Vampire Weekend recently announced that a fourth album is on the way. For long-time fans of the New Yorkers, this is one of the most anticipated albums of the year. If you’re still unacquainted, (does it matter if it isn’t ‘A-Punk’?) Impact is here to broaden your knowledge of one of the most distinctive sounding bands in the business.
Initially, what spawned to become the (very loosely described) indie-pop act we know, was a rap collaboration between singer/guitarist Ezra Koenig and drummer Chris Tomson under the name L’Homme Run, which was formed when they were both at Columbia University. Chris Baio and Rostam Batmanglij joined the band a little later into their time at the university; all four bonded over their love for world music, especially that of African music, such as Kwassa Kwassa (a genre/dance popular in the Congo during the 1980s), as well as more western genres such as alternative indie.
Vampire Weekend (self-titled, 2008)
Upon graduating, the band had become established as Vampire Weekend and had toured with big names including The Shins. They began to self-produce their debut album in 2007 whilst working full-time jobs. When released, the album excelled in the USA, hitting 17th on the billboard 200, and 15th in the UK album charts.
Personally, I believe the way to get into Vampire Weekend is to listen to the albums chronologically. ‘A-Punk’ is the most popular track on this album; however, their true essence is best depicted through ‘Oxford Comma’, and its wonderfully crafted lyrics cement Koenig’s style as a writer and a preppy but relaxed singer. ‘Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa’ has Congolese-influenced instrumentation, which shows the influences of Africa in full. Opening track ‘Mansard Roof’ showcases their expert blending of percussionist drumming, thumping basslines, melodic arpeggios, snappy chords and shimmering tremolo.
Vampire Weekend’s most developed track on the album, however, is ‘One (Blake’s Got A New Face)’. The song showcases all that is wonderful and quirky about the band. There’s a complexity of calls and responses throughout the song, both through a dominant thumping bass and responsive guitar and piano harmony, and the vocal lines. Though the track is rooted around a conventional time signature and chords you’ll find amongst any indie band, the way they’re incorporated here feels unique and is the Vampire Weekend genius in a nutshell.
Additionally, we see Ezra’s vocals at their most delicate, and get a good introduction to his range, along with the general talent of the vocals in the band. The drums are interesting in all Vampire Weekend songs; however, in this track particularly we see a real fluidity, more of a percussionist piece than a drum beat. The use of synth is also prominent in this track which is one of the key elements that allows the band to ensure their connections to the west and the alternative scene that adores them so greatly.
What Contra seems to do best is push the weird afro-indie niche that Vampire Weekend have carved into the mainstream up a notch. Contra by name, contra by nature. Those who were on the fence are essentially told to either embrace or hate the band. This is obvious within the musicality; they are an intelligent musical force, who do not just push the quirky in one direction but push their quirk in many directions.
“It reads as an absolute mouthful, but it’s impossible to imagine any other words exist when the line is being sung”
From ‘California English’ and a pop-rooted call and response, to ‘Cousins’; percussion meets clean garage-rock brawl, their sense of rhythm looseness and preppy, intellectual yet popular construction is forced upon the listener.
Even the notably mellow and catchy ‘Horchata’, with its Caribbean-calypso inspired melodies, is a workout to the ear. The song relies on the vocal melody for its catchiness, yet the lyrics are irregular: “In December drinking horchata / Look down your glasses at that Aranciata.” It reads as an absolute mouthful, but it’s impossible to imagine any other words exist when the line is being sung.
The last two tracks of the album are really integral for displaying the extremes of Vampire Weekend’s sound. In this light, ‘Diplomat’s Son’ is their magnum opus. A six-minute long track which shows just about everything you can expect from a pop song.
“There’s a sense of using the past and the present to indicate the future, which, as the trilogy notion indicates, shows a melancholy end to a wonderful chapter of music”
A six-minute pop song might sound like a contradiction itself; furthermore, the range of tempos and themes, along with the wealth of influence (the track samples M.I.A and Toots & The Maytals, whilst nodding to an endless list of genres and artists) makes the track, in theory, anything but logical. The beauty of Vampire Weekend is that they make contradictions gel and work within a relatable, replayable popular sound.
Modern Vampires of the City (2013)
Ezra Koenig described this album as the last of a trilogy, and there is a serious tone lyrically, and a maturity within the music. In a nutshell, the album is developed beyond what has come before, this is notable in the refined and contemplative lyrics as well as through the increased interest in ensemble work, dynamics and emotion.
‘Step’ references contemporary artists lyrically, whilst taking inspiration from Grover Washington Jr’s 1973 jazz hit ‘Aubrey’. There’s a sense of using the past and the present to indicate the future, which, as the trilogy notion indicates, shows a melancholy end to a wonderful chapter of music.
Other key tracks include ‘Ya Hey’ and ‘Diane Young’, which blends choral work with Strokes-esque indie rock and rhythm and blues, their most polished effort at a rocked up pop track to date.
The New Chapter?
So that’s you up to date musically; what we know about the future is that the closing of a chapter has become all the more real with vocalist/guitarist/pianist Rostam Batmanglij leaving the band permanently. This presents an anxiety amongst Vampire Weekend fans, who know that he was very much the driving force behind all synthetic sounds in the band.
The positives are that album four is expected later in the year and that Batmanglij contributed to some tracks. The real intrigue for us all is: where will this dynamic, innovative, intellectual band go next, and where then? We also know that the band have been rallying with Bernie Sanders, and for those with lyrical interests, it’ll be exciting to see how Koenig explores politics in the new tracks.