The cocktail is composed of bits of Paul Simon (“Kodachrome”); Tommy Roe (“Sheila”); Tommy James and The Shondells (“I Think We’re Alone Now”); Ritche Valens (“Crying, Waiting, Hoping” – a cover of a Buddy Holly song); and even Coldplay (“Viva La Vida”).
In case those aren’t enough, here are a few other ingredients: The Rivieras (“California Sun”); Bobby Freeman (“Do You Wanna Dance”); The Gentrys (“Keep On Dancin’”) and, (may the gods favor our ideas), Little Richard (pick a song).
You could cite Vampire Weekend’s roots endlessly.
Where they are headed, we don’t know. There is no argument, though: the band knows well the fountain of music from whence it springs.
Vampire Weekend has come of age on their third album, Vampires Of The City, from which “Unbelievers” jumps out. Previous albums and songs had been harpooned – somewhat justifiably – for being molded from the clay of urban narcissism lite, over-intellectualization and Norton Literature Anthology lyric-writing.
But, from their latest work (2013), it’s clear to see that they were working their way through forms and concepts, indulging themselves a bit in an upper-middle-class saunter through something Todd Rundgren sketched in “We Gotta Get You A Woman”:
Leroy, boy, is that you?
I thought your post-hangin’ days
Sunk-in eyes and full of sighs
“Unbelievers,” through the fabulous drumming of Chris Tomson, gallops as if the protagonist and his girl are on the lam from something they can’t specifically see. Conformity? Dullness? Fear of losing love’s razor-sharp edge? That is for the listner/explorer to reckon with on his or her own and determine meaning.
The drumming is some of the best of the New Millennium, carrying the influence of, (some say), Afro rhythms, but what they are really hearing is the pounding intensity of the New York subway system’s underground performers – kids who pound empty sheetrock compound buckets, brown cardboard cartons or anything close at hand.
A riding, rolling piano by Rostam Batmanglij runs riot through the song, as if Little Richard were reborn as an early 21st century Iranian-American in Washington, DC. Batmanglij also chips in a fine retro keyboard/organ part that references the songs mentioned above.
Songwriter Ezra Koenig has an intriguing voice, a little edgier than that of mid-career Paul Simon, but showing no loss of earnest innocence even as he is about to breech his 30th birthday. Most of all, his singing is convincing. If you’re put off by sincerity, keep away from Koenig’s vocal intonations and phrasing.
The world is a cold
cold place to be
Want a little warmth
But who’s gonna save
a little warmth for me?
We know the fire
All of the sinners the same
Girl, you and I
will die unbelievers
Bound to the tracks of the train
If I’m born again I know
that the world will disagree
Want a little grace but who’s
gonna say a little grace for me?
The lyrics are plainly stripped down, on the verge of minimalism without slip-sliding into a morass of obscurity. They contain some poetic devices, a hangover from that Columbia University education Koenig got, repetitions of expressions slightly altered from their original presentation to cast a shade of new meaning.
One of the best quatrains – if such a thing exists in Rock-N-Roll – goes:
I know I love you
And you love the sea
But what holy water contains
a little drop, little drop for me?
A less-than-half-minute musical break morphs into a romp. Fuzztone guitars, a growling monster of a bass, the wild, hair-on-end piano and crashing percussion brings “Unbelievers” to its conclusion, a softly sung meditation that is at the core of the song’s engaging questions.
I’m not excited,
but should I be?
Is this the fate that half
of the world has planned for me?
Many years from now, anthropologists will look at the rebirth of the cities of the United States – in this case New York – from the 1990s onward. What they will remark on is the dividing line between those who question everything – a cultural revolution unto itself on a par with that which erupted in the 1960s – and those who lazily buy the false, shimmering shadows.
“Unbelievers” dwells on a high ledge of the ever-changing, mystical city. Vampire Weekend now has a lot to live up to.
- You say you want an evolution… Ezra Koenig said about going to college: “When I applied to Columbia, I wrote that I wanted to major in evolutionary biology. And I really did, I wasn’t kidding. I really did enjoy biology in high school.”
- Band member Chris Baio is related to Scott Baio of Happy Days fame and to Steve Buscemi, most recently of Boardwalk Empire.