Monday, November 24, 2008


Imagine a band without lyrics
Imagine also that this band has only 2 members, both of whom play guitar, bass, and drums, and often all 3 in a single song
Imagine that this band pre-records samples and rocks out on stage with all three instruments, plus sampling

This is Ratatat, who put on quite possibly/probably/definitely the best concert that I have ever seen.

Set started at around 9 PM at the Nouveau Casino in the 11th Arrondissement of Paris. The venue was small: perfect for Ratatat, and the sound: extraordinary. There was also quite a bit of the laser show, complete with fog machines and flashing lights. Not that they needed it, really... the sound was so magnificent that I would have been content with blindness. What an experience!

How could I possibly even describe Ratatat? Electronica? Indie? But that is only what Windows Media Player tells me. Mike Stroud and Evan Mast (the 2 members) are quite possibly the coolest Brooklynites to hit the music scene in years. Ratatat has had three full albums (Ratatat, Classics, and LP3) and 2 remix albums released: perfect for a full-length concert. Over the years Ratatat have progressed from being simply a cool electronic band with guitars and synthesizers to a more well-rounded and complex sound; their latest (LP3) includes instruments most of you (and I) haven't even heard of, giving it an "international" feel with track titles like "Mumtaz Khan," "Shempi," and "Mi Viejo." Unsurprisingly, "Mumatz" has a Southeast Asian tone, "Shempi" a Japanese one, and "Mi Viejo" a drum-based Latin American vibe. They're three of the best songs on the album, and of course Ratatat played all three. In fact, Ratatat played every single song I wanted to hear-- all 10 of them, and more.

The line-up? Incredible. They began with "Shiller", the shrill, hypnotic first track of LP3, their most recent album.

See for yourself

(no music video, but the song is fantastic, especially 2:25 onwards)

2nd song, predictably low key: new song "Flynn." BUT: 3rd was "Germany to Germany," their pounding and highly emotional single from their debut album. I tried to take a video of them playing it but I kid you not the guitar notes were too high for my camera to record. Thus the video is literally missing the sweetest notes they hit.

BUT! Imagine THIS, live

[side note: that is the coolest music video I have ever seen]

[Yes, it looks like I'm using way too much hyperbole for my own good, but I cannot emphasize enough how amazing Ratatat are live. ]

They played "Mi Viejo" directly after "Mumtaz Khan," which worked surprisingly well, and finished off the 1 1/2-hour long set with "Seventeen Years," undoubtedly their most famous song, which begins with an infamous sample of a man saying: "I 'been rapping for about 17 years, ok; i just don't write my stuff anymore, I just take it from my head, you know what I'm sayin'? I can do that- no disrespect, but that's how I am." Incredible track.

Encores? A remix, plus "Shempi", their latest catchy head-bopping single.

As performers, Ratatat beat the largely uninteresting indie gendre by unfathomable degrees. The long-haired guitarist pulled many a Jimmy Page, hair falling over his face. Extremely passionate performers. At one point both members were pounding on the drums, and we in the audience were surprised: 1. that the drumsticks didn't break, and 2. that the drums themselves didn't fall apart completely. Blue Man Group-style pounding, that. My friend Nate and I were blown away.

And, of course, pictures, for all to enjoy (and yes, I was indeed that close):

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Vampire Weekend at La Cigale

At the gorgeous La Cigale theatre in Paris, wedged between the luxurious 9th (Opera quarter) and the bohemian 18th (Montmarte), 4 nerdy ex-Columbia University students rocked out to a crowd of frenchies, for once enthusiastic, for once open and vibrant.

Vampire Weekend released their first album earlier this year, and slowly the buzz grew and grew until they were featured on Saturday Night Live. Bouncy and almost hypnotically cute, using elements of traditional African music, Vampire Weekend is potentially the complete opposite of Emo. Vampire Weekend might just be the first band without a single song about being heartbroken, or, in fact, a single song that doesn't sound like the musical representation of a warm Spring afternoon. When listening to "Campus," you can't help but picture the four band members laying on the grass in the quad, playing the occassional game of frisbee, lead singer Ezra Koenig whistling a tune while doing his Lit Hum homework. They are the epitome of indie without being at all ironic. There was not an oversized pair of sunglasses or a pair of skinny pants to be found: they're more preppy than scenester.

I was lucky enough to score a ticket to tonight's concert in Paris, the last date of their first ever tour. There was a sense of gratitute in everything the band members did, a sheepishness to everything, as if they couldn't really grasp how famous they were after releasing only one album. They played a short set, which was understandable given the short length of each of their songs, averaging about 3 minutes each. They tried to lengthen the time the best they could, including 2 new songs and a cover, but it was quite evident how simply new they were at all this. The relatively quick and clean show might have been just a bit too quick and a bit too clean-- a definitve drawback.

Vampire Weekend, if given the opportunity to strengthen their sound, release a few LPs, and jump back into the world of experimental indie rock, would definitely improve their showmanship. They need two things: more material, and more spontaneity. Lack of songs regardless (they played every single track off of their debut "Vampire Weekend"), they put a heck of a show. Ezra Koenig was particularly adorable, juxtaposing (very) broken French and American English. My favorite part of the show was actually this quote, by Ezra himself, halfway through the show:

"C'est la deuxieme partie de notre concert. C'est plus energique... et plus... uh, plus... shvitzing."

(It's the second part of our concert. It's more energetic, and more... shvitzing.)

[Oh Ezra, you are so wonderfully New Yorkaise. For the non-Jews, he means sweating, moving around, bouge-ing, if you will.]

