Friday, October 23, 2009

On Vampire Weekend's "Horchata"

I enjoyed VW's debut album, and the one live show I saw at Corlears Hook Park. I even enjoyed following, at least for a while, the now familiar, internet-fueled hype-backlash cycle that played out from the time that their pre-album online singles first appeared. I was interested at the time to see where people came down on them. Though the strength of reactions varied (is a "meh" of indifference really much better than outright hatred?), it seemed that everyone had an opinion (and the opinions just keep coming).

Whether it was deliberate or not (and the uncertainty about this is one of the compelling things about the band for me), VW's "preppy" Upper West Side signifiers, both in their lyrics and their look, certainly succeeded in pushing a lot of buttons. As for the music, I loved that they were drawing on the bright, bouncing sounds of soukous guitar, even (or especially) if it was filtered through Paul Simon. The Paul Simon-VW connection has been overemphasized (as has its overemphasis), but I do think that Graceland (perhaps because it was such a widely popular album) and Rhythm of the Saints (perhaps because it gets lost in the shadow of its predecessor) are underappreciated and under-influential. I'm sure there's something I've forgotten about or am just ignorant of, but Paul Kotheimer's (criminally, practically unknown) "Bicycle" is just about the only obviously Graceland-influenced track that comes to mind outside of VW. (I also think that some of Simon's lyrics on those two albums belong among the greatest achievements in pop songwriting, but that's another story.)

All of which brings me to the recently released (as a free MP3) "Horchata". Reports seem to indicate that the forthcoming album is perhaps a bit more eclectic than the first, but basically similar in spirit. I hope, then, that "Horchata" is more an aberration than an indicator of what we can expect from Contra. With this single, it sounds like they've removed the most appealing elements of their sound - Ezra Koenig's guitar, Chris Tomson's indie/faux/cod-ethnic drumming, a certain youthful (coltish?) energy - while retaining their most questionable - gimmicky overreliance on exotic-sounding words, busy string arrangements that don't quite fit the songs.

The relatively minimal synth-and-marimba-dominated backing track focuses attention on the vocals for much of the song, but there's not a strong enough melody or lyric to carry the weight. With a different arrangement, either incorporating guitar and drums or, if a new direction was the idea, a more thorough exploitation of electronic sounds and rhythms (which, to be fair, could have gone horribly wrong), the song might've been a modest success. As it is, "Horchata" seems like a modest experiment that came out a bit flat.

[Update: I realize now, after coming back to finish up this piece, that I've had the damn song stuck in my head for much of the week. Does that mean I was wrong about it not having a strong melody?]

[Update #2- 10/27/09: It's still growing on me. I've found that listening it to it louder helps. I still like VW a lot better with guitar, though, and I'm still not crazy about the lyrics - "pincher crabs that pinch at your sandals"?]

Bonus Link

Quite possibly the most level-headed and intelligent piece yet written about this much-written-about band.

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