Vampire Weekend at the Ogden: Shake it, white boy
03.19.10 | The Ogden Theatre
A lot of people accuse Vampire Weekend of not being original. "It's Paul Simon but smirkier," they say, or: "It's Afro-pop but whiter." And maybe it is those things. But you know what we're willing to bet no Afro-pop band, Paul Simon, or anyone else has ever done? Introduce a song by saying, "This is a song about architecture" (Insane cheering from the crowd), and then implore everyone to dance. "It's only two minutes long."
The song in question was, as those familiar with the ouvre will know, "Mansard Roof," and it is one of.. all of Vampire Weekend's songs that are ostensibly about douchey topics: Cape Cod, grammar, going on holiday, hanging out with diplomats, etc.
So the question is: Why, despite horrible weather and icy roads, is this place packed? And further, why is everyone not just dancing but completely fanboy-ing it up, singing along with every word and screaming like an idiot the second a song is recognized?
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The answer is that these songs are gems, more or less every one a brief and masterful pop composition. Rostam Batmanglij plays guitar like it's a shy animal with a noisy mating call, which is a nice edge to Ezra Koening's gentle voice. The sounds they've absorbed from the dreaded World music are incorporated rather than slapped on. Meaning, when drummer Chris Tomson whips out the congas, you realize a normal drum kit is not capable of making the transition between this particular bridge and chorus as cleanly as the congas.
It's also true that the hero's welcome our Ivy League friends are receiving is just because they're semi-famous. After all their sophomore album Contra was only the third independent album to hit number one on the billboard, and they've escaped the hype grinder right back where they started: this is pop music that will offend the fewest sensibilities this side of Fleet Foxes. So this was the band that the dude who reads Stereogum four times a day recommended to his friend who likes John Mayer and that friend liked it so much he's here tonight, right alongside his music-blog-reading friend.
The band responded to all this adulation just like you expect rock stars to: like they knew it was coming. On stage, they show a level of enthusiasm best described as perfunctory. I took a video of Rostam Batmanglij playing keys on a particularly raucous version of "Walcott" and realized there was no point uploading it because he doesn't move more than an inch for the entire thirty second clip. Koening is a little more animated in general, but never so much that he might be caught in an embarrassing display of emotion. I think that's why they're not playing "I Think Ur A Contra" on this tour.
There's plenty to look at, however. The light show is blinding with floodlights and dramatic angles, and the ceiling is strung with chandeliers like the ones on the band's first album cover. The cover of the new album, the much debated polo-sporting girl, is the stage's backdrop, rendered forty or fifty feet hight with the girl's pupil's cut out. Overall an incredibly bright show, which fits the music perfectly.
Earlier, I said these songs are ostensibly about douchey subjects. And while those subjects provide the titles and the obvious one-liners and all that, the songs are really about what all pop music is about: girls. More than that, you can find all sorts of sloppy sentiments in the band's lyrics without even really trying ("Here comes a feeling you thought you'd forgotten").
I don't object to those things -- in fact I'm a sentimental pushover who gets victimized by lyrics exactly like that one all the time. But Vampire Weekend are very careful to avoid making their band about that part of the music. Which is why they introduce songs as "our leaving Cape Cod song."
In this way they accentuate what is seen as their biggest flaw (boat shoe culture) because it's a superficial concern anyway. Keep the discourse trivial and it's easier to control. They're not worried about backlash, and based on the size and enthusiasm of the crowd here, they shouldn't be.
Critic's Notebook: Personal Bias: Going in I felt like Vampire Weekend was probably an obnoxious band to hang out with. But I'm not hanging out with them. I'm listening to Contra for something like the 50th time since it came out. By The Way: Opener The Blow, from Portland: The California version of Vampire Weekend. They're pretty awesome. Random Detail: Below, and for no particular reason, it's the Ezra Koenig shuffle:
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