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Indie 500: Radiohead, Vampire Weekend, & Saturday Looks Good to Me

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Indie 500: Radiohead, Vampire Weekend, & Saturday Looks Good to Me

Radiohead is my favorite band I almost never listen to. Like clove cigarettes and emo hoodies, some things just go better with teen angst. The Bends was a benchmark album for me, like a lot of kids my age; Radiohead is my generation’s The Smiths, except way more popular in the US and even more inscrutable. At the peak of my obsession, Hail To The Thief leaked months in advance in unmastered form; burned copies flooded my high school. I lay down on the ground during lunch, threw on my headphones, and kept them on for the next few months. When the mastered album came out, I actually went to Best Buy and repeated the process; I felt guilty about having all those free albums.

As a band, Radiohead are pretty impeccable, so good that even contrarians come around after a while: Sasha Frere-Jones went from derisively comparing them to Coldplay (“Add a whine here, subtract a major chord here, and nobody would know”) to “Reassessing Radiohead.” But Hail To The Thief was a letdown. It started and ended with two of their strongest tracks, and there wasn’t anything particularly wrong in the middle I could put my finger on. Still, at 56 minutes, with more than half of the tracks running over 4:00, they seemed to be sprawling out for no good reason. Stereotypically flighty, Radiohead had gone from style to style on each album, but their much-hyped “return to rock” seemed to take their songwriting logic to its extreme, regardless of instrumentation. Ever since Kid A, Radiohead’s structures are based on repetition and elaboration: listen to “How To Disappear Completely” and notice how virtually the entire song is underpinned by the same eight bass notes over and over. Strings and vocals swell out and amplify the song. Much of Hail lacked such developments; it was strong, but not strong enough. I stopped thinking about the band.

At a zippy 42 minutes, In Rainbows has a brevity and lightness that’s, until now, been consciously exiled from Radiohead’s work. Opener “15 Step” makes like Amnesiac rebooted, with tinny glitch programming and Thom Yorke’s swaying voice seeming to threaten to piss off the rockists again. But then the guitars and real drums kick in, and it sounds like nothing so much as Talk Talk after they alienated the mainstream: jazzy guitar, swaying rhythms, on-the-go and energized. Until now, Radiohead has seemed to know only the extremes of crushingly heavy and ponderous rockers (all of The Bends and most of OK Computer), enervated balladry (“Motion Picture Soundtrack,” most of Amnesiac), and the occasional excursion into frantic paranoia (“2+2=5,” “Electioneering”).

The ballads are lighter too. “Nude” is a gorgeous fan favorite that’s been kicking around for a while. It’s done here without trading energy for melancholy, as Radiohead frequently do: instead, a light intro of backwards-looped guitar notes swell into a silence puncutated only by a single bass note. The song eventually fills up, but it’s never as full and dense as it might have been if recorded in time for, say, OK Computer. The best song is also the shortest: at 2:10, “Faust Arp” is little more than guitars, strings and voice that gets the melody out and then shuts up.

I’m not sure if In Rainbows as a whole is the stuff of classic status: the back half seems to be loaded with grinding jams (“Reckoner,” “House of Cards”) that, per Thief, go nowhere in particular very intelligently. Somewhere along the way they’ve forgotten how to sequence albums. Kid A is so perfectly assembled that Chuck Klosterman could synopsize it as a 9/11 Nostradamus-type parable without seeming completely absurd; In Rainbows tells no such stories, entertaining or not: it’s a strong front half and a noodlier back one. But it got me to think about Radiohead as something besides a band which peaked my sophomore year of high school, and that’s something at least.

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How to write about the simply adorable Vampire Weekend? Columbia brats of the highest order, they’re quite possibly the best thing to happen to trust-fund rock since the Strokes. (For all I know they’re scholarship kids, but whatever.) What I have is the Blue CD-R, a demo-disk with nearly the same tracks (+2/-1) as their forthcoming January debut on XL. “Most of the songs have been tinkered with,” the band wrote in to confirm. There are parts that have been re-mixed and re-recorded.” But for a mere teaser, it’s certainly prominent enough that I feel like a major dumbass for not having heard it earlier; when a blogger like Good Weather for Airstrikes can boast of having seen VW “like ten times now,” it’s like there’s nothing left to say. They’re both officially unreleased and overexposed, depending on your demographic. (It’s almost like a replay of my high school Hail To The Thief conundrum; obsessive listening will happen in two segments again.)

