Last spring, a foursome of well-sweatered Columbia grads with a pronounced penchant for Paul Simon’s Graceland started gigging around downtown NYC and circulating their music, a witty blend of West African pop and current indie dance-rock, on a blue CD-R. The effect on audiences and critics was immediate, and since then the group called Vampire Weekend has inspired a press packet longer than my undergraduate thesis and hundreds of salutes of “the next big thing.” Recent memory recalls another wildly hyped group of privileged Manhattanites, and though the music in question differs significantly from the Strokes’ vintage sound, there is something in the effect of such confident, delighted simplicity that will be familiar to anyone who popped in Is This It and felt their skepticism morph into enthusiasm. Vampire Weekend’s eponymous debut, with its wide range of references rationed across a collection of brief pop morsels, proves the early fascination was no fluke.
Lead singer Ezra Koenig and the rest of Vampire Weekend have chuckled in interviews about bringing back “Upper West Side Soweto,” the genre that was birthed out of Simon’s collaborations with Ladysmith Black Mambazo. The Ivy Leaguers certainly show their study here of the rhythms and riffs of Congelese soukous music in addition to “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes,” but their amalgamation of African and American styles is hardly more groundbreaking than what has already been done by Simon, Talking Heads, and plenty of others. Given the lyrical references to both colonialism and Peter Gabriel, it’s clear the men of Vampire Weekend aren’t trying to hide their many instances of appropriation. Just as Julian Casablancas and company never seemed bothered by their music’s obvious resemblance to their New York forebears, Vampire Weekend are so sure of their product’s irresistibleness they’re willing to lose points for originality just to keep the party going.
The album runs a brisk 35 minutes, and none of the songs overstay their welcome. For the most part Vampire Weekend seem content to let one melodic idea drive a composition—whether the calypso-thrash of “A-Punk,” the baroque-inflected pop of “M79,” or the jumpy synthesizers of “One (Blake’s Got a New Face).” Although Graceland is the most conspicuous influence, one can also hear traces of Vivaldi, Ray Davies, and the freakish strings on Lou Reed’s epic “Street Hassle.” Lyrically, Koenig is predictably precious, referencing backpacking in India, Lil Jon, obscure punctuation, campus crushes—in other words, a reflection of the sensitive patrician’s enjoyment of the outer world. Luckily for us, Vampire Weekend’s arrangements are sophisticated enough to carry the conceit without being annoying: The line “Don’t you wanna get out of Cape Cod tonight?” matched with a frenetic emotional accompaniment on the wonderful “Walcott” actually endows the Massachusetts resort with pathos. “Oxford Comma” features some deliciously nimble guitar riffs as well as the perplexing crack “Who gives a fuck about an Oxford comma?” Even for those of us who do not, nor ever did, give a fuck about an Oxford comma, the addictive tune keeps us coming back.
Listeners who copped Vampire Weekend’s blue CD-R or downloaded any of its variations in 2007 may be disappointed to learn that Vampire Weekend is little more than a repackaging of that fame-making demo. Some of the recordings are new, but the songs’ essential formulas remain unchanged. One would be more worried about the group’s durability once the hype subsides if the two songs here not previously heard on the blue CD-R—“M79” and “I Stand Corrected”—weren’t so good. The latter might be the album’s best cut, a piano-driven ballad enlivened by a buoyant drumbeat and delicate cello phrasing, and it provides hope that Vampire Weekend have the talent and the brains to stick around past their buzz expiration date.