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Norman Warwick enjoyed another Vampire Weekend

I enjoyed the first couple of albums by Vampire Weekend, after first being alerted to them by their pedantic recording of Oxford Comma, on their debut album (left). I heard it on the radio and thought what an interesting session it would make for the Touchstone Creative Writing Group I was facilitating  in the UK at the time.

The word comma comes from the Greek word koptein, which means “to cut off.” The Oxford comma has been attributed to Horace Hart, printer and controller of the Oxford University Press from 1893 to 1915, who wrote Hart’s Rules for Compositors and Readers in 1905 as a style guide for the employees working at the press.

As many of you may well know The Oxford (or serial) comma is the final comma in a list of things. For instance, in the sentence

Please bring me a pencil, eraser, and notebook.

the Oxford comma is the one right after eraser.

The use of the Oxford comma is a matter of style, meaning that some publishing styles stipulate its use while others don’t. In other words, it’s not incorrect to use the Oxford comma or not to use it, but it is advisable to be consistent one way or the other. AP style—based on The Associated Press Stylebook, the style guide that American news organizations generally adhere to—does not use the Oxford comma. Following Oxford Comma rules, the sentence “we met Frank, a DJ and a dentist” would mean it is only two items since the Oxford comma is omitted.

There is quite a fierce debate on line about the use and purpose of the so-called Oxford Comma though the phrase fits a happy and slightly mocking song out of an argument over what most  people would consider pointless discussion.

With the Internet able to build up or tear down artists almost as soon as they start practicing, the advance word and intense scrutiny doesn’t always do a band any favors. By the time they’ve got a full-length album ready to go, the trend-spotters are already several Hot New Bands past them. Vampire Weekend (right) started generating buzz in 2006 — not long after they formed — but their self-titled debut album didn’t arrive until early 2008. Vampire Weekend also has just a handful of songs that haven’t been floating around the ‘Net, which may disappoint the kind of people who like to post “First!” on message boards. This doesn’t make those songs any less charming, however — in fact, the band has spent the last year and a half making them even more charming, perfecting the culture collision of indie-, chamber-, and Afro-pop they call “Upper West Side Soweto” by making that unique hybrid of sounds feel completely effortless. So, Vampire Weekend ends up being a more or less official validation of the long-building buzz around the band, served up in packaging that uses the Futura typeface almost as stylishly as Wes Anderson. At times, the album sounds like someone trying to turn a Wes Anderson movie back into music (it’s no surprise that the band’s keyboardist also writes film scores); there’s a similarly precious yet adventurous feel here, as well as a kindred eye and ear for detail. Everything is concise, concentrated, distilled, vivid; Vampire Weekend’s world is extremely specific and meticulously crafted, and Vampire Weekend often feels like a concept album about preppy guys who grew up with classical music and recently got really into world music. Amazingly, instead of being alienating, the band’s quirks are utterly winning. Scholarly grammar (“Oxford Comma”) and architecture (“Mansard Roof”) are springboards for songs with impulsive melodies, tricky rhythms, and syncopated basslines. Strings and harpsichords brush up against African-inspired chants on “M79,” and lilting Afro-pop guitars and a skanking beat give way to Mellotrons on “A-Punk.” It’s a given that a band that’s this high concept has hyper-literate lyrics: the singer’s name is the very writerly Ezra Koenig, and you almost expect to see footnotes in the album’s liner notes. Once again, though, Vampire Weekend’s words are evocative instead of gimmicky. The irresistible “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa” rhymes “Louis Vuitton” with “reggaeton” and “Benneton” and name-drops Peter Gabriel (though it’s clear the band spent more time with Paul Simon‘s Graceland) without feeling contrived. “Campus” is another standout, with lines like “I see you walking across the campus…how am I supposed to pretend I never want to see you again?” throwing listeners into college life no matter what their age. Koenig has a boyish, hopeful quality to his voice that completes Vampire Weekend, especially on bittersweet but irrepressible songs like “I Stand Corrected” and album closer “The Kids Don’t Stand a Chance.” Fully realized debut albums like Vampire Weekend come along once in a great while, and these songs show that this band is smart, but not too smart for their own good.

All Music reviewer Heather Phares reminds us that Father Of The Bride showed Vampire Weekend’s willingness to challenge assumptions about their music was as important as their willingness to examine memories and history. They continue to do both brilliantly on Only God Was Above Us, albeit in radically different ways. Where Father‘s leisurely sprawl reflected the band’s adopted home of Los Angeles, God uses pre-9/11 New York City as a framework for ten urgent musings on how history happens. Its songs are packed with thoughts and allusions that go as deep as subways and are piled as high as skyscrapers; taking its name from a 1996 New York article, “Prep School Gangsters” combines school days memories and generational cycles of poverty and prosperity with surprising joy.

Though the band twines and unpacks cultural narratives more overtly than ever before, it never feels simplistic. Ezra Koenig‘s wordplay remains dazzling, resulting in pearls like “A staircase up to nothingness/Inside your DNA” on “Classical”‘s melancholy study of how history is written by the winners. When he pairs his deceptively simple rhymes and complex ideas with Father of the Bride‘s emotional openness on “Capricorn,” which extends compassion to the generations “sifting through the centuries for moments of your own,” it makes for some of Vampire Weekend’s most moving music. Their first album without any input from former member Rostam Batmanglij is also some of their most jaw-droppingly audacious music. Koenig and co-producer Ariel Rechtshaid push the levels deep into the red, giving a serrated edge to their lilting melodies that mirrors the album’s cultural clashes. On “Gen X Cops,” the needling guitar makes the refrain “Each generation makes its own apology” all the more poignant. “Connect” elegantly illustrates the dissonance between past and present with rippling pianos, bleeping synths, and sounds that race and grind to a halt (“Psychedelic Gershwin,” one of the band’s guiding phrases while making the album, certainly applies here).

Vampire Weekend also riffs on their own past cleverly with “Mary Boone,” an update on their choral ballads named for the influential gallery owner imprisoned for offenses connected to tax fraud, and “The Surfer,” which continues the legacy of Modern Vampires of the City‘s “Hudson” with its mournful allusions to famous waters (in this case, the Water Tunnel 3 project). The band balances all of this looking back with a significant step forward: making peace with the existential questions they raised on their previous albums. Nowhere is this move towards acceptance more apparent than on the closing track “Hope.” Steady where the rest of the album is volatile, its eight-minute litany would be crushing if it wasn’t for the liberation Koenig finds in admitting “Our enemy’s invincible/I had to let it go.” Similarly, the ease with which the band raises the bar is equally impressive and appealing. Only God Was Above Us isn’t just a great album in its own right — it’s one that enriches the understanding of Vampire Weekend’s entire history.


Ice Cream Piano



Prep-School Gangsters

The Surfer

Gen.X Cops

Mary Boone



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