Anyway, Vampire Weekend deserve pretty much all of their hype: they’re the best up-and-comers I’ve heard in the fey-but-muscular vein since Voxtrot, even if their tactics are different. Voxtrot fill up every possible corner with guitars, strings, brass, etc. VW have their band instruments and little else: spaces are filled up with pleasing keyboard simulations (a raft of fake clarinets on opener “Mansard Roof”) or, in particularly expansive moments, an actual cello (“Walcott”) that gangs up with a thudding house beat. There’s a lot of empty space, and no bass drum where you’d expect: if anything, they’re more prone to giving the snare drum some nasty raps. “Mansard Roof” opens tentatively, with Ezra Koenig’s voice floating out over Mellotron-ish sounds and four vicious snare hits: shortly thereafter, a frantic chug begins slowly increasing in tempo. “Oxford Comma” pulls the same slow tempo-increase trick.

None of this description helps; it gives the impression of a band interested in clever technicalities. What Vampire Weekend really are are a band who split the difference between their Afropop influence—noted in every single piece ever written about them—and the straight paradigm of stripped-down indie pop verse-chorus-verse songs. I hesitate to bring up the Afropop simply because it doesn’t seem necessary to have any outside context to enjoy these songs, or have queasy issues about appropriation/theft issues: Vampire Weekend sound like an innovative band with novel songwriting structures recording around a budget. A token nod to a “genre” which really means the entire musical product of a continent seems kind of unnecessary, and possibly condescending.

“Oxford Comma” and “A-Punk” are a pretty unbeatable combination: the latter a slow, deliberate meditation on an unnecessary punctuation mark, the former an excitable combination of Ramones back-up vocals, Clash guitars, and general neutered-punk awesomeness. Throughout the album/demo/whatever, VW make with clever but not showy lyrics and hooks a-plenty. Sometimes they may verge a bit too precious—depending on how you feel about liberal arts majors, a line like “Campus”’s “then I see you/you’re walkIng cross the campus/cruel professor/studyIng romances ” [UPDATED: some of the lyrics are hard to sound out, and VW sent in corrections which I’ve posted here] is either dead-on or insufferable. Only about half of this album is essential, but VW wisely front- and back-ends it, leaving relative (but perfectly pleasant) filler of a more generic sort in the middle; they get from relative diffidence to snarky anthemics (the big closer is the nicely titled “The Kids Don’t Stand A Chance”) in half-an-hour. If the hype is correct, VW is about to become the closest thing twee-pop offers to famous; they certainly deserve it.

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Fill Up the Room is a fine new album by the underrated Saturday Looks Good To Me that I have a little trouble getting 100% behind. Coming off 2004’s Every Night, the Fred Thomas-led band has abandoned its retro-pastiche approach in favor of something closer to the present day: if every track on Every Night seemed not just in a different songwriting style but to have been mic’d and engineered with perverse specificity to approximate a different pop sub-genre’s sound (’50s girl group, Belle & Sebastian rip-off, thin live recording, etc.), Fill Up the Room is all of one piece. One long piece. Formerly devoted to brevity, SLGTM have, paradoxically, started to sound more like their contemporaries; the less devoted they sound to their past influences, the less original they sound. Opener “Apple” goes for narcotized doo-wop; two tracks later, “When I Lose My Eyes” nearly hits seven minutes, inevitably making me think of the Decemberists. I know, I know: it’s a shallow comparison. Thinly recorded real instruments (that is, when Barnes isn’t indulging his thick-reverb fetish) are about the only trait they share in common, but I miss the band that pumped out compact homages without guilt. They wear the length without getting proggy, but what was great about their retro-fetishism was how good they were at approximating the sound: it was far more precise than most genre exercises, and the tension between the frequently antiquated-sounding melodies and sharp, contemporary lyrics was what made it work.

Far be it from me to complain about progress, though: Barnes has retained his wit (“posing his problems, pretending they’re poems,” he sketches out a whiny artist on “Come With Your Arms”) and gained an almost problem-solving approach to certain songs (closer “Whitey Hands” builds itself around an unusual marimba-sounding loop). A first half with lengthier songs ends up pandering to me in the second half: Betty Marie Barnes, flat-intonation vocalist extraodinaire, pops in on “Hands In The Snow” to announce that “By the time you read these words I will be gone,” which gets us back to the endearingly, self-consciously maudlin girl-group tone of “Since You Stole My Heart,” the song that got me hooked in the first place. Fill Up the Room is a perfectly fine album that, for once, makes me feel like one of those whiny fans who complain that the old stuff was better. Well, but it was.

Vadim Rizov is a New York-based freelance writer whose work has appeared in The Reeler, Nerve, and, oddly enough, Salt Lake City Weekly.