Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Smart and Smarter

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The nonsense about Vampire Weekend being in any definitive way "African" has dispersed somewhat with the release of their second album, Contra. And though they still offend the usual gaggle of indie purists, it's worth emphasizing that Vampire Weekend's indie ties are more structural rather than cultural--they chose the clubs-and-blogosphere route because the demo-and-a&r route was closed to art-band traffic years ago. The source of contention that remains is class--the four Columbia graduates' access to privilege and, supposedly, their celebration of privilege.

Class is America's nastiest secret, always worth raising in pop. But the concept is at its most slippery in the U S of A, where economic power is wielded by an ever-changing alliance of the wealthy and the well-born. Although indeed Ivy Leaguers, another vexed concept, the members of Vampire Weekend come from backgrounds that are managerial if that. Bassist Chris Baio's parents are lawyers, although his dad was a child actor and he's related to '80s teenthrob Scott Baio. Drummer Chris Tomson's father is an engineer. Having escaped Iran shortly after the ayatollahs took over, keyboard maestro Rostam Batmanglij's mother Najmieh is a renowned Persian cooking expert, his father Mohammed a publisher of books on Iran who gave $250 to Howard Dean in 2004. Frontman, wordsmith, cutie-pie, and scholarship boy Ezra Koenig is the son of a set designer and an academic. This is all still privilege. But it's no closer to ruling-class power than it is to the affluence of the average American geekboy who gets to insult music he resents online.

I initially reacted to the "Upper West Side Soweto" imbroglio by slotting Vampire Weekend as a fine little pop band. What I didn't get at first--what you often don't get with pop bands until their light touch endures--was how fine. My epiphany came one sunny but pensive 4:30 last summer, playing their debut on a whim as I drove a rented compact to a state beach east of New Haven with my wife and daughter. There was the boyish, educated Koenig delivering the album's enigmatic first verse--which cites, let me point out, not just a mansard roof but garbage and concrete. After a repeat, a non-African guitar figure strummed hard over Tomson's marchlike clatter raised the emotional ante, and then an ahistorical verse about some Argentine-with-a-long-I sea battle adduced imperialism and the insubstantiality of all things before livelying all things up with the same strum-and-clatter.

As knottier songs that were still catchy and bright followed, my mood lifted. Hell of a summer record, I thought and soon exclaimed, and my family said amen. The overall effect recalled the Beach Boys or B-52's--not quite as tuneful, but also not nostalgic the way tuneful indie-pop can be. Celebratory, absolutely. But of what privilege? Budget Rent a Car? Hammonasset State Park? Maybe just not working on a sunny day. Or maybe the privilege, and thrill, of holding apparent incommensurabilities in your mind-body continuum. When education does everything it oughta, it's good for that stuff.

Like most quality follow-ups, Contra takes some getting used to. It's less sparkly than Vampire Weekend, and less frothy; the slow one that grows on you at the end is preceded by a long one that remains rather long. But when the band greeted 3000-plus fans at a sold-out United Palace Theater January 17 with two new ones, the Afroriff-introed "White Sky" and the upful trifle "Holiday," they were cheered no less wildly than "Mansard Roof" and "Walcott" at the encore. Three consecutive tracks at the album's heart conjure a disintegrating romance with someone closer to the ruling class than Koenig while jacking Auto-Tune, Bach and/or Roy Bittan, and the Miami Sound Machine, respectively. "Cousins" is about birthrights and rocks frantic; "Giving Up the Gun" is about guitars and rocks warm calm and collected. With help from its uncontested release date and some minor marketing hanky-pank, Contra debuted at number one in the January 30 Billboard, an exceedingly rare feat for an independently distributed album. It sold 124,000, precisely a quarter of the impressive 498,000 the debut had racked up in 100 times that long.

The next week, in a typical pattern, Lady Gaga and Susan Boyle regained their rightful places in the cosmos as Spoon's indie album entered at four and VW sank to six with raw sales dipping sharply to 43,000, somewhat below the statistical mean. So who knows what kind of legs Contra will have, what kind of audience it will crystallize? Right now, however, Vampire Weekend signify pretty big. Having declined to squeeze into the jammed club gigs of their ascent and then missed a storm-soaked festival stop last July, I'd never seen the band before the United Palace show, and they were a revelation--not only did I have a terrific time, most of it on my feet like everyone else, but I found myself scrawling "Jonas Brothers!" in my notebook. The terrific time I'd hoped for even though I'd heard the band was a little stiff. But the Jonas Brothers part had never crossed my mind. I wasn't ready for the squealing--not the cheers themselves, but their pitch.

Granted, this show, in an uptown neighborhood a skip and a jump from Bergen County via the George Washington Bridge, was a made-to-order date night. In a clean-cut crowd full of the bridge-and-tunnel dabblers indie purists have bad dreams about, the preppy duds the band gets dissed for were a viable style. These were boys you could take home to mother, and they went to a good school too. Not that this will turn them into the indie-pop Kanye West, whose sweaters have proved prophetic--neither their talent nor their ambition is that phenomenal. But it separates them big-time from Spoon, Death Cab for Cutie, and the like.

Gossip-boy dope notwithstanding, they can all play, and stiff they're not--two years in the spotlight have generated some committed stagecraft. The warm patter, ace pacing, and energetic jumping around may not be much by Jonas Brothers standards, but it's enough to keep the crowd going, and compared to such club-and-blogosphere strategies as musicianly withdrawal, frenetic rocking, sly role-playing, and tacky extravaganza Vampire Weekend's outgoing simplicity amounts to a conceptual breakthrough. Also, there's a counterpart in their approach to the undefinable notion of pop itself.

