Saturday, January 30, 2010

Vampire Weekend

"In December, drinking horchatas," sings Ezra Koenig on the opener of Vampire Weekend's new album, Contra. The light, syncopated melody fizzles out any lingering remnants of the day's past playlists, and you're hooked. The marimba, of all things, takes center stage, and then the brash drum line, accompanied by the epic "Whoa, oh oh, oh oh, oh oh," chorus belter. "Horchata" harkens back to a similarly early-in-the-year game changer Merriweather Post Pavillion and its lead track "In The Flowers." Both songs set the stage for the rest of their bands' respective albums, and like MPP did in 2009, Contra has already set the bar high for the rest of the year's releases.

Vampire Weekend, once merely fledgling indie starlets, have in the space of one album progressed to full-grown indie rock standard-bearers. Their self-titled debut, while snappy and unique, lacked subtlety, drive, and dynamics. It offered a rough sketch of what was to come later: an inventive lead singer, unique melodies, and energy, energy, energy.

Stylistically, Contra is a growth, not a shift, in the band's philosophy. Among the few subtle changes, Koenig's voice seems more intense, and his timbre is a bit deeper when it needs to be. The use of guitar is not as jarring as before, and the instrument takes on a supporting role to the keyboards, synths, strings, etc. Unfortunately, the group's drive for something new sometimes escalates into overboard expressionism; occasional melodic subtlety is often lost under broad strokes of careless layering in an attempt at depth.

While the band still owns the evolution of its unique sound, it's clear that some outside influences have played parts in their development. "California English" resembles a ramped-up version of Dirty Projectors' "Temecula Sunrise." (Koenig's high, sometimes-yelping voice already compares to DP's Longstreth.) Ezra may also have taken some inspiration from The Very Best after being featured on "Warm Heart of Africa," giving "Horchata" its contrasting electro/rustic beat with marimba overlay.

Contra ends with a slow and tender, surreal epic: "I Think You're A Contra." The song is a rare simplicity in an album of dense arrangements and even denser lyrics. But despite its apparent restraint, "Contra" has a grandness--a sizeable mass that is sometimes lacking in VW's songs. This might be the most literal aspect of the group's development: that they have risen from trite to tangible, from a style that's present to a style that's omnipresent.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Chiddy Bang - The Swelly Express

There's something about the idea of a hip-hop concept album that immediately appeals to me. And if it's a debut, packed with tasteful samples and creative flows, then all the better. The Swelly Express is the tale of a group of striving college-ages and their experience breaking into the music scene.

Musically, these kids couldn't be more ready to break out. I can't think of anyone else who could go from sampling this to Sufjan Stevens to Joe Strummer to MGMT all on the same album, twisting and molding their featured songs into completely new melodies. Refreshingly, there's no underlying booty thumping, dancehall drive present, and no beyond-sick spits or turntable radicalism either. Chiddy's front man Chidera Anamege seems to deliberately circumvent the typical rapper tropes, leaving out the trite verses about cars, money, ho's, and the ubiquitous hard-knock past. It's a sign of our times that rappers are writing about working hard and not hard times.

It's hard to talk about a major rap album without mentioning collaborations, and while Chiddy Bang don't have options like Timberlake (guests on every track, producers playing musical chairs), the collabs they got stand out. Fellow east-coasters like Passion Pit and The Roots' Black Thought add some appreciated sparkle--the Pit track is one of the album's highlights. It speaks to Chiddy's talent that their song-making unit is so self-contained.

I could write an entire post just quoting Anamege's best rhymes--rest assured, Express is full of genuine chops. With a group so young it's hard to tell where they'll go next, but they'll definitely go far. Even in today's brimming musical landscape, it's plain unhealthy for labels to skip over talent like this. But for now, it's not too late to get on board The Swelly Express.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Le Days

Having a music blog allows me to share with others the bands I've been listening to. This benefits all parties, bringing more awareness for the artist, more readership for me, and more content for the reader. Occasionally this works in reverse, as people tell me about new artists and I can use my platform to spread the word. This was the case with Daniel Hedin and his project Le Days.

Let me get this out of the way right off: Le Days is about as indie as it gets. Don't listen expecting major label-perfect recording quality and polish. But in the case of Hedin's music, it's hard to imagine what he would sound like in the context of a fleshed-out studio band. Whereas many indie musicians falter when they try to reproduce the pop standard, Hedin sings with a deliberate lack of spit-shine.

It's incredibly easy to make crappy recordings and call it an aesthetic choice (lo-fi might as well be called "the Myspace genre"), but what separates good lo-fi from standard internet drivel is the level of authenticity behind it. The best recordings use the available equipment to reveal talent, not hide it. And even he's still just working on his debut album, it's clear that Le Days has some real talent to work with.

Like so many indie bands, Hedin's style is difficult to pin down, but that's not a bad thing. Vocally, there's a definite resemblance to the higher-pitched folk orientation, e.g. Ryan Adams or Justin Vernon. Lack of quality singing is a huge dealbreaker for me (and should be for you, too), but unlike many Myspace artists I've listened to over the years I had no problem with Hedin's voice. For the most part he's emotional, subtle, and piercing. Instrument-wise, Hedin has a taste for dry, sparse acoustic arrangements, which gives his music a nervous, sometimes spooky quality, totally fitting with his lyrics. Standouts like "Blood Red Heart" and "Paperclips" are personal and creative enough to define his own unique style.

Although the ten songs on Le Days' Myspace aren't typical radio-ready fare, they're worth listening to if you want to get into indie's more obscure, exotic side. Hedin's project is currently in the mixing stage, but the songs on his profile are probably close to what the final cut will be like. You can also check out his videos on YouTube if you want a closer look.

If you would like me to write something about your band or album, email me at Thanks!