August 2008


Back to college

By Robert Forster
Back to college
The Hampdens & Vampire Weekend

Who knew the different ways to sing "Louis Vuitton", and that the French designer's name would appear twice in songs from young bands in the first half of the year? Susannah Legge, from The Hampdens, drawls and drags her Louis Vuitton, as she does many of the lyrics on her band's debut album, The Last Party. Ezra Koenig, from Vampire Weekend, has a Louis Vuitton that is more playful, incorporating an upward French lilt that reflects the fresh and confident tone he strikes all through his band's self-titled debut. Vampire Weekend go even further: they sing, "Can you stay up / To see the dawn / In the colours / Of Benetton?" The Hampdens tell us, "French Vogue knows spiders cling to models' faces"; but then, this comes from a song called ‘Generation Y', and an easy way with labels and signs - their superficiality and benign incorporation into our lives - is perhaps one of the distinguishing features of smart bands of this generation.

The Hampdens - who formed in 2002 and are named after Hampden College, the centre of action in Donna Tartt's cult novel The Secret History (1992) - hail mainly from Perth and are based in Melbourne. Three EPs have preceded their album, while the band has been distilled to three chief members who also do the songwriting: Legge, on vocals, and two instrumentalists, Julian Hewitt and Gavin Crawcour. The album has been produced by the New York-based Victor Van Vugt, a genial and talented Dutchman who got his start doing live sound for Melbourne bands in the early '80s. His impressive resume as producer-engineer and mixer includes Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds' The Good Son, Beth Orton's Trailer Park and Sarah Blasko's What the Sea Wants, the Sea Will Have. Van Vugt is not a surprising choice for a young band, given his sure hands in the studio and his ability to calm artists' nerves while satisfying record-company expectations. And his New York experience enables him to bring an adventurous, contemporary sheen to an album, which is attractive to Australian artists searching for something more than the meat-and-potatoes live approach of much local recording.

The record's sound is good. There's silky bass, programmed drums, and live drums that sound like programmed drums; synths either squelch and squeak in late-'90s fashion or are banked and layered in '80s mode, and there's tinkling piano and guitar. It's a lush, compact, Europop-influenced production. The early '80s also figure in the record's approach, as it was an era when pop-obsessed young things leapt from the underground, marrying a knowing wit to the brash new tools of top-40 sound. Bands like Culture Club and The Human League made glassy, hook-laden music that nodded to lyrical sophistication and adventure, while packaging themselves - both in image and on record - for the mainstream. The Hampdens are less subversive, but they are unabashedly a pop group and they have set out to make a pop record.

The first stumble on The Last Party is its length. Debut albums have to strive for impact, and having 14 songs all around the four-minute mark blunts first impressions. The fact that almost every one is mid-tempo is a further impediment, and means that the climb of the record is steady but arduous. No two- or three-minute songs enter midway through to offer respite and kick the album along. Another hurdle is the lack of melodic and structural invention: the songs revolve around familiar chord sequences and tumble into familiar choruses. The further the band moves from the strict pop formula that makes the first four numbers almost interchangeable, the more enjoyable and interesting it becomes. ‘Forget to Begin' benefits from trying less, aided by a chorus that doesn't leap for uplift. ‘Far Away' is almost folky, and has tension and a languid beauty that mirrors Legge's delivery and intimate lyric. ‘Miami' has drama and an appealing chopped-verse melody that sets it apart from the narcotic drift of much of the album's songwriting.

The world Legge presents - partly with an eye on hitting the zeitgeist with song titles like ‘Generation Y' - is jaded, partied out and numb, with refuge found in dreams and sleep and the search for love. But 13 songs of it (there is one cover on the album) makes for heavy going. Just as the album has little musical variety, the lyrics are too locked into one mode. Sometimes, the youthful burnout and suffocation is articulated well, as in, "At home I keep a bar / It means I never have to travel far / To be near the nearest thing / That's worth the pain it brings." Other times, it goes round in circles and is oppressive. There are five references to "signs" in the songs, and lots of "I don't know" and "You don't know." Something is trying to be communicated, but it clashes with the exhaustion - "I'm young / But I don't belong" - that the singer is trying to convey. Far better is when the small picture replaces the big, as in ‘Far Away', where a domestic scene of cool jealousy is beautifully drawn. The track is helped by a lighter backing that suits Legge's vocal.

