Discovery As An Act Of Rebellion
There is a line buried inside of James Murphy's eight-and-a-half minute LCD Soundsystem beatdown "Pow Pow" that likens the act of kissing under a bridge to "an entirely new discovery". While a handy rhetorical device within the song that offers the chance to repeat the last word rhythmically in service of its monochromatic beat, the narrator/author of the song isn't saying that there is anything intrinsically "new" in either the idea of kissing or the idea of being under a bridge. The discovery then comes as a result of the combination of the two known things. "You know what kissing is like," the narrator seems to saying, "and you know how cool and secretive it can be to be nestled under a bridge. Now imagine performing that intimate act with another person out of sight of the whole world - wouldn't that be novel and exhilarating?" In this way the "discovery" is more of an applied mathematics where one kissing session plus one bridge equals one hundred times the excitement that either of those things could offer on their own.
The band known as Discovery offers a similar math exercise: members and sensibilities from two likeminded groups who, by the sheer force of their creative power, made something together that is almost wholly unlike their primary outfits.
Vampire Weekend rose to prominence in the NY indie rock scene in the late 2000s when their self-titled debut album rocketed them to not only cultural ubiquity in certain circles but also to a kind of ambassadorship for a cultivated and deliberate strain of worldbeat-inspired indie that made them hyped and backlashed against in almost equal measure. Syracuse band Ra Ra Riot's 2008 debut album made much less of a significant impact, but it could be argued for as being a stronger album on its own merits. While that argument would be an interesting one to have, one thing that is indisputable is that The Rhumb Line had a backstory: in 2007 John Pike, a member of the band, went missing from a party and was later found dead, the victim of an apparent drowning. Some of the media spin on the debut album cast it as a reaction to indescribable tragedy, and in some ways it undoubtedly was, especially since Pike had a large hand in the songwriting.
VW and RRR shared more than just New York pedigrees and mid-aughts timing. Vampire Weekend has been described as "educated" and "literate", often in ways that portray these things as negatives. The thinking seems to go that being literate is cool to an extent, but it can also get a bit pedantic or, worse, pedagogic. This is a band after all that named one of the songs on their debut after a grammatical tic that has been fought about for decades, the Oxford comma (to their credit, they fall into the "who gives a fuck?" camp). Likewise, Ra Ra Riot leans into literary ambitions. The Rhumb Line features references to E.E. Cummings and Harper Lee, and their lead (and probably best) single from the album summons a beautiful metaphor in its pre-chorus: "…on every inch of stone, skin and cloth / made to leave you". This was a band that almost seemed to be making an emphatic point that they also could read the shit out of some books, thank you very much.
Rostam Batmanglij was instrumental in Vampire Weekend, especially in their early sound. He played keyboards, guitar, and sang backup while also handling some percussion, programming and overall production. It is safe to say that without Rostam, VW would not exist as we now know it. His creative voice is almost itself a tentpole for the aesthetic of the band as a whole, and while it is an aesthetic that is admirably wide-ranging and eclectic, the tentpole becomes all the more important as both a means of support and a tether to the ground. Wes Miles didn't play quite as pivotal a role in his band, but the lead vocalist typically has a fairly large hand in songwriting in most instances (most songwriting is attributed to the entire band rather than to individual members, so it's hard to say where Miles falls on the continuum of writing contributions). His truly distinctive element though is his voice. Existing somewhere between the gossamer layers of high register and throaty delivery, he enunciates with a sort of enigmatic accent that is not exactly British, but not exactly American. It would be a difficult proposition to point to him as a technically "great" vocalist, but its also hard to argue against his ownership of a very distinctive and pleasurable timbre.
So the pairing of these two, on paper, doesn't seem to offer anything all that different than those things that any listener can get from either Vampire Weekend or Ra Ra Riot. This is essentially the partnership of a multi-instrumentalist/idea-man with a vocalist who has a specific sound and sensibility. Discovery itself then, as a band, should be a hyper-literate merging of VW's breezy guitarisms and the somewhat more baroque sound of RRR anchored by Miles' vocal flourishes. What we get on the self-titled (and only) LP is something completely different.
