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Vampire Weekend - Vampire Weekend

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Artist: Vampire Weekend

Album: Vampire Weekend

Label: XL

Review date: Jan. 28, 2008

Vampire Weekend, the hyped Brooklyn quartet, is a band of cynics. The group’s collective sneer is not limited to its song titles, or to its obsession with Cape Cod, or to its lyrics, a procession of verses mixing brash Ivy League privilege with sophomoric desire. Vampire Weekend’s cynicism, rather, runs deeper. So much so, that one can detect it permeating the entirety of their self-titled debut, beginning with each player’s musical approach and ending with the group’s penchant for preppy sweaters.

On first encounter, the group’s cynicism seems to stem from the unabashed incorporation of Afro-pop in its songwriting. A song like “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa,” a breezy ditty that was the group’s first “hit,” says it all with its title. On its face and in its content, “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa” is cultural appropriation in its platonic form. Paying no heed to the potential awkwardness of rhapsodizing about reggaeton and Benetton atop a Congolese pop derivative, Vampire Weekend pulls off a triumph of apparent obliviousness, if not shamelessness. Which, of course, is the band’s intent.

Vampire Weekend’s appropriation of the developing world’s sounds on “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa” might set off the average multiculturalist’s indignation. But any distress about the band’s cavalier use of African or Caribbean styles is probably misplaced. If the group’s sarcasm weren’t convincing enough, placing Vampire Weekend in its proper context drives it home. A band of recent Columbia grads is likely to be offensive for many reasons, but I doubt blunt, unselfconscious patronization of the third world is one of them.

Instead, “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa,” like all of Vampire Weekend, is supposed to be ironic – witty, even. Fair enough. Even if irony does not excuse or account for all of the band’s efforts, it is probably unfair to slight Vampire Weekend for lifting sounds performed by poorer and darker artists. Rock’n’roll has always been implicated with whites appropriating black music, and Vampire Weekend is no more culpable than other past and present offenders. So, on this count, the band arguably deserves a free pass, regardless of Vampire Weekend’s obsequious references to Darjeeling and Dharamsala.

The root of Vampire Weekend’s cynicism is better heard elsewhere. This source, perhaps unexpectedly, is the fact that its members are smart songwriters. Vampire Weekend is composed of 11 tightly-wound coils of pop. Hooks abound and, on repeated listens, it is clear that the band has an acute sense of song structure and texture. Consider the subtle string arrangements on “M79” or the shifting drum beats on “I Stand Corrected,” an Elvis Costello-inspired romp that is one of Vampire Weekend’s guilty pleasures. These instances of careful arrangement and precise execution are proof that these gents have thought through their work, and have buffed each song to its error-free core.

Yet, there is the rub. For a band that makes such structurally-sound pop, how does one explain the snarky, undergraduate tenor the group projects? Vampire Weekend is quite professional when it comes to its music, but would like to play the slacker, “sleeping on the balcony after class” as Ezra Koenig (full disclosure: he was briefly a Dusted scribe) croons on “Campus.” The result is one of artifice: Either Vampire Weekend is not the band of songwriters their work evinces, or they are neither the rebels nor the miscreants they portray themselves as being.

The answer to this tension is, in the end, irrelevant to assessing the merits of Vampire Weekend. The point is that this tension exists at all. Vampire Weekend is a band that wants it both ways: They want to be taken seriously but remain silly young men; they want your respect, but will continue to keep their noses raised. Containing this set of contradictions, Vampire Weekend is an exemplar of contemporary establishment indie rock, sandblasted clean but striking a dirty pose nonetheless.

By Ben Yaster

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