Five and four time.

January 6, 2009 at 11:06 am (Best of 2008)

5. Vampire Weekend, S/T

Every year some new band explodes onto the indie scene with huge fanfare and deafening buzz, and every year I approach with suspicion and trepidation and end up with a rather predictable hatred and aversion to whatever Cute Band Alert bozos are being cleverly marketed to the art school set. So it was this year that the anointed ones were Vampire Weekend. Like a gajillion others suckered in by the clever marketing ploy of “bootlegging” their own album 6 months before it saw official release, I snagged a copy of the “CD-R” version of this last year, gave it a spin and thought “that’s utter dreck.”

I’ve told the story elsewhere, so forgive the retelling, but one night in late March after hanging out at some friends I was walking back home and it was cool and the stars were twinkling and the moon was low and I had my portable Sirius going and whatever station I was on was playing this very cool, sort-of weird African thing with these weird keyboard fills and it turns out that the answer to my question of “Who the heck is this, this is good!” was Vampire Weekend.

That’s the challenge here, then. Forget the hype, forget the biases and prejudices “serious” music fans develop naturally for overnight successes like VW, and give this disc another listen with your mind open. You’ll hear Chris Thompson beating the living crap out of his snare (seriously, he sounds as if he’s pounding it to smithereens on “Mansard Roof”); you’ll hear Ezra Koenig’s lovely, multi-faceted voice trill all over “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa”. You’ll hear one of the year’s loveliest songs in “Bryn”.

You’ll also hear some of the most ingenious arrangements to appear on any record in recent memory. Anyone claiming that they were thinking of marrying sprightly strings and harpsichords to a reworking of Paul Simon’s Graceland period is either having you on or delusional. Yeah, there’s a nagging feeling that perhaps they ought to be sending Wes Anderson soundtrackist Mark Mothersbaugh some royalties, but mostly the sound is incredibly original, incredibly well-done, and adds one more element–pure joy. These guys knew they were on to something special when this disc was recorded, and you can hear the excitement and enthusiasm of the band fairly leaping right out of the speakers at you.

“Mansard Roof”

4. The Bellrays, Hot, Sweet, & Sticky

There had to be a time back last year when Bellrays leader Lisa Kekaula thought about just bagging the whole rock band thing. In addition to her band’s perennial tagging as “can’t miss” they remain anonymous and the ship of mainstream success has probably sailed…and then founding member and songwriter Tony Fate, called it quit bails on the group prior to the recording of their newest album. Kekaula doesn’t need the aggravation; she won a Grammy for contributing the lead vocals to the Basement Jaxx’ “Good Luck” a few years ago; that’s good work and she can get it.

She and The Bellrays are made of sterner stuff. Bob Vennum switched from bass to guitar, they recruited a new bassist, and went into the studio and scrapped all the rehearsed arrangements they’d done with Tony Fate and re-started Hot, Sweet, & Sticky pretty much from scratch.

And then they made the best album they’ve ever made.

Freed from Fate’s muscular (but occasionally monotonous) riffing, The Bellrays stay loud and aggressive on this disc…but everyone can do that. What the Bellrays do here that no one else does (and had only hinted at being able to do previously) is slow things down and let Kekaula embrace her ’70’s soul side. Other than the “isn’t that Aretha Franklin?” vocals, lots of bands can muster the slambang of a song like “Infection”, but the sultry soul sexuality of “Footprints On Water” or “Blue Against The Sky” shifts them to a higher gear that no one else has.

Fate’s departure has let Kekaula push the Bellrays into a direction that opens their sound into newer (the opener, “The Same Way” sounds like the best song the Black Crowes never wrote) territory and finds them finally realizing the promise they’ve hinted at for so long. Maybe too late to ever make The Bellrays stars, but whether they continue or not, they’ve finally made the landmark album they’ve always hinted they could.

“The Same Way”
“Psychotic Hate Man (Yep, they can still roar like the MC5 when they want to.)
“Footprints On Water”

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