April 26th, 2010

This Totally Made My (Vampire) Week

Ezra Koenig, the brainy singer from the brainy band Vampire Weekend, did me the awesome service of bigging up this here brainy blog in the latest issue of Rolling Stone (Issue 1103, 29 April 2010). One upshot is that I actually went out and bought something with Black Eyed Peas on the cover.

It’s also the first time I’ve purchased an issue of Rolling Stone since Kurt Cobain bodied himself. (I actually had a subscription back in the grunge days.) Rolling Stone ain’t exactly what it used to be (exhibit BEP), and I suppose it’s always been pretty MOR (even when selling counterculture), but it also runs some occasionally classic music criticism and longform exposés. Plus, as our Vice President might say, it’s still a pretty BFD.

I also get my name on the same page as ?uestlove and Russell Brand, so yeah, pretty cool. Here’s a scan of the bottom righthand of p.91:

I’d like to return the favor in some way — not that VW needs my help or anything, having had the best selling album in the country when Contra came out earlier this year.

I have to admit I’ve been struggling to say something about Ezra & co’s music — in part because I haven’t really had enough of a chance to sit with it, & in part because, despite the obvious resonance with stuff I’m interested in, I tend not to listen so much to “rock.” But bands like Vampire Weekend or Tanlines (who’ve been ringing in my ears since seeing them slay at SXSW) are slowly drawing me back into music-with-guitars precisely because of the way they’re engaging with the world beyond indie whiteness. Also, how could a band with a song called “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa” (two of my favorite things), or who make “reggaeton homages” not endear themselves to me?

In the continuing absence of an adquately brainy analysis of Vampire Weekend of my own (which is trickier to perform, I must confess, now that @arzE and I are Twitterquaintances), I will instead point W&W readers — including any newcomers via RS/VW — to some of the smartest responses to Contra I’ve had the pleasure to read:

Most of these address the obvious if unavoidable issue of appropriation (and the privilege it seems to index). This is something I’ve obviously thought a lot about on this blog, if more often with regard to other spheres of nu-world music. I have to say that I found Bob Christgau’s question-of-an-answer to the question of whether VW should borrow from classic African pop, or not, pretty persuasive: “There’s no way any American pop band could equal it. But try to emulate it? Really, why the hell not?”

Plus, this old Columbia student paper piece, pre-big-break, is pretty charming and convincing re: VW’s self-knowingness (“African preppy”), their genuineness about Afrobeat, and, well, tbh, some serious similarities to me, a dude who also taught public school and performed “witty rap riffs” (sometimes at the same time) right after attending an Ivy League college, all while geeking out on all the music I could get my ears around, Afrobeat included, and increasingly “sampling” it — in my case, literally — and making my own things from it, and refashioning myself in the process.

Along these lines, I recommend this interview with Afropop.org in which the band go further into the backstory of their encounter with & embrace of African music. Hearing that those Orchestra Baobab reissues, which I myself picked up and jammed on a few years back, influenced the band, I’m tempted to become an annoying, facile critic and call this post-worldmusic, but let’s not go there. I’m so post post by this point, aren’t you? Still, you knomesayin.

Finally, if, like me, you come from a place (regardless of your grungy past) suspicious of “rock” “bands” and “guit” “ars” you couldn’t find a better way into VW than Toy Selecta’s demented Contra Melts.

Oh, and here’s a recent video, starring the RZA ~

4 Comments

  • 1. Colin  |  April 26th, 2010 at 11:36 pm

    I would argue with a RZA cameo, starring Jenny Murray (who was also in the Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa vid, or so wikipedia would have me believe) and Jake Gyllenhaal (who’s in the preview frame, c’mon).

    Congrats on the Vampy love.

  • 2. Colin  |  April 26th, 2010 at 11:41 pm

    OH! and speaking of paper mags that you might not usually get, GQ May 2010 (with Jake Gyllenhaal on the cover; ironic) has an article called “The Return to Hi-Fi” (pp. 122-127), which is a call for gentlemen everywhere to stock up on new audio equipment and move away from the compressed, cold, hard digital sound. It’s not so much an article as a “what to buy” guide (if that), but it may just be another instance of reaction (dare I say reprisal!) against treble culture. The pendulum swings both ways.

  • 3. Adela  |  April 29th, 2010 at 1:05 pm

    Wayne, divulge more. What would engender “suspicion” on the part of electronic music aficionados towards rock music & guitars? With a continual melding of the two genres through numerous popular indie groups, I would imagine that some of this wariness is fading away, no?

    Also, no discussion of the Very Best and Warm Heart of Africa? What does it mean that a Malawian/Londoner has Ezra singing on his song about none other than, well, the warm heart of Africa? Does this give Ezra some proverbial “street cred” w/r/t the idea of cultural appropriation?

  • 4. wayneandwax  |  April 30th, 2010 at 11:19 am

    I can’t tell, Adela, how much more you’d like me to indulge exactly, but my life is an open blog. The “suspicion” has to do with the extent to which the guitar represents a sonic strategy for “retreating into whiteness” rather than engaging with other musical-cultural worlds. I’ve written about this sort of thing here and there:
    http://wayneandwax.com/?p=205
    http://wayneandwax.blogspot.com/2006/03/unbearable-whiteness.html

    Part of my point w/r/t to Vampire Weekend and Tanlines (and I’ll send a shoutout here to Aa as well), is that, yes, thankfully some of this wariness is fading away, in part because newer bands seem to be approaching the guitar differently (sometimes by leaving it out entirely!). However, I also have to give hip-hop and electronic music some serious credit for giving me new ways of hearing (and tolerating) the guitar.

    I should say, though, that I’ve long loved the guitar. It was the first instrument that I (sorta) learned to play, and I’ve been listening to rock all my life (my parents were huge fans of the Stones and Zeppelin, among others). I got away from listening to rock/guitar during the latter half of college (even while playing in a blues band, ha!), when I found that contemporary hip-hop and electronic dance music were a lot more compelling sonically, while rock seemed to have gotten stuck in a post-grunge rut.

    But I should also note that I have a problem with guitars, sonically and socially, especially having played in my share of guitar bands: guitars/guitarists tend to dominate the texture, the volume, the harmonic and rhythmic space, and I find that all too overwhelming usually. I like more space in my music, and guitars are space-filling machines.

    Finally, with regard to Ezra’s cred, I think he’s done a fine job so far navigating the “appropriation” minefield, and the fact that someone like Esau or B.o.B. (w/ Ezra singing “streets don’t give a damn“!) is working with or sampling him is a great sign of how little these critical lines we draw seem to matter to practicing musicians. I thought this recent exchange on Twitter (read the screenshot below from bottom-to-top) was pretty telling in this regard.

Wayne&Wax

I'm a techno-musicologist, internet annotator, imagined community organizer.

I left my <3 in the digital global, but I reside in Cambridge, MA, where I'm from.

I represent like that.

wayne at wayneandwax dot com

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