Thursday, January 31, 2008

The Naked Truth About Vampire Weekend, Or, Nice Boys Playing Banal Music

Vampire Weekend
Vampire Weekend
XL Recordings

Armed with a song Rolling Stone listed as one of the 100 best of 2007, Vampire Weekend are poised to invade hearts, music stores and all mediums of media with this week’s debut of their self-titled album. Every member of the Brooklyn-based band is a Columbia University grad, and, aside from their degrees, they’ve got both the fan base of rabid college students and the steadfast support of hipster indie blogs to prove it. They’ve been featured in The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Boston Herald and Nylon Magazine. interviewed them. They recorded a session with NPR. Countless blogs are already heralding their debut as one of the best records of 2008, and the tides of January have yet to die. So does the album live up to all the hype? Much like Vampire Weekends’ music, the answer is quite simple: no.

It’s frightening what monsters a cursory knowledge of music and an indiscriminate sensibility can cook up together. For all the hype, Vampire Weekend offers nothing new, nor exciting, nor even musically-interesting. Their self-described “Upper West Side Soweto” sound is really just simple, accessible pop, lightly tinged with African rhythms and reggae melodies.

Because of this, their music bears more than a passing resemblance to Paul Simon’s sonic-fusion on Graceland. I have to assume that this is the reason fans and critics alike have bought a seat on Vampire Weekend’s bandwagon. What they seem to be forgetting is Paul Simon could pen a song about doing his taxes and it would be ten times more lyrically imaginative and emotionally evocative than anything Vampire Weekend could ever write.

Further, it is insulting to bands that play Afro-centric rock extremely well. Bloc Party, Dragons of Zynth, and TV on the Radio (the latter two of which are NYC-based bands themselves) are especially active and relevant right now. And though people like to cite African music and Paul Simon as Vampire Weekend’s musical forebearers, their music just as often sounds like your neighborhood ice cream truck circling amiably around the block.

Lyrically, the band fares a bit better. The imagery they carve is sometimes even poetic: I see a mansard roof through the trees/I see a salty message written in the eaves/the ground beneath my feet/we are garbage and concrete [“Mansard Roof”]. The songs are peppered with obscure references: Oxford commas, Dalai Lamas, mansard roofs, cancer center Sloan-Kettering, Pueblo huts . . . the boys of Vampire Weekend are obviously well-rounded in their educations. Still, when these references are used as mere ornaments in the band’s recurring themes of unrequited love with keffiyeh-wearing, Louis Vuitton-clutching compulsive liars, it’s hard to take the intellectual-depth of these Ivy Leaguers very seriously.

“Mansard Roof” is Vampire Weekend’s least offensive song, perhaps because as the opening track, the listener has not yet grown weary of the the band's cloying and tedious sound. Lead singer Ezra Koenig’s vocals strike an interesting balance between Rufus Wainwright and Paul Simon, and tagging along are a basic reggae melody and sharp drums. Sure, it’s catchy. So is Tuberculosis.

Despite being Rolling Stone’s 67th-ranked song of 2007, “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa” is derivative tripe. Its three-note guitar line is so prosaic and irritatingly repetitive, it is difficult to imagine a person being able to sit through the full track even a few times; putting it on a “best-of” song list is truly laughable.

By far, the best pieces of instrumentation on the album are the orchestral chamber sounds that open “M79” and weave throughout the album’s prophetic closer, “The Kids Don’t Stand a Chance.” Even so, these deviations are too few and too slight to wipe away the muck of monotony surrounding them. Similarly, in “One (Blake’s Got a New Face)” the band introduces Atari electronic tones into their entrenched reggae pop. It’s a commendable idea to experiment with sound, but the result is truly horrific. It is forced and gimmicky, a prefabricated plastic nightmare pretending indie rock sentiments.

Still, as the hype suggests, there is a definite market for this kind of pop punk. Saccharine though Vampire Weekend is, many people will be sold for precisely that reason. Also important in today’s culture: the band presents an appealing image. They are good-looking boys. They wear dress shirts and khakis. And not only do they wear dress shirts and khakis – they wear them while playing gigs. And they’re Ivies. So they’ll procure support from a decent subsection of consumers, namely preppy university students and teenyboppers stuck in that weird limbo between Hannah Montana and Green Day. Not exactly the sort of fan base most rock musicians want. But, hey, they’ve hoodwinked a lot of people so far. They might not even have to get real jobs for another few years. Which was probably the point of the band in the first place, because in the end, they just sound like a bunch of frat boys pretending to be Paul Simon.


You can slag off to Spin if you want Vampire Weekend mp3s. These two are much more worth your time, however:

Dragons of Zynth - "Breaker"

TV on the Radio - "Providence" (feat. David Bowie)

No comments: