One of the most compelling draws to this year's Lollapalooza festival is the foursome known as Vampire Weekend. They've cultivated a wide appeal despite--or perhaps in light of--their elite literati pedigree. The boys started gigging around 2006 in their last undergraduate year at Columbia University, starting off at humanities societies and parties. With that kind of foundation, you'd think the emphasis would be on explorations primarily invested in lyric, to which their freshman album track "Oxford Comma" is certainly a tribute. But really, the performative experience Vampire Weekend cultivates is an affective one rather than hyper-intellectual or hyper-referential--the result seemingly bringing the hipster, the geek, and the downright adorkable all a little closer together.
Describing their sound as "Upper West Side Soweto," Ezra Koenig, Chris Baio, Rostam Batmanglij, and Chris Tomson mix well-read indie melodies with joyful, Afro-pop-inspired rhythms. Their first album, Vampire Weekend (2008), was a smash in the alternative scene and appealed to a sophisticated collegiate crowd. The rather specific age demographic (as I can't imagine folks in their 30s and 40s interested in titles like "Campus") was noted by some critics, but the Afro-pop sedimentation of the bass lines were without rebuke.
Their second album, Contra (2010), slows down the pace and is invested in blending influences rather than downright mixing, sacrificing some of the blazing guitar proficiency of the earlier album for thoughtfulness; it's worth it for tracks like "Horchata" and "I Think Ur A Contra." And this past May, the band released their third studio album, Modern Vampires of the City (2013), which quickly reached no. 1 on several charts. With many positive reviews, Vampire Weekend seems to be finding a balance between its popular and independent streaks.
To get a sense of what I mean by this doubleness in Vampire Weekend's discography, I recommend comparing these two tracks from their first and second album respectively: "A Punk" and "I Think Ur A Contra."
As I mentioned, "A Punk" belongs on your jogging mix for its bounce and speed that infects your ear. Brief and simple, its bounce and play with arpeggio as a technique makes it very satisfying when on repeat. Similarly, the vibrato alto flute lines are a strikingly different sound in light of the larger synthesized sounds of contemporary indie pop.
"I Think Ur a Contra" is slow; it shimmers, and it very gradually envelops and develops through the sweet upper range of Keonig's voice. There is a strikingly low bass line from the piano (rather than a keyboard), with other elements subtly slipping in suggesting that the speaker grows from thinking to knowing his subject is in fact, a contra(diction).
The single from their new album getting radio play right now, "Diane Young," while far more electric than I anticipated, seems to nicely split the difference. Considering the new album comes only two months before Lollapalooza, I anticipate they have big plans for their Chicago crowd.
Can't get enough? Stream this expertly recorded live concert from NPR. Or check out another act on the same label, Ra Ra Riot, which has been inching into the limelight but is extremely underrated as yet.
Prepare for Vampire Weekend's 6:30pm set on Sunday, August 4th, at the Bud Light stage by checking out their music, available from iTunes and streaming on Spotify.