Vampire Weekend's sound is so particularly idiosyncratic that it makes distinguishing the "hits" from the rest nearly impossible. When I first listened to the album-- from my point of view, expertly compiled-- I had a few favorite songs, but nothing screamed "HIT". This is not to say that the sound lacks some kind of catchy-ness; au contraire: each song is too catchy to be followed by the next, equally catchy, one. It's a dilemma of wonderous proportions! My favorites pre-concert were: "Mansard Roof," "Campus," and "Oxford Comma." Now, after seeing them live, it's more difficult to tell. Every band's sound is always shifted when live. Vampire Weekend are not the loudest band, but when live, their drums (Chris Tomson) dominate.

"This is a song... about a bus," Ezra would say before beginning a pounding, electrically thrilling version of M79. Thinking about New York City buses made me warm and fuzzy, and the entire concert I was waiting for a pause to yell "GO COLUMBIAAAAA" but couldn't work up the courage. Another hidden wonder was "I Stand Corrected," amplified what seemed like hundreds of times by the soaring crescendo of drums and Ezra's singing in the first minute.

Amazing venue, amazing show, if cut too short by sheer inexperience. I can't wait to see what Vampire Weekend have up their adorably indie sleeve for 2009.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Reflections on Obamarama

On the morning of November 4th, all the newspapers in Paris, from Le Figaro to Le Metro to Le Monde, said one thing: TOUT LE MONDE REGARDE L'AMERIQUE: Everyone watches America. Obama shirts flooded the metro; a stagnant tension fell upon the city. I cannot imagine how it must have been in the states, when even four thousand miles away from New York, a city held its breath.

We in Paris fell into the glorious kitsch that is Obama, throwing ourselves at the feet of his legacy. We sobbed together, cheered watching the television in a bar until 5:15 in the morning, when the streets near the Opera erupted, as if ablaze, with sheer happiness. Flags waved, we hugged people we had never seen before, and, for the first time in far too long--perhaps since September 11th-- that I was proud, yes, proud, to call myself a citizen of the United States of America.

And it is time t think about what this means for us, for the country, and for the world. Tout le monde regarde l'Amerique: this title alone speaks volumes about the almost mythological aura surrounding the Obama campaign. That Barack Obama, senator from Illinois, African-American, 47-years old, graduate of my very own Columbia University, has the power to inspire nations across the Atlantic, to bring the highest voter turnout since 1908 (about 65%--astonishing), to bring a roaring crowd at my very own Grant Park in my very own city of Chicago to tears-- yes, tears--and to become president against all odds: this is a historic moment.

And we must look upon it as such, because this might very well be the defining moment of a generation. To borrow a quote from a MGMT lyric, "the youth is starting to change." We are no longer the apathetic isolated individuals of the '80s and '90s; we are no longer the scathingly bitter, ironic and snide youth of even these past 8 years. We have become inspired.

"It's the answer spoken by young and old, rich and poor, Democrat and Republican, black, white, Latino, Asian, Native American, gay, straight, disabled and not disabled - Americans who sent a message to the world that we have never been a collection of Red States and Blue States: we are, and always will be, the United States of America."

We must consider, then, what it means to have Barack Obama as our President Elect. Obama has become less a man than a symbol, and for this very reason the 2008 presidential election was as important as it was. This is why the Vespas of Paris have Obama stickers, why even Parisians celebrated 'til dawn, when the results were announced, why journalists flooded the streets, without knowing Obama's foreign policies or the history of his political career. Obama is a symbol of, well, change, however hackneyed the phrase may be. I have seen a few of my friends (thankfully, only a few) turn questioning, apathetic, dubious. And it is for the few like them that I write this, for them to hopefully see that regardless of the kitsch (and there is a lot of kitsch), and the shouting, and the madness, there is a magic here.

At the same time, Obama is a landmark for other reasons, change regardless: he is, by all definitions of the world, a public intellectual. By being the President Elect, he has broken the boundaries separating a world that, since Reagan and especially since Eisenhower, been divided between "the people" and "the intellectuals," the "big-shots" and the "Joe Shmos." That is to say, we elected Obama regardless of his so-called "elitism," something Columbia University has found itself repeatedly attacked for by Bill O'Reilly. The United States is no longer a symbol of obesity and stupidity, of gun-toting cowboys and a fear-based society. We have evolved. We are still obese, but we have, for the first time in a while, made the right decision.

Coincidentally, and somewhat unrelatedly, Obama's success means wonders for the city of Chicago. I have lived in Chicago (Chicago proper, Chicago-the-city-not-the-suburbs, Chicago Uptown, North Side, 7 minute drive from the Loop, child of the CPS), since I was 4. Never in my life has Chicago been more in the spotlight. To see the Grant Park where I ate Rainbow Cones at the Taste, ran around the fountain, sketched and painted, moshed to Gogol Bordello at Lollapalooza--to see it illuminated on a screen in a bar in the 9th arrondissement of Paris-- that in and of itself nearly brought me to tears. Chicago is Obama's city. He taught at the University of Chicago, he *was* our senator. Even when he was just elected senator, there were virtually parades in the streets. Chicago is glowing, and it's not just the electricity. And here we also have the possibility of the Olympics arriving in our hometown in 2016 (we're crossing our fingers until October 2009!), a possibility perhaps augmented by this marvelous election.

"If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible; who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time; who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer. "

338 Electoral Votes. A lead of 7 million popular votes. Florida. Virginia. Michigan. New Mexico. One intellectual, charismatic, and inspirational President Elect.

Yes, America, we can, and we did. From the bottom of this bleeding-heart liberal's secular humanistic soul, I thank you. I have never been happier.