Hype, it’s a bitch for your band. At best, you’ll get lots of attention, which hopefully will bring with it legions of music lovers who will buy your records and come to your shows and give you all sorts of love, making those years of slog worthwhile. At worst, it’ll turn everyone against you, picking at you until you can take no more and you break up, disheartened and disconsolate. Most of the time, it goes for the worst. But even if things go well at the start, it’ll probably all go horribly wrong for the second album when that hype turns to backlash.
Which is where we are with Vampire Weekend. They had something of a backlash around the release of their debut, and now more blogs have turned against them, calling “Contra” the worst record of the new decade; plus all sorts of other sleights, mainly that they are posh. Being posh has a long history in pop music. I’ve wittered on about authenticity before, and the case of Vampire Weekend is an interesting one. Most bands from well-to-do backgrounds do their best to hide it; from Mick Jagger (a nice middle class kid who graduated from the LSE)1 to Joe Strummer (the son of a diplomat). Contrariwise, one of the most foppish pop stars in history, Brian Ferry, was the son of a Geordie miner.
With this in mind, the bile and vitriol piled upon self-professed posh kids Vampire Weekend was extraordinary. How dare these Yale-educated fops actually admit they were well-educated and came from affluent backgrounds? There was more than a hint of self-preservation in this hatred; as, by and large, there are more than a few people in the music industry with similar backgrounds who have built up their persona to hide the reality of their upbringing. Not me, I hasten to add, I’m a middle-class son of penniless immigrants2.
As for the other charge levelled against them, that of stealing the music of genuine, hardworking African bands like the Bhundu Boys…the answer is, get over yourselves. Seriously. People have been influenced by music for as long as music has been around. No-one owns a style, no-one is the ultimate arbiter of taste; if some rich kids from the Ivy League get turned on by jit, and want to copy it in their own style, then isn’t that a great thing for music? Maybe it’ll stop the hopeless, hapless apeing of The Beatles/Neil Young/Velvet Underground/Bob Dylan and inject some life into a moribund and tedious industry.
Hyped, rich, backlashed. Vampire Weekend are doomed with their second album “Contra” before they even start. Is it any good then?
To which the answer is, if you like to hear something not quite run of the mill that sticks in your brain, and isn’t a feeble reheated attempt at making a style of music that you last heard twenty years ago, is, well, yes. But maybe starting the album with the couplet “In December, drinking Horchata\I’d look psychotic in a balaclava” is akin to singing “You know what, I know I’m crap at these lyrics, and everyone’s going to be having a go at us anyway, so here’s the worst I’ve got to offer, now let’s all get on with enjoying the rest of the album, eh?”. The song itself is a charming bit of California pop with a bunch of chanting and tribal drumbeats over the top, like something from a BA World advert, and you’re probably all sick of the sound of it by now.
“White Sky” spells out the differences between this and the debut more clearly. There’s the same afro-beat influences, but this time over a jittery sequencer rather than jittery guitar; more adventurousness from an already adventurous band. Touched again by the ghost of Paul Simon, but kinda in a good way. “Holiday”, in some ways a retrograde step, makes up for it by being relentlessly chirpy. Then comes one of the tracks that has generated quite some ire.
“California English” starts with a bonkers bit of Kanye-gone-yodelling Autotuned nuttery. At first, I thought, what the hell? But after a few listens I grew to rather like it. It’s busy jittering away like a busy little earworm as I type this. “Taxi Cab” and “Run” follow, two more strong songs, before the listener is thrown into the fantastic MacCarthy-esque “Cousins”.
Then it all starts going a little bit wrong. “Giving Up The Gun” sounds like a particularly weak Electronic song and “Diplomat’s Son” appears to have been knocked off in about five minutes using Garageband. Thankfully, they raise their game again for the closer “I Think Ur A Contra”; a sweet almost-acoustic almost-ballad, reminiscent of Broken Social Scene’s “I’m Still Your Fag”.
For old gits like me, hype is a massive turn-off. As soon as a new band gets hyped my bullshit sensors go into overdrive and I roundly ignore whatever the proposition is (hello, Lady Gaga/La Roux/Little Boots etc). But I think I’ve listened to this album more in the past few days than I ever listened to the debut (all the way through, at least. “Vampire Weekend” got dull about halfway through as they ran out of tricks). I keep coming back to it, and I’m liking it more and more each time I listen. It makes me smile. Even the auto-tuned bits. They’re a hyped, rich band who’ve made a pretty good album; it doesn’t need to be any more complicated than that.
It’s not as good as the Freelance Whales album though.
Note to the RIAA; please let me know if you don’t want me posting “Cousins”. I hear through the grapevine that you went after a whole load of blogs for posting it last year, and if you still don’t like it, just contact me via the Contact or MP3 pages. I’ll be more than happy to remove it.
1 It’s been said by a number of people that if Mick Jagger hadn’t succeeded as a rock star, he’d have become a pretty fearsome Captain of Industry.
2 And I went to a Comp, you know. I’m still a right snob though. Middle-class and proud, that’s me.