Monday, July 28, 2008

Pop: Get Innocuous!

No, this isn't a post about LCD Soundsystem's Sound of Silver, which is probably one of the best records of the last five years (some competition that isn't), and it would be if "All My Friends" were the only good song on the disc (it isn't). I was, however, reminded of the first track off Sound when I heard Vampire Weekend's eponymous album.

"Innocuous" is a pretty good descriptive adjective for the LP. Now, let me say at the outset that they're talking about stuff that I don't have as much facility with as others. I went to an all-male college in the Midwest, and I am now, for whatever bizarre reason, doing a "summer start" program at IUSL-B. My perspective is, to borrow a word from David Byrne, a little skewed on songs like "Campus" and "Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa."

I know people who would probably say "That happened to me sophomore year," or "It's like they know me," but I sure ain't one of them. Of course, there is something approximating chilling uniformity to the upper-middle-class collegiate experience (referring more to the college than the actual socioeconomic post one inhabits), so there are some shared points of reference. Let's not, however, assume that the themes in this one are universally applicable, though I'm not sure how far one can take the collision of worlds business (James Spader vs. Molly Ringwald, for lack of a better analogy).

All that is, as Justice Scalia would no doubt say in this heavily armed post-Heller world, a preamble with little bearing on the substantive commentary which will follow.

I really like this record. Now, most of the songs sound like they were written in postgraduate hope that Wes Anderson will either use your songs or, better still, commission a bunch of new songs for his new movie about a family or something. The world can be a scary place when all that stands between a man and bone-crushing poverty is a liberal-arts degree, which is isn't exactly a golden parachute. I know that's an unflattering supposition, but it's the best way to get my point across vis-à-vis their sound.

It's clearly influenced by afropop, but not too deeply, as David Byrne notes when he - and he's welcome to correct me on this (I offer only because it's unlikely) - more or less implies that they're musically name-checking Soukous guitar. Of course, there's a history of upbeat New-York-scene place commentaries, so many of their songs are world-music-tinged successors to stuff like Steely Dan's "Barrytown" (Pretzel Logic). Indeed, the songs on Vampire Weekend could well be the music made by the kids of the folks who rocked out to Steely Dan; by that, of course, I mean that it's got a similar lyrical feel (more on that anon)- though the musical styles are clearly pretty divergent. I'll just say that I hear as much Mark Mothersbaugh here, especially in his work for Wes Anderson, as any world-music influence, though the harpsichord-and-string arrangement for "M79" seems to hearken back to a certain style of music from the 1970s. Very Paper Chase in its own way.

As I listen to the songs, which are pretty obtuse and obscure as far as their lyrics go, I think more and more that Vampire Weekend has combined Steely Dan's lyrical style with fairly diverse (within the genre of nice, quirky pop) musical influences. Indeed, despite the discussion of the music and its diversity, I think the interesting story here is the sweet, slightly ironic tone of the lyrical side of things. Now, I wouldn't say that Vampire Weekend matches Messrs. Becker and Fagen, but I would say that they're working in the same building, if not the same room.

That is, taken as a whole, the sort of charm of Vampire Weekend: Nothing is earth-shatteringly new, but it's done with such a seeming naiveté that the old ideas and styles seem new. I keep coming back to Steely Dan, and I think I've finally figured out the relationship - Steely Dan is the knowing, world-weary brother to Vampire Weekend's happy, fun, and slightly wussy (but still clever in his own way) recent grad.

N.B. It's getting near the middle of summer, which means that we're in the blog equivalent to the Sargasso Sea, and buddy is it ever becalmed here. I can get away with this stuff because, exaggerating for humorous effect, I'm just about the only game in town at the moment.


At 2:09 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thought you would like to know about this concert and pass the word on to others whom you think would be interested. Thank You, Sonia Sudak

DANIEL ABRAMS' Opera For Piano concert on Oct. 15, at the Mannes College of Music, will include the American premier of his Musical Portraits from Wagner's 'Ring' (each"Portrait" is based on the musical motif of that character, a particular scene of importance, and/or a verbal statement of consequence).
The program also includes ABRAMS' Chaconne on "Dido's Lament" from Dido And Aeneas , Variations on "Voi Che Sapete" from The Marriage of Figaro, and Variations on "Ein Engel Leonora" from Fidelio. Opera For Piano retains each pieces original style, preserving its complex moods and subtle powers -- as if the composers themselves had written the operas as piano music. They are not transcriptions, but music that Abrams' deeply loves and wished to be able to play on the piano. Abrams considers this series his most important legacy to music and feels that Opera For Piano is adding some glorious music to the performing pianist's repertoire.
DANIEL ABRAMS has been internationally acclaimed as both a pianist and as a composer. He had a double Fulbright in piano & composition (which was renewed for a second year) to the Royal Academy of Music, and performed extensively throughout Europe as an American Cultural Ambassador. His highly heralded New York debut at Town Hall in 1957 brought him major management and years of concertizing. Also, appearances on many TV and radio shows (including The Today Show, the Mike Wallace show, Joe Franklin, Pegeen Fitzgerald, etc.) In 1962, shortly after surviving a plane crash while on a concert tour in S. America, Abrams accepted a teaching position at Goucher College and The Johns Hopkins University. While in Baltimore, he founded and conducted (for 16 years) the Hopkins/Goucher Community Symphony. He has continued to perform as soloist with orchestras and in recitals, but has restricted his appearances to the area in which he lives.
Among my favorite reviews was the one he received from The New York Herald Tribune for his four concert cycle of the Mozart piano sonatas at the Kaufman Y: Mr. Abrams, as has been noted before, is born to the piano; he cannot help but make beautiful sounds and he brings to whatever he tackles not only musicianship, technique and interpretative prowess, but a very special kind of intellectual radiance that quite sets him apart. In short, the five sonatas heard contained a veritable galaxy of refinements--indeed, the sort of refinements that seem slowly to be creeping out of contemporary piano playing.

More information:

Concert information: Mannes College of Music, 150 West 85 St (bet. Columbus & Amsterdam) NYC
Wednesday, October 15 8 pm No charge: seating begins at 7:30 pm

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