First thing’s first: Vampire Weekend‘s sound is in no way gothic, despite their name’s suggestions. Second, this much-blogged-about Ivy League foursome dare to reference Paul Simon and dub their music, provocatively, as “Upper West Side Soweto” – risible grounds for a slap at least. Third, they’re based in the same city as The Strokes, which gives some wags slack rein to suggest they’re somehow retreading ground trodden to mud Last Nite.
Well, a hex upon the hazy, lazy hack who claims Vampire Weekend’s debut is somehow “Graceland for the MySpace generation”. For sure, plenty of African musical influence is evident in this record, but Paul Simon never had the copyright on appreciating the sounds of that continent. Neither did Sting, nor even Damon Albarn. On the flipside, African musicians, from King Sunny Ade through Salif Keita to Youssou N’Dour, happily magpie their way round western genres at will. Well they might. Why not? And was Zach Condon dragged screaming over hot coals for appropriating Balkan and kletzmer traditions into Beirut‘s music?
But this dwelling on Vampire Weekend’s hooking of African thrills misses myriad other influences at work on this often fantastic record. Keyboard maestro Rostom Batmanglij’s music training has been brought to bear with classical arrangements (he seems keen on baroque harpsichords and strings) – check out The Kids Don’t Stand A Chance and the opening of M79. Front man Ezra Koenig’s vocals call Arctic Monkeys‘ Alex Turner to mind more than once, notably on Mansard Roof. And on Walcott and I Stand Corrected, Arcade Fire‘s rhythmic way with a spot of haunting piano and some frenetic drum beats is roped in. In short, there’s a lot more to this record than “afrobeat”.
At times Koenig’s deliberately vague lyrics exist only to fill in lines where lyrics are expected, reminding in this regard of British Sea Power. Check this little gem from Mansard Roof: “The Argentines collapse in defeat, the admiralty surveys the remnants of the fleet.” Even in the context of the song it means bugger all. But by stringing his note-form words together into songs and songs into a remarkably even album, he creates a commonality of thematic purpose.
“I’m interested in how American preppiness is explicitly linked to Victorian British Imperialism,” says Koenig. “It comes out of this time period where the world’s cultures were getting mixed up for the first time.” He goes on to suggest that “we really have this global society” now. It’s endearing that his lyrics reference in history, geography and sociology, and an awareness sadly lacking amongst many acts from both sides of the pond that he has a place within the world, within time and space, and that a sequence of events led to where he is.
Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa, a title self-consciously linking their eastern seaboard roots to a rhythm born of the Congo, is the song that’s attracted the Graceland comparisons more than any other. In it Koenig references those preppy issues of sex, room tidying, dressing warmly and brand name dropping, sticking Louis Vuitton and Benetton in a tongue-in-cheek couplet before the clincher: “It feels so unnatural, Peter Gabriel too.” There’s a general feeling in this and throughout the album – A-Punk is in a similar vein until elements of Welsh lullaby Suo Gan appear – that Vampire Weekend know what they’re doing: happily baiting those with little imagination or sense of humour.
Oxford Comma, by turns, is not about an obscure rule of grammar and how clever the band consider themselves to be, but about how irrelevant it is. “I’ve seen those English dramas too, they’re cruel” he sings. “I haven’t got the words for you, all your diction dripping with disdain, oh the pain…” He’s criticising the Victorian and Edwardian society that created and enforced such rules of language to divide society socially along educational lines for their own ends. “I met the highest lama, his accent sounded fine to me,” he shrugs, happily throwing Tibetan culture into the band’s already heady brew.
In the centre of an ambitious album, M79 is the most ambitious piece. Ostensibly named after a Manhattan bus route, it wires together those harpischord and string arrangements with African beats, intentionally fusing the musical heritage of Europe and Africa that, in Vampire Weekend’s world, meets in America. One (Blake’s Got A New Face) is scarcely less catchy, with its yelping chorus refrain and minimalist synth combining to form a quite compulsive shimmy-along.
In places almost carnivalesque, this is a good times album that celebrates positive aspects of the world. It doesn’t sound like Graceland. Where Vampire Weekend do stand guilty as charged by their detractors is that, despite the inventive genre splicing going on throughout the record, every one of the songs is rooted in a strong melody, meaning at least half the album is radio-friendly.
Such a mash-up, yet it’s replete with hooks, melodies and – most importantly – a personality quite of its own. It doesn’t sound like these 23-year-olds want to sound like The Libertines (or The Strokes, for that matter) or the unceasing conveyor-belt of skinny-jeaned crackheads who can’t wait to sound just as bad as they did. Instead they offer a breath of fresh air. Wind to their sails.