly important. And that spells great pop in my book.


  1. Ooh! Thanks for the post, Jeff. I must admit that I have shied away from this band based on the name, but this review has got me re-thinking them.

    I love the idea of a "summer soundtrack" even though we don't really have a "summer" out here. :)

  2. Good post, CJ.

    This album has been my "go to" music for the past several months and shall remain so until this "summer", which you speak of with such fondness, actually arrives...