Elif Batuman’s recent piece in the Saturday Guardian’s Review section was unusual, in that music is rarely if ever covered there in and of itself, except as the subject of a book review. Elif’s in-depth analysis of Vampire Weekend’s leading light, Ezra Koenig, contains within it precisely the same ingredients which render the Vamps intensely irritating to some, namely their preppiness, the associated perception of an air of dominion over both the earth and the sum of its inhabitants’ knowledge, and apparently a blithe disregard for what the world might be like for the 99.9% of its population whose schooling was either non-existent or fell short (seriously or otherwise) of the preppy mark. But Elif gives much more than a glimpse behind both the hype and the pop surfaces of Vampire Weekend’s music, and in particular brings out Ezra’s pre-emptive refusal to allow his group to be straight-jacketed by the perceptions about their education and upbringing (a refusal I tried to elucidate here). Elif digs out the following quote from a blog Ezra kept in 2005-06:
‘What is authentic for a guy like me?… Growing up Jewish, you are presented with three images of your people:
– DESERT NOMADS BUILDING PYRAMIDS
– EASTERN-EUROPEAN SHTETL-DWELLERS WITH BIG BEARDS
– AMERICAN LIBERALS WHO EAT CHINESE FOOD ALL THE TIME
Now do you see where I’m coming from?’
The Vamps have already minted some great pop songs that leak, as James used to sing, down the left side, but Elif Batuman’s article suggests to me that their potential is greater than the goods delivered so far, assuming that they can keep their heads amid all the attention and don’t develop feet of clay.
Indie kids can’t win. On the one hand we have Sasha Frere-Jones castigating their unfunky whiteness, and failing to spot the Motown motion that coursed through certain of Arcade Fire’s pre-Funeral recordings and that album itself (for example the second half of ‘Wake up’), not to mention not mentioning the Haitian roots of Reginé Chassagne, Win Butler’s being the grandson of swing-era jazz guitarist Alvino Rey, and their recording of Ary Barroso’s ‘Brazil’. Frere-Jones’ article says more about his taste than it does about the complicated inter-relationship between black and white music, and let’s not forget, as Sasha seems to, between that of all the other colours under the sun.
On the other hand, when a group of white origin does show a strong tendency to incorporate music of black origin, we have Pitchfork saying that Vampire Weekend – whose indie-ness is faintly disguised (or enhanced?) by their preppiness – ‘rip off African music, for crying out loud.’
A pox on the homepages of both Frere-Jones and Pitchfork. I know the issue is complicated by history, slavery, racism, imperialism, and Paul Simon, both in the States and in this country, but can we not just celebrate and accept a group’s enthusiasm for the music of other cultures? It surely does more good than harm, and there are other ways to see it than as blood-sucking (sorry). In any case it goes both ways and most grow up subject to a multiplicity of cultural influences now, so why wouldn’t we wear those trousers with that hat? And if white boys and girls want to be more or less monocultural white boys and girls, then that’s fine too, just so long as their alleged lack of syncopation is not borne out by a predilection for goose-stepping. In an age of exponential cross-fertilisation, it can make sense to return to the original flower, see how it stands up to the light and heat of the 21st century.
But Vampire Weekend take the opposite tack. There’s a joy in this music that mixes the carefree freedom of the college boy with the exuberance and intricacy of African guitar playing, over a foundation of classical music education. The result is much less obviously preppy than, say, Sufjan Stevens. Owing to familiarity, I hear in ‘Mansard roof’ the jugular jangle of James’ ‘Hymn from a village’ recast against the rackety beat of Acoustic Ladyland rather more than I do Kanda Bongo Man or King Sunny Ade. Listening beyond this seven inch, it’s clear that African music (or at least some of its many geographic sub-divisions) is an inspiration to Vampire Weekend in the best sense. Though if you flip the record over ‘Ladies of Cambridge’ (a.k.a. ‘Boston’) confirms more than passing acquaintance with both independent pop and the courtyards and lawns of privilege, and perhaps rooms at Harvard which may well have echoed to the sounds of the Go-Betweens if Jessica Pavone’s playing is anything to go by, for she recasts Amanda Brown’s fiddle-playing from ‘Casanova’s last words’ in what is an equally spirited romp.
But how to explain why Columbia college boy Ezra Koenig has the same pickled, imperfectly soulful drawl as Amy Winehouse? And even, on ‘APunk’, manages to sound like the vocodered version of Cher? Could it be that Vampire Weekend are less easy to read than coverage so far has suggested? There’s plenty in their music that’s not so definite, harder to trace, even as they toss out red herrings, deliberately exposing themselves as uncool (from a British perspective) by referencing Peter Gabriel and (from a US perspective?) Jackson Browne.
I think it’s safe to say that if Peelie were still alive, they’d have had a session by now, and that he would be as keen as I to hear their full-length debut come early 2008.