Hype is a very, very bad thing.
Internet forums and music blogs have the ability to build up a new band before it even releases a full-length album. The result is typically a crushing disappointment; an album rarely living up to the expectations. From that point forward, said band will forever be referred to in causal conversation as “a product of the hype machine.”
Remarkably, Vampire Weekend has avoided this catastrophe.
The topic of months worth of buzz, Vampire Weekend was formed by Ezra Koenig, Chris Baio, Rostam Batmanglij and Chris Tomson in early 2006 while the four were students at Columbia University. Often, the great success of a band’s first album is the product of years of anonymity, personal investment and the creative ambition of its members’ lives. But this isn’t the case with Vampire Weekend’s self-titled debut, a record seemingly born of explosive chemistry.
The group’s youth and the album’s sheer beauty also defy this logic. Described simply as indie rock by some and as “Upper West Side Soweto” by the band, Vampire Weekend is a nightmare to discuss. To call it an eclectic album would be an understatement – each song owes little to the one before it, and each track has its own distinctive flavor. The only constant is Koenig’s high, clear voice and the disc’s intellectual lyrics.
The debut single, “A-Punk,” was an obvious choice, as it is easily the album’s most approachable track. The song’s bouncy, poppy ambiance and straightforward structure are adolescent and familiar. While “A-Punk” might seem intended for insiders when Koenig namedrops Washington Heights, Sloan-Kettering and the Hudson River in the song’s mere two minutes, the song’s sparkly riff and hissing high-hat smooth over the lyrics and make it instantly likable.
On the singsong “Walcott,” Koenig declares, “The bottleneck is a shit show / Hyannisport is a ghetto / Out of Cape Cod tonight.” This kind of unabashed hipster ethos has led some to loathe the band from the start. But it would be far too easy to be put off by this kind of haughtiness. Trash-talking the land of the rich isn’t arrogant if you’re one of them – it’s irony.
Vampire Weekend isn’t always this arrogant, though. The group can be, and often are, sweeter and simpler. Lyrics like “How am I supposed to pretend / I never want to see you again?” from “Campus” easily endear Vampire Weekend to the college crowd, showing a more human side in an album that might otherwise seem like an endless litany of haute hotspots and Ivy League pretension.
Unlike many other indie-rock releases, the middle section of Vampire Weekend is brimming with unusual instrumentation and rhythms. “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa” has an East-Coast bohemian meets West African feel, with its reggae hiccups and syncopated bongos. The light percussion on “Oxford Comma” buoys Koenig along as he sings over a pulsing, funky keyboard line. The opening notes of “Bryn” almost sound like a reined-in Celtic reel, leading into the sweet lyrics, “Oh Bryn / You see through the dark / Right past the fireflies that sleep in my heart.”
Vampire Weekend will almost certainly draw comparisons to other pop greats. Does the group sound like Paul Simon or the Talking Heads? Ultimately, the comparisons don’t work here; Vampire Weekend demands a listen on its own merit. In some ways, the band succumbs to every indie-rock cliché – the album is often wordy, snarky and cutesy. But it works. It’s dynamic, polished and, though it’s almost dangerous to say so, original. After a few listens, when Koenig sings, “Don’t you know that your life could be lost / Out at Cape Cod tonight?” the sarcasm runs off, and it’s clear there’s a wealth of skill and genuine sensitivity in these songs, whether their authors came from prep school stock or not.
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars