Eugene Weekly : Music : 8.26.10

Willamette Valley Kwassa Kwassa

Just look at Vampire Weekend. They’re totally adorable. With polo shirts, deck shoes and clean-cut hairdos, the New York four-piece sports a sort of Cape Cod chic, and each and every one of them looks like a boy you could bring home to mom. 

Yet Vampire Weekend is a divisive band, with critics and music fans tending to either love them or hate them. “Any band that’s successful will be polarizing,” says Vampire Weekend bassist Chris Baio. 

You might wonder why anyone would find controversy in such an unthreatening looking bunch of well-scrubbed college boys. The answer to this lies with Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley. 

Vampire Weekend formed in 2006 when its members met at Columbia University in New York. They quickly found exposure online via blogs such as Stereogum and landed a track on Rolling Stone’s year-end best of list in 2007, all before even releasing an album.

Baio says of the band’s early days that it’s “very exciting you can put your music online. The downside is there’s way more music online, and people get overwhelmed.” 

After finally releasing their self-titled debut on XL Records in 2008, the band quickly found chart success in both the U.K. and America on the strength of catchy indie- pop singles like “A-punk,” “Oxford Comma” and “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa.” 

“We like being on an indie label. We know everyone,” Baio says of XL Records. “Without them we’d never have had the resources to tour Europe.” 

“Kwassa Kwassa” references a form of Congolese soukous music, showing the group’s heavy Afro-pop influence. “We all cling to Afro-pop and other kinds of African music in our own way. With the Internet it’s easier than ever to hear music from around the world,” Baio says, recalling his time in college radio where he was first exposed to international sounds.

The band describes themselves as “Upper West Side Soweto.” This is where Elvis and Chuck Berry come in. The idea of Ivy League prepsters inflecting their indie-pop music with the sounds of Africa rubs many critics the wrong way — similarly to the criticism Elvis received for making palatable to white America the music that Chuck Berry and other black musicians had been playing for years.

The New York Times says mixing an East Coast blue blood aesthetic with Afro-beat experimentation “smacked of cultural tourism” and Ryan Schrieber of Pitchfork says the band’s image is of  “globe-trotting sons of distinguished men, clumsily exploring distant cultures despite only being passively, naively invested.”

These statements are levied as criticisms of the band, whose 2010 release Contra debuted at number one on the Billboard charts. But perhaps these writers are missing the point. Vampire Weekend never claims to be playing an authentic form of Afro-pop music, and the juxtaposition of songs about rich girls, vacations and affluence next to a populist sound of another culture is precisely what makes them interesting, because it challenges our notions of money, race and class.

White boys ripping off black music is nothing new — Eminem did it to Dr. Dre, Elvis did it to Chuck Berry and the Rolling Stones did it to Muddy Waters. But the difference is, if Mick Jagger rhymed horchata with balaclava as Vampire Weekend does, Keith Richards would punch him in the mouth. Vampire Weekend and Beach House perform at 8 pm Wednesday, Sept. 1, at McDonald Theatre. $35 adv. , $40 door — William Kennedy

Hipster Hip-Pop

Emily Wells’ hip hop-inspired take on classical (or “orchestral,” if you prefer) pop is unusual, but not completely without precedent. Wells shares an aesthetic with artists like Black Violin, a violinist, a violist and a DJ who perform hip hop songs, and Talkdemonic, an instrumental cello/viola/etc. duo from Portland. What makes Wells’ music pop are the vocals, which come off like a more tempered take on the haunting, powerful female voices featured on the Decemberists’ Hazards of Love. The relationship of her compositions to hip hop seems tenuous, but her live line-up consists of a drummer, Sam Halterman, and bassist, Joey Reina — the backbone of a good beat — and the sum of her compositions is primarily samples, synths, various stringed instruments and even toys, most of which Wells plays herself and combines live with the assistance of a looping pedal. Wells caught some e-flak for covering the Notorious B.I.G.’s “Juicy,” but the homage is a unique, reverent take on a classic track — in short, it does just what a cover should. Wells’ latest release, an EP called Dirty, progresses a little further in the “pop” direction, but what is a good pop song if not a good beat coupled with engaging vocals? Check out Emily Wells when she’s at this stage in her career, because she won’t be there for long. Emily Wells and Phoebe Plum perform at 9 pm Thursday, Aug. 26, at Sam Bond’s Garage. 21+. $8. — Sara Brickner

Fascinating Wankers

Retro minus irony plus talent minus humor is the aesthetic formula for good bar bands since the dawn of popular music.

