Ivy band Vampire Weekend cuts teeth on Afro-indie debut
By Chris Barth, The Dartmouth Staff
Published on Wednesday, February 6, 2008
The first few notes of Vampire Weekend's self-titled debut album seem like standard prep-pop. They are bubbly, spacey, and provide the perfect background for lead singer Ezra Koenig's voice. This first effort is not, however, standard prep-pop.
A few spins on the turntable soon reveal "Vampire Weekend" to be more than what originally meets the eye. Catchy melodies, raw drums and jangling guitars mesh to create a layered sound that is at once both accessible and intricate. The band, which found its origins at Columbia University, looks poised to take the indie world by storm.
Despite critical acclaim and a fair amount of hype leading up to their first LP release, though, "Vampire Weekend" is far from a finished product. Like many debuts, the album shows promise. Indeed, the production of the record belies that fact, with many tracks left largely unpolished and un-doctored as if to say, "We're not stopping here."
The band, which first received press in the blogosphere for singles "Oxford Comma" and "Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa" describes itself as "Upper West Side Soweto." Their music finds a mostly happy medium between African popular music and American indie rock, drawing undeniable comparisons to Paul Simon's "Graceland" and the Talking Heads' "Remain In Light." On stage, Vampire Weekend embodies this enigma, dressed in scarves and polos as they belt out African polyrhythms with ease.
Vampire Weekend embraces their Ivy League roots thematically, dedicating an entire song to grammatical philosophy on "Oxford Comma," discussing the life of a 21-year-old college student on "Campus," and reminiscing about getaways to Cape Cod on "Walcott." The result of this honesty is twofold: while the listener is drawn in by Koenig's detailed accounts of the college life, the album's content simultaneously creates an almost superficial feel. Indeed, there are only so many songs one can listen to about Cape Cod and sweaters before feeling a deep desire to move on to something a little more substantive.
Vampire Weekend's allure lies in this combination of superficial separation and intellectual discourse. The four Columbia graduates show an astounding knack for writing unassumingly catchy tunes that are eminently listenable. There are few low points on the album, and even those handful of miscalculations (a strange harpsichord-ish intro on "M79" and the odd synth backing on "One," for examples) are boyishly endearing. Across the album, the members of Vampire Weekend play the part of talented pop music enthusiasts trying their hand at a number of styles to see what works.
And on the whole, a lot works. Starting with "Mansard Roof," the album draws the listener in; I found myself singing about a mansard roof without even knowing what one is (according to the dictionary, it's a "roof that has four sloping sides, each of which becomes steeper halfway down").
Just one track later, on "Oxford Comma" Koening and company craft a track that takes jabs at the preppy lifestyle they display, asking "Why would you lie 'bout how much coal you have? Why would you lie about something dumb like that?"
Tracks like "A-Punk" and "One" experiment with yelping background vocals, allowing the band's African influence to rear its head in the middle of indie tunes. Two cuts later, "Walcott" throws those influences to the side in favor of American classical roots, finding Vampire Weekend at its most mainstream on a track that could just as easily come from The Decemberists or The Shins. On "Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa," guitars anchor a track that relies on sparsely syncopated lyrics about Louis Vuitton, Benneton and reggaeton, revealing the diverse influences of the group.
When listening to the album as a whole, it is difficult to find many glaring flaws. The album is far from abrasive, guiding the listener through a mellow 35 minutes of uniquely blended Afro-Prep. Although the popped-collar personas of the band's members have drawn criticism and dislike in some circles, the music itself leaves little to complain about.
Perhaps it is this lack of abrasiveness that creates an uncertain vibe surrounding "Vampire Weekend." In many ways, despite engaging and enjoyable tunes, it is a largely forgettable album. The bubbly record, which shies away from profundity, lacks the staying power of classics like "Graceland" and "Remain In Light." With sunny keyboards and poppy lyrics about vacation, "Vampire Weekend" is closer to summer than to Simon, more sunburn than David Byrne.
With any luck, "Vampire Weekend" will just be the start for the young band. By harnessing their best moments and building on the sound established on this album, the band could easily become a mainstream powerhouse. Alternatively, they could find themselves becoming merely a gimmicky blip on the music radar. Hopefully this album will serve as a jumping-off point for even greater and more substantial things to come.