If Paul Simon’s Graceland met The Strokes’ Is This It at a Columbia University music-appreciation class, fell in love, and had a baby — and that baby’s godparents were Ladysmith Black Mambazo and David
Byrne — the little tyke would probably grow up to be Vampire Weekend’s much-blogged-about, self-titled debut.
But despite its convoluted heritage (or maybe because of it — hey, those are some good genes!), Vampire Weekend sounds remarkably fresh and fun instead of painfully derivative. Singer-guitarist Ezra Koenig and his band of hipster laureates have successfully melded NYC post-punk and African pop (with a healthy dose of baroque string arrangements) to create what they call “Upper West Side Soweto.”
Gimmicky? Sure, on paper — but it works. This collection of catchy, upbeat tunes chooses earnestness over irony: Repeat listens reveal a band that isn’t mocking African pop but making a serious attempt to honor it. “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa” ditches the drum kit for hand drums, and “Bryn” grooves on a sublime 12/8 beat that might not be authentic, but it’s not winking,
either. The Afro-indie concept gets a bit tired on “One (Bryn’s Got a New Face),” but the band has other tricks up its cardigan sleeves.
Record-highlight “A-Punk” is a grab bag of pilfered British sounds, alternating between a revved-up 2-Tone beat and a “Strawberry Fields”-esque harmonium chorus. (Give Koenig points for subbing “Ay! Ay! Ay!” for “Oi! Oi! Oi!”)
Elsewhere, “Walcott” and “I Stand Corrected” are perfect slices of indie-pop, all lifted to stellar heights by keyboardist Rostam Batmanglij’s chamber string arrangements.
Vampire Weekend met at Columbia and the record’s lyrics are heavy with Ivy League imagery. Koenig walks the fine line between clever and pretentious, dropping references to grammar rules as well as grammar mangler Lil’ Jon (“First the window, then it’s to the wall”) on “Oxford Comma.”
Being such literate guys, Vampire Weekend must be familiar with Oscar Wilde’s assertion that “talent borrows, genius steals.” Time will tell whether or not these guys are geniuses, but there’s no doubt they’ve got talent, energy, and limitless potential. I’ll be rooting for them when the blogosphere backlash kicks in.