This NY four-piece draw on their diverse backgrounds and interests, experimenting with African guitar music, the Western classical canon, hazy memories of Cape Cod summers, winters in upper Manhattan, and reggaeton. "Equal parts shruggy New York indie strumming and groovy Afro-pop, Vampire Weekend's organ-and-drum runs highlight narratives about relationships, punctuation, and sometimes both" - Spin. Named "Hot New Kids" in Rolling Stone's "Hot" issue.
Review by Heather Phares
With the Internet able to build up or tear down artists almost as soon as they start practicing, the advance word and intense scrutiny doesn't always do a band any favors. By the time they've got a full-length album ready to go, the trend-spotters are already several Hot New Bands past them. Vampire Weekend started generating buzz in 2006 -- not long after they formed -- but their self-titled debut album didn't arrive until early 2008. Vampire Weekend also has just a handful of songs that haven't been floating around the 'Net, which may disappoint the kind of people who like to post "First!" on message boards. This doesn't make those songs any less charming, however -- in fact, the band has spent the last year and a half making them even more charming, perfecting the culture collision of indie-, chamber-, and Afro-pop they call "Upper West Side Soweto" by making that unique hybrid of sounds feel completely effortless. So, Vampire Weekend ends up being a more or less official validation of the long-building buzz around the band, served up in packaging that uses the Futura typeface almost as stylishly as Wes Anderson. At times, the album sounds like someone trying to turn a Wes Anderson movie back into music (it's no surprise that the band's keyboardist also writes film scores); there's a similarly precious yet adventurous feel here, as well as a kindred eye and ear for detail. Everything is concise, concentrated, distilled, vivid; Vampire Weekend's world is extremely specific and meticulously crafted, and Vampire Weekend often feels like a concept album about preppy guys who grew up with classical music and recently got really into world music. Amazingly, instead of being alienating, the band's quirks are utterly winning. Scholarly grammar ("Oxford Comma") and architecture ("Mansard Roof") are springboards for songs with impulsive melodies, tricky rhythms, and syncopated basslines. Strings and harpsichords brush up against African-inspired chants on "M79," and lilting Afro-pop guitars and a skanking beat give way to Mellotrons on "A-Punk." It's a given that a band that's this high concept has hyper-literate lyrics: the singer's name is the very writerly Ezra Koenig, and you almost expect to see footnotes in the album's liner notes. Once again, though, Vampire Weekend's words are evocative instead of gimmicky. The irresistible "Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa" rhymes "Louis Vuitton" with "reggaeton" and "Benneton" and name-drops Peter Gabriel (though it's clear the band spent more time with Paul Simon's Graceland) without feeling contrived. "Campus" is another standout, with lines like "I see you walking across the campus...how am I supposed to pretend I never want to see you again?" throwing listeners into college life no matter what their age. Koenig has a boyish, hopeful quality to his voice that completes Vampire Weekend, especially on bittersweet but irrepressible songs like "I Stand Corrected" and album closer "The Kids Don't Stand a Chance." Fully realized debut albums like Vampire Weekend come along once in a great while, and these songs show that this band is smart, but not too smart for their own good.
If there's anything the happy New York kids in this band have learned from listening to African music, it's the difference between "pop" and "rock": Vampire Weekend's debut album announces straight off that it's the former. The first sound on the first song, "Mansard Roof", comes from Rostam Batmanglij's keyboard, set to a perky, almost piping tone-- the kind of sunny sound you'd hear in old west-African pop. Same goes for Ezra Koenig's guitar, which never takes up too much space; it's that clean, natural tone you'd get on a record from Senegal or South Africa. Chris Baio's bass pulses and slides and steps with light feet, and most of all there's Chris Tomson, who plays like a percussionist as often as he does a rock drummer, tapping out rhythms and counter-accents on a couple of drums in the back of the room. And yet they play it all like indie kids on a college lawn, because they're not hung up on Africa in the least-- a lot of these songs work more like those on the Strokes' debut, Is This It?, if you scraped off all the scuzzy rock'n'roll signifiers, leaving behind nothing but clean-cut pop and preppy new wave, tucked-in shirts and English-lit courses.