Discovery plays like an Adderall-fueled cruise through 80s pop that somehow ditches cheesy sentimentalities and perfects the ideal of 2000s eclecticism, then struts to the door of the club and walks in like it's on the list. Drums are programmed to impossibilities throughout; synths operate seemingly with an artificial intelligence that ramps emotions up and down at will; tempos are skewed to create insanely heart-wrenching breakdowns ("So Insane"); Auto-Tune shows up in what might be its first appearance in indie pop, taking Wes Miles' surgically-precise voice into ranges it was never meant to go (" Osaka Line Loop", "Can You Discover?"). This is an act that dared to take on the Jackson 5 with a cover of "I Want You Back" - they shot for the King of Pop and dared not miss, creating a refreshing take on the song that juiced up its inherent danceability every bit as much as it tugged at the same heartstrings as version 1.0.
The rainbow-colored cover of the album and the track listing mapped out on that back as a fantasy diagram for a public transport system spoke to the idea of a band that was all-inclusive and one that wore its love for city life as a badge of honor. Inclusivity as a guiding principle also allowed for a smattering of other artists to join in the fun, like VW's Ezra Koenig ("Carby") and Dirty Projectors' Angel Deradoorian ("I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend"). The vibe is essentially that of a neighborhood block party where everyone is invited and encouraged to bring their favorite music, but at the same time it has the hermetically insulated quality of a couple mad professors in the lab cooking up a potion designed to make the whole world do the Bartman.
But lest we think that the fun is the only thing worth showing up for, it bears pointing out that Discovery's throw-it-all-at-the-neon-wall approach showed a lot of prescience for what would be coming later in the indie and pop worlds. Beat-wise, parts of the album offer a template for trap music: bruising bass lines paired with loud and often high-pitched drum sounds and keyboards. In terms of autotune and its lasting effects on certain artists within pop and hip-hop, let's just say that it might be easier to list those who don't utilize it as a tool than to list the myriad ones that do. Rostam's exploration of his own talents seemed to bloom in this time period as well, and he went on to do production and/or engineering work with artists such as Tokyo Police Club, Das Racist, Carly Rae Jepsen, Frank Ocean, Haim, and Lykke Li. In terms of influence throughout indie rock, R&B, and pop, Rostam has had his pick of working with the most interesting and impactful among them; with that logical line extended a bit, it becomes clear that almost by definition Discovery is a pretext for the sound of the 2010s.
And yet, none of this was a foregone conclusion. Ra Ra Riot had a following, to be sure. They were like the thinking man's Shins: scrappy pop songs with musclebound hooks that eschewed simplicity and required just a bit more analysis before they could be fully appreciated. Vampire Weekend was an albatross in their scene from the moment they released their debut, but even they largely played within the lines, never veering too far from the precepts that had been set out by Graceland and the Talking Heads in bygone times. The fact that Discovery produced a work that was on its face so iconoclastic was a bit of a shock at the time and 10 years later it feels like even more of an artistic transgression. For two such respected intelli-rock purveyors to come together and produce a glorified club record would scan as a cynically calculated move if it weren't put forth with so much zeal and abandon. That it foretold what was to come is either merely a happy coincidence or proof positive that Discovery was ahead of a curve most of us aren't even able to see the arc in.
Discovery the album turns ten years old this year, even as Discovery the band is for all intents and purposes in a state of extended hibernation having not released anything since. There is no indication that Rostam and Miles won't get back together some day and knock out some more shoulder-shaking ragers they can commit to tape, but at the same time there also isn't an indication that such a thing is imminent. For all of Rostam's masterminding of the project's sonic attributes, the best comparison for the album may be from "Ghost Under Rocks" by Ra Ra Riot: in a way the album is a ghost hidden away, a note found in the coat pockets of fathers "lost and forgotten". Like a ghost, it surveys the musical landscape with a proud gaze, knowing it made a measurable difference. Rightly satisfied in this, it remains secluded and relishes its solitude. And yet…one must wonder. The mere fact of the ghost's continued presence in this world makes it likely that there is unfinished business in need of attention. Here's to hoping for a reconstitution of Discovery and a blueprint for the next decade in music.