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That's Entertainment: Spoon, Vampire Weekend and These New Puritans

The first great albums of 2010 are here. Let's take a look at "Transference" , "Contra" and "Hidden".
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The first significant releases of '10 are here and today we are going to examine three of them. Two of these records have already reached a wider audience, as Vampire Weekend’s sophomore effort "Contra" went to the top of the American album chart in its first week of release, while "Transference", the seventh LP by Spoon, reached number 4, giving the Austin, Texas band its highest charting album and the best sales week in its fifteen-year career. The commercial success of the two groups becomes even more significant if we take into consideration that both of them belong to independent labels (XL and Merge, respectively), while their distinctive sound is far from what is usually considered commercial these days.

Contra Vampire Weekend had the broad support of blogs and the major media from the start of their career (they were on the cover of Spin before they even released an album) and with their idiosyncratic sound that combined catchy afro-pop melodies and punk energy, they quickly broke away from the confines of the indie scene and found commercial success that met their critical acceptance.

As you know, of course, the faster one rises to the top, the harder it gets to stay there as your supporters of yesterday can quickly turn their backs on you, accusing you of becoming "mainstream" and therefore "uncool". And exactly here lies the real success of Vampire Weekend. "Contra", the "difficult" second album, has retained all the elements that give their sound its unique identity, while adding new elements to their sonic palette. In "Giving Up The Gun", one of the album’s highlights, the power-pop melody is combined with a dance club beat creating a post-modern new-wave hit, while in "Diplomat's Son" M.I.A.'s vocal samples and sharp reggae rhythms coexist with sweet orchestral melodies. The breakneck pace of first single "Cousins" proves that the band has studied punk well and knows how to successfully combine it with ska, avoiding the pitfalls of this hybrid. Overall "Contra" proves to be more varied and self-assured than their debut and while African melodies and Paul Simon’s "Graceland" may remain Vampire Weekend‘s favorite sounds, here they have managed to seamlessly integrate new, and so far unexplored influences, keeping their music fresh and winning over once again the approval of critics and fans alike.

Transference While the door to success was wide open for Vampire Weekend from the start, Spoon had to work hard to get where they are now. Their debut album "Telephono" (released in 1996 by Matador) brought them to the attention of the majors and led to a contract with Elektra. When their next work, 1998’s fine LP "A Series of Sneaks" didn’t make the sales the record company had hoped for, the band was quickly dropped, giving them a good lesson about the workings and pitfalls of the music industry.

In the new decade Spoon had a fresh start at Merge, one of the finest independent labels of the last 20 years, where the band released a string of outstanding albums. Although all of them received high praise from the music press, it was only their sixth effort, 2007’s "Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga” that managed to break the band in Billboard’s Top 10, bringing their excellent music to a wider audience. "Transference" builds on that album’s achievements and with its first week’s 53,000 sales brings the band back into the charts and promises even greater commercial success. Of course I wouldn’t make so much fuss about Spoon's success if I didn’t think that "Transference" meets the high standards we have come to expect from Britt Daniel and his band. Spoon's sound remains simple and unpretending but always powerful and moving, with great tracks such as the singles "Written In Reverse" and "Got Nuffin'" or "The Mystery Zone" and "I Saw The Light" that prove the status of this band as one of the top acts of American indie rock. The only thing that I cannot comprehend is why this band has not enjoyed the same level of recognition in Europe, where they remain strictly a cult phenomenon.

Hidden The third great new release we’ve listened to in the first month of 2010 is "Hidden", the second album of These New Puritans from Southend-On-Sea. The British band that took its name from an old, obscure track by The Fall, had made a great first impression 2 years ago with its excellent Domino debut, "Beat Pyramid". Apart from the obvious Mark E Smith influence, the band’s sound successfully combined art rock with hip hop and electronica elements, while songs like the incredible "Swords of Truth", "Elvis" or "Numerology (AKA Numbers)" showed great potential.

"Hidden" shows that the ambitions of These New Puritans are growing exponentially. A thirteen piece brass ensemble combines with Japanese Taiko drums, a children’s choir and subsonic bass, while the threatening atmosphere of the music is accentuated by the sounds of sharpening knives and rattling chains. Song titles like "We Want War", "Attack Music" or "Fire-Power" bring the "hidden" threat out in the open and reveal the shiny steel of their sonic weapons. These New Puritans’ sophomore effort fully justifies the expectations created by "Beat Pyramid" and justly brings major critical acclaim to the band. It appears, though, that their imposing sonic creations are rather too dark and menacing to have a wider commercial appeal, like the first two records of today’s presentation. Not that it matters, but it’s sometimes good to see the outsiders winning the day.

Song of the week: One of the best singles of 2010, Spoon’s "Written in Reverse" performed live on KCRW.

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