Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Undermining Cynicism

Vampire Weekend - Vampire Weekend (XL, 2008)

I’m always somewhat cynical and suspicious about over-hyped ‘hot tip’ debuts such as this. My pre-release ambivalence on this occasion has been intensified by the fact that Vampire Weekend are the dashingly handsome, media-friendly export from a genuinely exciting Brooklyn rising that has also gifted us with the highly sophisticated Yeasayer and the dazzling originality of Dave Longstreth’s Dirty Projectors. Whilst the Yeasayer album seems to be ‘doing an Arcade Fire’ over here, building quite a buzz and helping the group sell out shows on the basis of word of mouth, critics and listeners alike seem not to have noticed Dirty Projectors at all (save for Plan B magazine, who have bravely elected to give the group a cover feature amidst the relative lack of interest elsewhere). In this context, it’s rather galling for Vampire Weekend to suddenly emerge in a blitz of PR, immediately gathering uncritical acclaim for their appropriation of African music – (the soukous and hi-life sounds especially).

In actuality, Vampire Weekend are a rather different prospect from these other groups. Yeasayer and DPs are in thrall to the possibilities of unexpected juxtapositions, whilst VW are really, at heart, a simple pop group. Fortunately, it transpires that they’re really rather good at being a pop group. Melodically, most of these songs have a slight reminiscence of the infectious but quirky vocal lines of James Mercer from The Shins, whilst musically they hint as much at the trendy fashions of recent angular indie-pop as they do at reggae or the influence of African rhythms and playing styles. There’s also a highly contagious sense of fun running riot through this mercilessly concise album that even the interjection of baroque chamber strings can’t stifle.

Most of the arrangements are skeletal, with plenty of space, allowing the brilliantly constructed melodies to cut through with piercing clarity. There’s a driving, taut rhythm section and either some spare and sustained chords on old analogue keyboards, or some spiky guitar playing over which Ezra Koenig delivers his frequently baffling lyrics. Simple though this backdrop may be, it’s delivered with such sprightly energy that it is rendered brutally effective. Whilst the music is never dense, the sounds the group select are usually intriguing, from the aforementioned string section to the mellotron textures on ‘A-Punk’. The African influences are cleverly subsumed within the overall ‘college-rock’ spirit (there’s even a song called ‘Campus’ for heaven’s sake), and the group even have the good humour to mock their preoccupations on ‘Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa’ (‘it feels so unnatural, Peter Gabriel…’). It all works because the inherent joy and celebration in African music very much reflects this group’s vigorous sense of fun. Similarly, the chamber pop stylings of ‘M79’ are made to sound vibrant rather than twee.

Koenig’s lyrics are remarkably wordy, and it’s often difficult to decipher exactly what Vampire Weekend’s songs are about. They certainly seem inspired by unconventional themes, from architecture (‘Mansard Roof’), to attacks on the demands of punctuation (‘Oxford Comma’ – a song which more generally seems to attack boasts about money). There’s a vivid, almost literary amount of detail in these songs, but Koenig’s dry, understated delivery is appropriate for his material. That the songs retain an irresistible charm in spite of these potential pitfalls is perhaps a result of the group not taking themselves too seriously, and Koenig’s own irony-laden sense of humour. In fact, his distinctive personality helps save the album from drowning in its own reference points.

‘Vampire Weekend’ will not rank as the most technically sophisticated or ground-breaking album of 2008, but it will surely stand as one of the year’s most straightforwardly bright and enjoyable statements. These songs are remarkably simple, and make the art of small ensemble songwriting look almost comically easy. This is no bad thing. These vampires provoke more fun than fear.

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