I first saw Vampire Weekend last July in Los Angeles. They were the first band on a bill of five at some ASCAP songwriters’ showcase, and while I commented on their already growing buzz on my subsequent blog post (Tobey Maguire was there!), said buzz pretty much amounted to nerding out about it in the office and posting a few blog posts about their self-released debut album – the one on the blue CD-R. In fact, when I bought the band’s “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa” 7-inch after the show, lead singer Ezra Koenig off-handedly promised to play at my house during their next tour. Alas, those plans blew up as soon as they were profiled in the New York Times, Rolling Stone and every other arts publication of note. Last Tuesday at the Blind Pig, the hype machine and Vampire Weekend’s undeniable accessibility produced a line that wound around the block, despite only 50 available tickets, relentless snow and delayed start time.
As can be expected of anything that becomes so popular so fast, Vampire Weekend has already been the subject of much backlash and derision. The fact that they formed at Columbia University escaped no journalist looking for an easy angle, and their preppiness was blown way out of proportion. They’ve been accused of everything from appropriating African riffs to being inarticulate (keyboardist Rostam Batmanglij used the word “awesome” 18 times in a recent interview). A coworker of mine has taken to calling their two-week-old debut album as “the biggest musical crime of 2008.” As much as I’d like to pile on and bash an easy target, you’d have to be a total cynic or a complete idiot to not refute any of the above accusations.
Most damningly, their Ivy League background has turned into their defining characteristic. Instead of focusing on the deft blend of witty but unpretentious lyrics, with African rhythms and addictive melodies, writers and critics have beaten their boat shoes and khakis to death. If I’d only read about the band before I actually heard them, I might hate them too, because just about every description of them, no matter how well-meaning, reeks of classism, douchery and lazy writing. Seeing them live, or even just listening to what they’re actually saying on their album, gives a totally different impression. Sure, these guys are super-smart and sort of dorky, but they’re also unassuming and genuinely talented musicians. The oft-quoted rhyme scheme of “Benetton,” / Louis Vuitton” and Reggaeton” is rarely mentioned in context – it’s a self-aware dig at their social dispositions.
It’s also a shame that their musical style has been tainted by constant comparisons to Paul Simon’s Graceland. And yes, while Vampire Weekend and Paul Simon do have something in common, it’s more along the lines of both of them listening to the same African musicians than Vampire Weekend copping Graceland. Despite all the accusations of cultural appropriation that have been leveled at them, the lone new song they debuted at the Blind Pig displayed more Benga influences than anything they’ve done before. Going with more of what works is generally a winning formula, and after all, how could a jam-packed Blind Pig singing along to a song called “Cap Cod Kwassa Kwassa” ever be a bad thing?
When Koenig introduced lead single “A-Punk” by saying, “This is one for you to dance to,” the crowd obeyed. Nearly every chorus was a shout-along and when Koenig asked for assistance with the “Blake’s Got A New Face” refrain, the response was overwhelming. It certainly helped that they sounded great, achieving the rare complimentary mix at the notoriously difficult Pig. The drums loomed large and the harmonies were blended just right. And to top it all off, the set length was perfect. Although that has more to do with the fact their repertoire consists of a dozen songs.
Near the end of their set, the girl next to me noticed me taking notes on my arm, grabbed my pen and scribbled a heart and “I’m so happy.” It effectively rendered everything else I’d written irrelevant. Moments like that are rare, but they’re the reason a lot of people feel compelled to seek out new music, and for whatever reason, Vampire Weekend is full of them.