Conversely, as Paul Westerberg once said, you have no business covering a song unless your cover is both hilarious and better than the original.

As with hockey and crossword puzzles, so with certain styles of music: Fun as hell to play, not so much as spectator sports.

Most instrumental music — excepting superlative offerings such as Beethoven’s Eroica or Miles Davis’ Sketches of Spain — is better when you have something else to focus on, like dancing, drugs or sex.

Only in rare cases should the bass drive, rather than serve, the song. And too many horns create a traffic jam.

Of course, I’m willing to admit that beauty is in the ear of the beholder. Anyone got a Q-tip?

The thing is, I totally don’t get the Budos Band, and for that reason I find them both fascinating and utterly mystifying, like trichotillomania. The band, which ranges in member size from 10 to a baker’s dozen, is comprised of intensely talented musicians, much in the same way Steely Dan is comprised of intensely talented musicians, though, unlike Steely Dan, the Budos are classic wankers, given to long, meandering jams punctuated by sharp breaks, woodwind honks and reiterated bass lines.

Their new album, The Budos Band III, features a rearing king cobra as its cover art and a list of songs that includes “Rite of the Ancients” and “Nature’s Wrath” and “Mark of the Unnamed.”  Reading these titles, I half-expected an eight-sided die to fall out when I opened the package up. I mean, a name like “Black Venom” makes Chuck Mangione’s “Feel So Good” seem like an exercise in modesty.

Seriously, I can’t tell if these guys are joking. Their music sounds like an earnestly orchestrated collision of Earth, Wind & Fire, the theme to Rocky and side four of the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack — all of which I loved as a kid, and much of which I still do. And yet, despite such rich fodder for the smirk of irony, I detect from the band nary a hint of humorous detachment or grinning put-on. The Budos claim to have earned the title “the quintessence of Staten Island soul.” This kind of bluster usually gets me laughing milk out my nose, but instead I’m just confused.

I think I’ll have to see them live.

The Budos Band plays with Basin & Range at 9 pm Thursday, Sept. 2, at WOW Hall. $15 adv., $18 door. — Rick Levin

Crossing Borders

From Bollywood to bhangra, the pop music of India and Pakistan is all the rage these days in the West, but as with Western classical music, the new pop sounds tend to eclipse the classic repertoire in popular consciousness. That wasn’t the case a couple of generations back when Ravi Shankar, Ali Akbar Khan and other classically trained Indian musicians brought their spellbinding ancient musical tradition to the West. Following Shankar’s example, though, many of today’s Indian classical musicians are crossing those categories, including Pandit Vikash Maharaj. Hailing from the ancient Hindustani arts capital Varanasi, the 15th generation (!) master musician plays one of the most beautiful instruments on earth — the big,  plucked 18-string lute called the sarod that’s more associated with Islamic musicians from Calcutta rather than the old Hindu holy city on the Ganges River formerly known as Benares. In a three decade career that includes stints at the WOMAD festival, Maharaj has not only performed many of the classics; he’s also composed new music and worked with Western musicians like Paul Horn and jazzers such as Portland’s David Friesen and John Handy. He’s continuing his family’s musical tradition by bringing a member of the 16th generation, his son Prabhash Maharaj, to accompany him on the two headed tabla drum. When bhangra and Bollywood have faded, the ancient lineage will continue.

Portland actress/musician Nancy Hopps, who many will remember for her striking performances with the old Eugene Chamber Theater and others, will also appear, singing and playing 17 crystal bowls. Pandit Vikash Maharaj  Prabhash Maharaj and Nancy Hopps perform at 7 pm Thursday, Aug. 26, at Unity of the Valley church . $16 adv. , $19 door — Brett Campbell




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