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Vampire Weekend mixes country and Capetown

At first listen, the boys in Vampire Weekend — four pasty Columbia U. sharps who dub their brainy brand of art-pop "Upper West Side Soweto" — come off like rich-boy villains in a John Hughes movie. They indulge in the well-read lyricism of privilege; they date soapy-smelling heiresses schooled at Middlebury. On their 2008 self-titled debut, spastic winky songs were given such upturned titles as Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa and Oxford Comma — references to Congolese soukous rhythms and archaic punctuation seemingly installed to turn off the masses. Appropriately enough, Vampire Weekend — which last week released its sophomore album, Contra — is adored and despised in equal volume. But for all their passport poetry and spritely handling of world politics, these Weekenders are actually warm and fuzzy populists with an L.L. Bean backpack full of heart-filled hooks. Don't believe me? Here's a quickie primer to help you enjoy their multiculti party.

Paul Simon From lead singer Ezra Koenig's nerdly twee vocal to guitarist Rostam Batmanglij's Afro-popping guitar plucks, Vampire Weekend offers consistent nods to Simon's 1986's Graceland, a mbaqanga-inspired masterpiece. However, on Contra, which was recorded partly in Mexico City, and especially on first single Cousins, there's also a nod to the Latin American rhythms found on Simon's 1990 followup, The Rhythm of the Saints. Also, the song Diplomat's Son (which samples M.I.A.'s Hussel) sounds so much like Simon, it should be called The Only Other Living Boy in New York.

Scrabble "In December, drinking Horchata / I'd looked psychotic in a balaclava." That's how the ecstatic Horchata begins, Koenig presumably playing the part of a spoilsport sick of Aspen, dreaming of the Vineyard. After that curious opening, the song erupts in a world music huzzah of frenetic percussion and ascending heart. "Here comes the feeling you thought you'd forgotten!" You'll enjoy this song a lot more if you know horchata is cold Mexican rice drink with almonds and cinnamons (and preferred by the lactose-intolerant). A balaclava is essentially a ski mask. See? It's all starting to make sense!

Welcome to Sunny Florida! If the band's 2008 debut was all about summering with the pretty people, Contra (which is Spanish for "against") is the "polar" opposite, a shifting protagonist stuck in the ice. The bouncy ska-pop of Holiday sounds like a Northerner hoping to get south, literally and figuratively. The reserved joy of Giving Up the Gun ("Your Tokugawa smile /And your garbage style / Used to save the night") urges a soul to "shine in your own way."

The Clash Vampire Weekend is all about wordplay and sly references. Contra (as in the right-wing Nicaraguan militia) is a nod to the Clash's 1980 album Sandinista! (as in the socialist Nicaraguan political party). Diplomat's Son is reportedly a wink to fallen Clash hero Joe Strummer; slow, somber album-closer I Think Ur a Contra references 1977 Clash single Complete Control. And lest you think Vampire Weekend is missing backbone, drummer Christopher Tomson time-keeps with all the skittery complexity of the Clash's Nicky "Topper" Headon. Check out the lover's escape of Run for the tricky Straight to Hell beatdown.

The 'Idol' Playlist

For the first time in a long time, I'm officially off the clock when it comes to covering American Idol on a minute-by-minute basis. So what did I do with my Tuesday and Wednesday nights last week? How did I enjoy my newfound freedom, like Morgan Freeman sprung from Shawshank? I watched every minute-by-minute of American Idol. (Sigh . . .) I can't quit you, Randy Jackson! Viewing as a mere civilian, I blubbered at the usual Portuguese grandma stuff; I chortled at the "Pants on the Ground" shenanigans. That said, the show felt a tad stale, a bit overscripted, didn't it? Like maybe we've sat through one-too-many mock-Mariah caterwaulings? Like maybe Simon Cowell is smart in bailing after this season? And who knew we'd miss Paula Abdul and her vaguely extraterrestrial cleavage so much? Maybe I'll just take my Amanda Overmyer cut-out head and move on . . . but not until after next week's auditions. And, uh, the week after that. After all, you just know there's a hirsute fat guy in a bikini waiting to bear-hug our hearts. To celebrate the return of Kara DioGuardi's suspect orthodontics, here's a list of the 10 Top Idol Talents of All-Time (look, moms — no David Archuleta!):

1 Since U Been Gone,

Kelly Clarkson

2 Before He Cheats,

Carrie Underwood

3 And I Am Telling You

I'm Not Going,

Jennifer Hudson

4 Baby Makin' Hips,

Fantasia

5 Light On,

David Cook

6What I Want,

Chris Daughtry (w/Slash)

7 Soaked,

Adam Lambert

8 Best Days of Your Life,

Kellie Pickler (w/Taylor Swift)

9 D Is for Dangerous,

Allison Iraheta

10 Light My Fire,

Amanda Overmyer

ALBUM REVIEW

Jeff Bridges,

T Bone Burnett

Album: Crazy Heart: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack (New West)

In stores: Now

Whiskey Bent and Hell Bound: As we get closer to the Oscars on March 7, you'll be hearing a lot about a little movie called Crazy Heart, starring Jeff Bridges as a down-and-out country singer. The movie doesn't open until Feb. 5, but the soundtrack is out and it's a stunner. Bridges has said that he didn't agree to do the picture until mystic producer T Bone Burnett signed on to make it sound authentic. Smart choice. Burnett, who produced Robert Plant and Alison Krauss' Raising Sand, has a magic touch weaving leather and lace. Bridges is convincingly dusty, and there are sublime lyrical turns throughout, especially on Fallin' & Flyin': "Funny how fallin' feels like flyin' / For a little while." Ryan Bingham, Buck Owens, Waylon Jennings and Irish actor Colin Farrell (as a country star) add craggly panache.

Reminds us of: Times film critic Steve Persall has seen Crazy Heart — twice as a matter of fact. His take? "The movie is like a good country song, familiar but effective because of the way Bridges slips into the haggard (Merle, of course) role of Bad Blake, like a pair of well-worn boots. If there's any justice, this criminally underrated actor will finally get his due on Oscar night. Colin Farrell is pretty good at country crooning, too; like many actors from across the pond, a Southern twang suits him fine."

Download these: Bridges' Fallin' & Flyin', Bingham's

I Don't Know

Grade: A

Vampire Weekend mixes country and Capetown 01/16/10 [Last modified: Friday, January 15, 2010 6:41pm]
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