I've named Spoon and Death Cab for Cutie, who along with the Shins are the biggest "pop"-identified indie bands. But indie-rock, while caught up in a prog phase that looks pretty entrenched from here, continues to nurture many adepts of old-fashioned songcraft, most of whom cut retro revivalism with touches of good-natured irony. Sticking to 21st-century nonpunks, I'd start by listing Franz Ferdinand, the Arctic Monkeys, Rilo Kiley, Phoenix, Camera Obscura, Girls, Jens Lekman, and my beloved if elderly Wussy. But though Death Cab's mildly emo Ben Gibbard, the Arctic Monkeys' bleakly cheeky Alex Turner, Rilo Kiley's strictly gorgeous Jenny Lewis, and Phoenix's belatedly exuberant Thomas Mars all hold theoretical allure for the casual, unaestheticized audience Franz Ferdinand briefly grabbed, Ezra Koenig reaches out far more wholeheartedly. And while several of my nominees are formally adventurous, in no case could that adventurousness be called expansive--it's ingrown, all chords and song structures. Vampire Weekend are different.

The reason is syncretism. As it happens, the kind of cross-cultural reappropriation that's kicked up so much nonsense around Vampire Weekend is also the process by which, for example, captive Arab girls juiced the harem music of dynastic Egypt, or classically trained Creole sight readers spread jazz, or four Liverpool speed freaks beat Chuck Berry, rockabilly, Tin Pan Alley, and skiffle into a noise rude enough for the Reeperbahn. Historically, syncretism has been the main way pop musics have evolved. I began by dismissing the idea that Vampire Weekend are African, and they're not. But definitely they've grafted tiny elements from all over the place, Africa included, onto a guitar-keyboards-bass-drums pop band. Instead of looking back, they looked around. Their music feels outgoing because that's literally what it is. As Jon Pareles put it in his United Palace rave, they're "relentlessly catchy," recombining borrowed elements "with melodies that hop around wildly but still register as pop (until you try to sing along)."

Not only that, the borrowings are generally unspecific--and well beyond the ken of your average hater when they aren't. For details see Banning Eyre's expert November 2008 Koenig interview at Eyre isn't offended by VW's Africanisms, he's psyched by them--about time is his attitude. Koenig emphasizes that rather than hooky licks, he's drawn to the trebly, undistorted, single-line African guitar sound, a preference he explains as a reaction to grunge. When Eyre congratulates the rhythm section for almost nailing the Congolese groove of what I just labeled "marchlike clatter," Koenig responds that actually "Mansard Roof" motorvates to a speeded-up reggaeton beat. Then he reveals that its strum derives from surf hotshot Dick Dale, and Eyre tells him that the half-Lebanese Dale grew up with Arabic music. Strange are the ways of cultural imperialism.

Rereading the interview, I found myself quite taken with Ezra Koenig. Talking music with an elder who was on his side, he came across not just knowledgeable-yet-curious, eager for the lowdown on Orchestra Super Mazembe and the Washington Heights bachata scene, but exceptionally open and thoughtful in general. He's got what they used to call personality. Of all the frontpeople named above, only the borderline insipid Ben Gibbard is nearly as arresting a singer--on Rostam Batmanglij's mock-electropop project Discovery and Esau Mwamwaya's alt-syncretizing Afro-Brit fabrication the Very Best, Koenig's guest spots pop out of the mix. The Paul Simon comparisons aren't calumnies, but vocally he's much less smug and as a correlative more strained--he's trying, hard. He's a little shy, a little sly, sweet and changeable and impulsive, someone who's figured out he's cute without stifling his inner nerd. He's funny sometimes. He's got brains.

For the haters, I suspect that last is the nub. Although Columbia is one of the less exclusive Ivy League locations, college prep has become so insane that the envy runs hotter than it did when I lucked into a Dartmouth scholarship 50 years ago. I get that. But one result of the insanity is that these days there's privilege and intelligence aplenty at pricey places like NYU, where I teach, and Wesleyan, alma mater of the r&b-jacking MGMT, who get none of this guff. Moreover, at every school there's smart and then there's smarter. Koenig is smarter and wouldn't think of stifling it. Of course he threatens plodders and pretenders.

Holding apparent incommensurabilities in your mind-body continuum is a spiritual discipline available to anyone capable of both compassion and pleasure. Prefer T-shirts to Ralph Lauren? Well, you can still buy from sweatshops, and don't be so sure abjuring imports is the path of unalloyed righteousness--the Akron and Beatles Ts whose labels I just checked were both made in Haiti. But for most Americans it seems easier, and more natural, to turn off compassion or pleasure in turn. If there's a balancing process, for most it starts in the mind, and Vampire Weekend's rather good minds set them to sorting out ever more complex incommensurabilities. Keeping the mood playful rather than succumbing to racial embarrassment or fetishizing serotonin malfunction, both familiar indie disorders, Koenig throws up cultural contradictions and leaves it to his listeners to sort them out--or not. Many high squealers let them wash over. Many shallow thinkers take them the wrong way. How Koenig adjusts to these inevitabilities we'll have to wait and see.

And one more thing. There is no music anywhere better at this trick than Afropop, and often without apparent cogitation. One of the blithest-sounding records I know is Electric Highlife: Sessions From the Bokoor Studios, in which a bunch of obscure Ghanaians, working in an early-'80s period of rampant inflation, sing soulfully but ebulliently about their poverty, their enemies, their faith in God. Their bravery is something to marvel at even if you worry that it's really escapism. There's no way any American pop band could equal it. But try to emulate it? Really, why the hell not?

Barnes & Noble Review, Feb. 8, 2010