As news reaches us that keyboardist and producer Rostam Batmanglij from Vampire Weekend is (kind of) leaving the band but (kind of) still collaborating with singer Ezra Koenig on future VW songs – a bit like when an estranged couple decide to live in adjoining houses ‘for the kids’, we suppose – it’s surely time to look back at the best bits of Vampire Weekend: Phase One…
The 21st Century’s ultimate indie pop party starter, the primo single from 2008’s ‘Vampire Weekend’ caused pandemonium on its release by making the listener instinctively pogo, ska skank and jitterbug simultaneously, making most indie dancefloors look like an epileptics’ coach trip to see Skrillex.
2. Oxford Comma
Okay, so perhaps inessential punctuation hasn’t been the richest seam of inspiration for alt-rock, but VW made an honourable start with ‘Oxford Comma’, their gently groovy ode to grammar and diction that gradually became more surreal and exciting as it went along. As the pace quickened, Ezra Koenig swerved off-topic to take in visiting mountaintop spiritual leaders and calling out those who bother to conceal the true volume of fossil fuel they’ve cunningly amassed, concluding “why would you lie about something dumb like that?”. Quite. Weirdly wonderful, we still avidly await its expected follow-up ‘Grocer’s Apostrophe’.
3. Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa
“You’re going to the same sources that I went to,” Paul Simon told Vampire Weekend backstage at Saturday Night Live in 2008. “You’re drawing from the same well.” Never more so than on ‘Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa’, a faithful homage to the Afrobeat roots of Simon’s ‘Graceland’ album. Rather than indulging in the same sort of cultural tourism, though, VW embedded brisk African upswings deep into their modernist college pop and added a post-modern edge by randomly name-dropping Peter Gabriel as a knowing nod to their Afro-centric forebears. Sting must’ve been pissing blood.
As hard as we’ve tried, we’ve failed to find any reading of this freewheeling peak of VW’s debut album that might relate in any way to Arsenal’s cheeky winger Theo. There’s no record of him ever being desperate to be transferred out of Cape Cod, having a taste for lobster’s claw or even having sneaky carnal relations with the forest creatures of Provincetown. So we can only assume the song is an earnest entreaty for some kid of the same name to leave his provincial backwater for a better life, preferably with the euphoric urgency of the song’s piano, which sounds like someone’s riding it alongside a speeding locomotive trying to leap onboard.
Having done Oxford commas and mansard roofs, VW continued their songs-about-random-shit theme on second album ‘Contra’ with a ditty named after a milky Mexican rice drink. Obviously. A song about the shift from New York’s harsh winter to forgiving spring, ‘Horchata’ warmed the chest like the smoothest tequila, growing to a chorus of electro-flecked tribal celebration that sounded like Depeche Mode going on Singing In The Rainforest.
Like sophomores finally venturing into the wide, scary world off campus, ‘Contra’ had an overtly political slant, even when hopping in the convertible to hit the beach barbeque on ‘Holiday’. “She’d never seen the word ‘BOMBS’ blown up to 96 point Futura,” Koenig sang on a middle-eight imagining a vegetarian valley girl facing a real-life invasion, a comment on America making hay while the world went wild.
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7. Giving Up The Gun
Meanwhile, on the other side of the world and several centuries removed, the intricate global pop of ‘Giving Up The Gun’ found hope for US gun culture in the fact that the Japanese, having been introduced to firearms in the 13th Century, gradually phased out their use between the 16th and 19th Centuries in favour of traditional swords. The equivalent, if you like, of ditching downloads for vinyl or Tinder for ritual nightclub-based humiliation or plain, old-fashioned stalking.
8. Diane Young
With Alex Turner rocking the kiss-curl quiff and people taking ‘The Strypes’ seriously, VW revved up their inner Wild Ones and jumped on the 50s revival bandwagon for a track on their third album ‘Modern Vampires Of The City’. A pun on the fine art, perfected by James Dean, of living fast, dying young and leaving your good-looking but somewhat mangled corpse wrapped around a tree, the track concerned a wild child with a deathwish, torching cars, fleeing government agents and eventually “tottering off into that good night”. It’s saxophones sounded like failing brakes, its guitar riffs like squealing rubber and Koenig’s tone-warping vocals like voices welcoming you to limbo. Glorious destruction.
9. Don’t Lie
‘Modern Vampires…’ was a deeply experimental pop album, often sounding like the band were making hymnals with whatever detritus they came across on the way to the studio that day. ‘Don’t Lie’ is its finest example, a stunning ballroom ballad built from what might well be dustbin drums, a knackered harpsichord, toybox melodies and an orchestra of tramps. Rough magic.
10. Ya Hey
“Don’t mention the gnomes,” they said, but how can you not? ‘Ya Hey’ was the blasphemous puppet show highlight of ‘Modern Vampires…’, a parade of heathens marching on the gates of religious hypocrisy, holding aloft tiny helium goblins melodically mocking the ancient Hebrew name for God. A conversation with the Almighty in which Ezra sits the big guy down to break it to Him that nobody loves Him anymore, it might well be Richard Dawkins’ favourite Vampire Weekend song, and is definitely mine.