Monday, January 25, 2010

A few weeks ago on Twitter, I wrote, "All this talk about VW made me put on this actual No. 1 Western-appropriation-of-African-guitar." (It wasn't actually hyperlinked, obv.) Well, I stand corrected! I like Vampire Weekend, both albums, though "Cousins" makes me think that they should be the latest victim of the age-old buzz-band rumor that they started off playing third-wave ska. (It's like my generation's Rod Stewart semen stomach-pump.) In the Seattle house I lived in before moving to Brooklyn I worked under a smallish store poster of the first album's cover; it was there, and free, and I liked the graphic. I had it on my wall for six months before I ever cracked the shrinkwrap on my copy of the debut. Then I put it on and liked it! Any reservations I might have had (and that the tracks I'd listened to in isolation might have given me) pretty much ended there. New one might be better or at least more expansive, which I can sometimes take to mean the former, but I haven't had a chance to go back yet.

I wasn't kidding about Londonbeat, either. It struck me immediately as a soukous guitar riff, something time has only strengthened. It's basically because the song came out after I'd gotten into Loketo's Extra Ball, a Christgau A, that I noticed the similarity, but once you hear it you won't escape it. The fact that Extra Ball is, per its pinball-inspired title, so fucking fast doesn't hurt either. (I remember putting the title track on a techno mix-tape because I figured it was fast enough to fit in. Obviously, it didn't.) It's also one of the places where "speed soukous" was codified--the sebene, the fast part, the vamp, took over from the rest of the slower, verse-and-chorus song. It's not that different than what hip-hop did with the breakbeat and samples, rejecting everything it didn't like and homing in on what it did and repeating it for that instant high. Indeed, it was occurring around the same period.

I think part of what imprinted the Londonbeat riff as Congolese-Parisian has to do with Extra Ball being essentially where "soukous" became separate from "African music" to my ears. I knew there were different styles, but since all I really knew of the stuff was what I was buying on Christgau's recommendation, but it takes a while to sort out the exact properties that make genres tick. It's one reason I loved buying all those tatty techno comps in high school--pulling apart the good stuff and figuring out where it was coming from, and what it was doing. I'm harder than I should be on people that think Vampire Weekend sounds like Graceland: your ear will pick up on whatever commonalities it hears, just like when my mom is reminded of Bob Dylan by the Plain White T's. And no, that is not what Vampire Weekend reminds me of in relation to African music, either, thank you for asking.

But Londonbeat--that song is still amazing, still utterly present, and that riff is so damn Congolese. I'm certain I've never seen anyone else write about it. I don't think that makes it anything other than a blip, mind you--besides it being a great record, it's not a record of any particular historical import. It operated within a historical continuum it did very little to alter: great Euro-dance-pop songs existed before "I've Been Thinking About You," existed after it, without being touched by it, except where it counted, on the charts: No. 1 in America April 13, 2001. The guitar (and the breathy male vocal harmonies) are what distinguish it most from its dancier SBK-esque brethren, but they're more than enough. I wonder what happened to them.