This Afro/preppy/new-wave combination has a history-- Brits like Orange Juice, Americans like Talking Heads. For now, though, it's one of the most deservedly buzzed-about things around: People have been chattering over Vampire Weekend ever since a CD-R demo of three of these songs started circulating last year. (Full disclosure: One of the sound engineers of that CD-R now does freelance audio work for Pitchfork.) The excitement isn't hard to fathom. People spend a lot of time poking around for the edgy new underground thing, convinced that plain old pop songs have been done to death. But Vampire Weekend come along like Belle & Sebastian and the Strokes each did, sounding refreshingly laidback and uncomplicated, and with simple set-ups that make good songs sound exceedingly easy. (The result being not "this is mind-blowing," or "this is catchy," but "I have listened to this, straight through, four times a day for the past month".)
No surprise, then, that their first hit mp3 would be a song called "Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa", which is sly, quiet, and casual in a way that blows away so many other bands who actively try to get your attention. Their label seems to have understood this effect, and so they've left these demos sounding as natural as they were: This release just fiddles with the mastering, switches out a few takes in ways you wouldn't much notice, plays with the sequencing, relegates one song to a B-side, and adds a couple of great ones that you can nonetheless understand being omitted the first time.
Most of the credit will wind up going to Koenig, who's the star presence here. By the second song, "Oxford Comma", the band is ticking along on little touches of keyboard and the tap of a snare drum, and he's still keeping the empty space captivating: There's a little indie yelp to his voice, but mostly he's relaxed, conversational, and wry. (Not unlike another guy who's tried on an Afro-suave sound-- though Paul Simon never sounded this exuberant.) The person who'll probably never get enough credit turns out to be Batmanglij, whose pat, classicist keyboard arpeggios lead the way through tempo shifts and transitions, occasionally locking in with some sprightly violin parts. It all comes off as simple, jaunty, and homespun, but there's a lot of precision lurking beneath-- exactly what happens when you combine a music major and indie-pop.
Koenig is smart and lucky, in that he gets to play the preppy angle both ways: Like a guy who's read a lot of Cheever, he can summon up the atmosphere of kids whose parents use "summer" as a verb and give it all the hairy eyeball at the same time. "Oxford Comma" is spent picking on someone who brags too much about money: "Why would you lie about how much coal you have?/ Why would you lie about something dumb like that?" (Then again, there's nothing more moneyed than having the luxury to find money tacky, and when Koenig adds that Lil Jon "always tells the truth," you kind of suspect Lil Jon wouldn't find how much "coal" someone has to be all that irrelevant.)
Later, walking across the Columbia University campus, Koenig drops a detail whose delivery always gets a smile from me, even if its thrust is hard to gauge: "You spilled kefir on your keffiyeh." Koenig is a detail guy, a happy observer who never much bores you with how he feels; mostly, as befits a recent college grad, he's singing about location, about where people will go and whether they'll come back with new faces. In non-album B-side "Ladies of Cambridge", he can't decide whether to move there with the girl or mourn letting her go alone; "Walcott" whirls you through Cape Cod and then suggests getting the hell out ("Bottleneck is a shit show/ Hyannisport is a ghetto"); the twitchy "A-Punk" sees one person off to New Mexico while another stays near college and finds a place in Washington Heights. And while the faux-African backing vocals on "One" might be the album's only real misstep, the final line sums up where its concerns are: "All your collegiate grief has left you/ Dowdy in sweatshirts/ Absolute horror!"
Of course, while Vampire Weekend have certainly benefited from our new music world of internet buzz, plenty of people have found reasons to hate Vampire Weekend from the first note, many of them having to do with their prep aesthetic and Ivy League educations-- Oxford shirts, boat shoes, Columbia University. But it just so happens that we're in a moment where such things matter to people: As interest grows in clean-cut, clever indie-pop, plenty of folks would like to hear things get dirtier, riskier, less collegiate-- and in a lot of corners of the indie landscape, they thankfully are. But here's another odd parallel with that first Strokes record: Vampire Weekend have the same knack for grabbing those haters and winning them over. Bring any baggage you want to this record, and it still returns nothing but warm, airy, low-gimmick pop, peppy, clever, and yes, unpretentious-- four guys who listened to some Afro-pop records, picked up a few nice ideas, and then set about making one of the most refreshing and replayable indie records in recent years.
-Nitsuh Abebe, January 28, 2008