Friday, May 17, 2013

Thinking Music

“You don’t have time to think up there. You think, you’re dead.”

Oh Maverick, your wisdom rings through the ages. Pete Mitchell might not have realized it as “Take My Breath Away” began to play in the background, but he was not only philosophizing about dogfighting, but also about music.

The new Vampire Weekend release, Modern Vampires Of The City, is a fascinating and at times hypnotic intellectual exploration of music. To be appreciated at its highest level, it must be heard through high-quality earphones or in a location with minimal sonic interruption, like a car or a small room with kickass speakers. There is so much sonic experimentation crammed into these 12 songs that it at times boggles the mind. “Diane Young,” the first video from the album, does its Girl Talk best to mash up as many experiments into a single hook-laden pop song as it can, but it doesn’t own the monopoly on ear-catching splendor.

Vampire Weekend is, and has been since their arrival on the national scene in 2007, impossible to ignore but difficult to love. Listening to them is like being permitted to sit in on a MENSA meeting, where every second is a reminder that no one in the room thinks you’re as smart as they are. And meanwhile I think to myself, “Maybe being as smart as you isn’t all that grand.”

Or, as Maverick might say, they think too damn much.

Radiohead gives me a similar vibe nowadays. They’re less fun than Iceman. Thom Yorke and Co. got bored making catchy anthems because, apparently, it wasn’t intellectually fulfilling enough. They now serve only to remind normal people that IQ and musical artistry have almost nothing to do with one another. As Radiohead got smarter and smarter, their music got shittier.

They remind me of when Gary Kasparov finally lost his match to Deep Blue. In that moment, the computer mastered the human. Pablo Honey and The Bends are Kasparov; OK Computer is that paradigm-shifting final battle; everything after that is the sound of the computer having won.

By contrast, I appreciate Vampire Weekend. Perhaps they’re too smart for their own good (and/or I’m too dumb for mine), but at least they’re still working on our planet, inside a musical framework most of us can sense and grasp. The three-song combo of “Finger Back,” “Worship You” and “Ya Hey” is the strongest daisy chain of songs that acknowledge the value of a hook without sacrificing their freakish approach to sonic detail.

In the meantime, Modern Vampires of the City leaves me ever more appreciative of Emotional Intelligence in music. The best musicians, in my opinion, are masters of EQ, not IQ. They can make your heart beat faster or rip it right out of your chest with a few chords and the turn of a single phrase. Lately, that seems to be why country and folk music are on heavier rotation for me, why women are more frequently the creative cornerstones.

Not to beat a dead stereotype, but the trio of Lori McKenna, Patty Griffin and Holly Williams have more EQ in a single song than either Radiohead or Vampire care to exhibit in an hour of music. Those two bands like it that way. It's intentional. They're each making a Statement. I'm fairly certain that Vampire Weekend's entire sound is centered around their namesake, as if they were making music for bloodthirsty undead immortals who, for a single weekend, yearned to be something closer to human. Because just making good music would be so... boring.

Although my heart rarely beats much faster when listening to Vampire Weekend, they certainly get my synapses firing, especially when my earphones are pushing their sonic somersaults straight into my skull. Maybe one day they’ll hit the breaks and let the others just fly by, in Top-Gun-ese, letting their instincts and gut drive a little more and throwing their cerebellum in the navigator’s seat for a few hops. I’d like them to prove that Vampires can have beating hearts after all, rather than just being smarter and better than the rest of us humans.

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