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ISSUE 121 VOL 13 PUBLISHED 3/7/2008

'Vampire' lacks bite

By Peter Farrell
Executive Editor

Friday, March 7, 2008

For an extended period in high school, I spent a lot of time "jamming" on my guitar. I wore tie-dye t-shirts, listened to the Grateful Dead, lamented the current state of popular music and spent many hours trying to tap into the spirit of the 60s by playing along to old classic rock records. I didn't cut my hair very often. I watched Phish DVDs pretty regularly. I wore a hemp necklace and burned incense. I wasn't particularly cool.

Don't get me wrong: I'm not ashamed of this period in my life. "Jam bands" may not hold the same appeal for me anymore, and, in retrospect, maybe I didn't need to see The Big Wu 26 times. Still, I don't think I'm any tokes over the line when I say Jerry Garcia is one of the most powerful and compelling musicians to emerge from the flower power era. The time I spent listening to The String Cheese Incident, though? There isn't so much a sense of shame as much as a sense of horror at the time I wasted listening to a bunch of stoners from Boulder play 30-minute-long versions of very uninteresting pop songs.

Vampire Weekend, the hottest indie-rock band on the block, remind me of The String Cheese Incident, and I don't think that's a good thing. (More on this connection later.) Their debut album, cleverly titled Vampire Weekend, is slight and insubstantial. The album breezes by -- sometimes pleasureably -- but is largely forgettable.

It seems to me that the main reason Vampire Weekend have garnered such forceful critical praise is because they happen to have a very palatable set of influences. Indeed, Vampire Weekend draw on a number of indie-rock demigods, The Talking Heads being the most prominent and obvious. But indie-rock bands that ape The Talking Heads aren't exactly new or noteworthy. No, it's the Afro-pop and Caribbean flourishes that sets Vampire Weekend apart from the pack.

The String Cheese Incident were similarly revered in the jam band community for fusing these elements to more traditional elements of bluegrass, rock and trance. However, I always thought that String Cheese's take on Afro-pop sounded forced. Rather than integrating the ideas, beats and melodies from African and Caribbean sources into their songs, the band seemed to revel in simply adding strange sounds to otherwise conventional pop songs.

Vampire Weekend suffers from the same inability to convincingly synthesize their more conventional pop influences with African and Carribean styles. "Mansard Roof," "Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa" and "One (Blake's Got a New Face)" especially fail to convince that Vampire Weekend are doing anything more than pursuing a dry and academic exercise in which they're trying to flout their "unique influences." The songs aren't offensive or even bad. They're just boring, lacking any sense of personality or conviction.

The band fares better when they speed up and don't try and overthink things. "A-punk," which has been in heavy rotation on The Current, is an invigorating blast of indie-pop that's fun, catchy and smart. "The Kids Don't Chance" is slower and less immediate, but lead singer Ezra Koenig's soaring vocal carries the song. Koenig's lyrics may be forgettable and goofy, but his phrashing is spectacular, making some of his songs catchier than they really should be.

Despite Vampire Weekend's shortcomings, the band does show potential. They are very young, and they were certainly this year's breakout indie band. Hopefully, their sophomore effort will find them developing a personality of their own, not just exploring other groups' styles.

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