Of all the records I played for people in 2007, none was greeted with as much enthusiasm as Vampire Weekend’s “Blue CD-R,” the unfinished demo version of the band’s now officially released self-titled debut. The early version leaked in the first part of last year, and, barring a few hopelessly, uselessly grumpy commenters on various music blogs, pretty much everyone got on board. From the biggest glossies to the smallest websites, everyone was willing to embrace four decidedly clean-cut, Ivy League kids with a penchant for something everyone kept sheepishly calling Afropop — at precisely the time when it seemed people were finally tiring of the unending barrage of Next Big Things. To a certain extent, it was simply the law of averages at play: When you say everyone’s going to be awesome, all the time, eventually someone will be. But there’s more to it. Vampire Weekend have flipped the tried-and-true indie rock script in more than a few ways, and, with good reason, it’s resonated with a lot of people.
Take, for instance, their outward appearance. Silly, I know, but not entirely unimportant. Frontman Ezra Koenig appears on stage and in photo shoots like an L.L. Bean model ca. 1985, it’s all docksiders and duckboots, crisp polo shirts and crisper Levis 501s, lovingly and traditionally cuffed. His full head of thick, dark hair should appear in a Pantene commercial, and his skin is as clear as a ten-year-old’s. He’s like an indie rock porcelain doll, and certainly none of it is an accident. Their New England Prep-school aesthetic is carefully executed, from their show flyers to their album art, instantly appealing to everyone who complains about the humdrum, regular-Joe look of most indie rock bands. Rolling out of bed and walking onstage looking just like your friend with the bad temp job is, after all, as 1996 as it gets — a sentiment that’s illustrated brilliantly at the end of ‘One (Blake’s Got a New Face)’ when Koenig sings, “All your collegiate grief has left you dowdy in sweatshirts; absolute horror.”
Consider too the size of the band itself and the relationship they have with their fans. In his thoughtful essay, ‘Notes on the Ecstasy of Auxiliary Percussion’, published in the newly relaunched (as a webzine) Crawdaddy, The L’s own Mark Asch considers a recent shift in indie rock circles, which sees bands regularly boasting as many as ten members, where performances feel more like a circus (or like church) than anything closely resembling a standard rock show. “The experience these bands project through their original material,” he says, “is the sense of catharsis that comes from losing oneself in someone else’s songs.” Think about the Arcade Fire, with Win Butler regularly lugging his microphone and guitar into the crowd, breaking the performer/audience barrier by inviting them to sing along, as loudly as they want, with almost as much access to the microphone as he has. With Vampire Weekend, we see a return to tradition: There’s a singer/guitarist, a bassist, a keyboardist and a drummer. And there is a crowd. Regardless of the size of the venue, a distinct line is drawn between the band and its fans, creating a certain sense of aloofness reminiscent of early Belle and Sebastian performances: They don’t allow the audience to play too big a role in their show, because they’d run the risk of a bunch of people ruining something they’ve taken great care to make sure is presented as meticulously as they’d envisioned it.
None of this, of course, is to say their shows aren’t fun. They are, and it flies in the face of what’s typically considered “fun” music. Rock venues all over the country — and god knows here in New York — are filled each and every night with what can be boiled down to two types of bands. You’ve got the sad-sack variety (see Band of Horses, the Mountain Goats, etc), which leads to the standard type of arms-folded, quietly, self-consciously nodding behavior people have been complaining about for years, and you’ve got the somewhat more recent crop of dance-rock bands (see Dan Deacon, Girl Talk, etc) that are certainly “fun” and certainly get people moving, but often lack the substance many are looking for, contributing to the annoying and dangerous misconception that music which takes itself seriously can’t be danced to.
Look back to early Bruce Springsteen, though, or to the Smiths, or to Belle and Sebastian and, hell, even to the Clash, and you’ll see people dancing in celebration of having found their place, either by escaping some other shittier place, or by settling in nicely with the other weird kids around them. On the surface, it seems similar to so much of the NYC-centric dance-rock I mentioned earlier, except with that stuff, while you do get the sense people are dancing to celebrate their otherness, their escape, the musicians themselves aren’t really articulating any of that so much as they are providing a setting for people to hang out and let their mere presence (or their clothes) do the talking for them.
Vampire Weekend is giving a voice to a group that’s famously tough to pin down: smart young people who know they’re smart and remain consistently entertained by the myriad ways in which they’ve been so vastly misrepresented by the mainstream media, via awkwardly written films, television shows and marketing campaigns. They liberally drop references to collegiate life (debates about the Oxford comma, sleeping on a balcony after class, etc), and pepper their songs with a series of not-so-subtle nods to staples of privileged upbringings: Louis Vuitton, Benetton, bleeding madras patterns. And they do in such a way that, especially given their preppy wardrobes, it’s never quite clear if they’re singing in praise of these things or in protest against them. The truth is that it’s probably a little bit of both, just another iteration of the ubiquitous and all-important struggle to reconcile your roots — the shit you were just born into — with the person you’re trying to be as an adult.
Way on top of all this is the music itself, which, as I said earlier, everyone keeps calling Afrobeat or Afropop. And there are elements of African music that sprout up all over the record. The drums are difficult to follow, with fills and repeated figures that are just a hair removed from what you’re accustomed to in American indie rock. The guitars are immaculate — with not a hint of overdrive or distortion to be found — and prone to tricky runs played high up on the neck. There are group vocals, awkwardly timed and monotone, more chanted than sung. Koenig, too, has a remarkably versatile voice. He goes from quiet and elegant, almost like a 50s crooner, to loud and wild, allowing his voice to screech and shake, in admirably restrained and repeatable ways. The standard comparison has been Graceland, and while there’s certainly merit to that, it’s probably been somewhat overstated, as the record is also brimming with allusions to first-wave ska, playful punk and straightforward indie-pop. I can’t remember the last time I heard a record with this many perfect melodies and feel-good moments, from the “Get out of there while you still can” anthem ‘Walcott’, to the rallying call of ‘The Kids Don’t Stand a Chance’. I can’t remember the last time I heard a record that sounds so distinctly like it was made by people unfazed by the music being made around them. And I can’t remember the last time a record provided so many things that had been so obviously missing, for so many people.