Exploring a generational mood is not something on Vampire Weekend's agenda, because that mood has already been internalised and will be expressed by the band on its own terms. They are four 23- and 24-year-olds who met at New York's Columbia University in 2006 and decided to start a group. Their early shows were primarily on campus, before a very quick career break-out through word of mouth and internet buzz. Vampire Weekend was released in February, and it joins Franz Ferdinand's self-titled album and Arcade Fire's Funeral as the most impressive rock debuts of the past five years. There are 11 songs on the record and it clocks in at 34 minutes. It is one of those albums that startles from the beginning, and doesn't let up on surprises or song quality.

The album's hook, and what has garnered so much attention, is the African influence in the music and the fact that uptown white preppy boys have not only attempted to incorporate this, but done it so well. It seems to have started a chain reaction, whereby each instrument and its place in the band's sound has been re-considered. Drums are sparse and percussive, and seldom swing into standard rock patterns, and when they do - on some killer choruses - the effect is strong. The guitar tone is jazzy and light, with running notes and chopped chords played high on the neck. Vocals are clear in the mix. The bass bubbles and is funky, and follows the drums to hammer home the straight sections of songs. And the keyboards - no serious rock piano, please - are playful organ tones. But it is the assembly of these elements that is most impressive: a very neat, exciting fit, with inclusion determined by necessity, fun value and maximum impact. Throw in one last ingredient - elaborate, thick strings in short blasts - and you have a band that has pulled off the trick of not only appearing from nowhere fast, but also sounding like no one else in 2008.

If, however, the confluence of clever New York songcraft and African rhythms does seem familiar, then yes, there are odd moments when the record does sound like Paul Simon's Graceland. Vampire Weekend, though, has not had the entire African makeover. This is, after all, a group of very talented New York college kids recording in their home city; they are less concerned with ethnicity (though well versed in postcolonial appropriation), than with how indie rock can be informed by the uplifting clarity and dynamics of African pop. The other traces on Vampire Weekend are post-punk pioneers of the late '70s and early '80s like The Feelies, Orange Juice, a touch of Adam Ant - and, of course, the group that every East Coast band of recent times can't get enough of, Talking Heads. That group had an African period of sorts, and David Byrne and Brian Eno made the heavily African-influenced My Life in the Bush of Ghosts. There are hints of this in Vampire Weekend, but what they've done is marry it to the sensibility of early Talking Heads. No eight-minute jams here, but nervy, catchy, two- to three-minute pop songs.

There's also the touch of Byrne in the lyrics: "You've been checking on my facts / And I admit I have been lax / In double screening what I say / It wasn't funny." The phrase "double screening" probably didn't exist in the late '70s, but the rest of it could be his. There's a lot of smartness on the record, telegraphed from the album's opening line: "I see a mansard roof through the trees." Yet none of it is painful or irritating, and the clipped lyrics fit the curves and stop-starts of the song's melodies. Also, hardly anyone does narrative lyric-writing in New York anymore. Byrne, Lou Reed, Sonic Youth and even Paul Simon killed it off long ago, and successive waves of songwriters - through new wave, no wave, post-punk and beyond - have used lyrics more to signal feelings and pull apart rock's language than to do anything so obvious as tell a story. Vampire Weekend's twist on it is to heighten the collegiate aspect of their lives (sweaters, professors, pinstriped men, pure Egyptian cotton, Cape Cod, and names like Bryn, Blake and Walcott) and play it off against the gritty downtown rock scene and the more exotic African flavour of their music.

Vampire Weekend is a classic first album, and what lies ahead to ponder is the follow-up. There is too much bursting from this record to imagine that the band can't make another album just as good. The wonderful surprise will be gone, and imitators will rush in, but they are young and the debut has a thousand strands to explore. The Hampdens have seemingly done the opposite, in that they have hidden as much as Vampire Weekend has shown. The obvious benefit is that they have, theoretically at least, far more to get out of a second album. And there is enough initial promise in The Last Party, and its attempt to make cool classic pop, to suggest that they can do much better next time.

Robert Forster

Robert Forster is a singer-songwriter and co-founder of The Go-Betweens. His collection of music criticism, The 10 Rules of Rock and Roll, was published in 2009.

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