Vampire Weekend Review

While visiting New York last weekend for a so-so (but, as all things in NYC, sold out) Liars/No Age show, I thought I had the signature sound of early 2008 all figured out. Rippling, choppy guitar chords washed through the room and my imaginary concert calendar. It was the logical choice. Those reverb-heads did all their homework, paid homage to established heavyweights (it's basically shoegaze, slowed down as though oozing out of molasses speakers), and incorporated just enough newness to sound fresh without freaking anybody out.

But then there was this band whose CD I pick up at the music store because I like the cover art. The jagoff clerk only gave me a 15-second preview, but that was enough to tell me it was a summery, picnic time album, the kind of music which is crucial to long-term survival in miserable, slushy Pittsburgh midwinter. Though it smacked of insubstantiality, playing-it-safe and taking-no-chances, that 15 seconds gave me a good feeling. I wasn't blown away, but when I went home and checked out the band's Myspace, I saw that their songs had all been previewed over 400,000 times. After seeing those numbers, I couldn't escape Vampire Weekend. Someone told me they had sold out a show here, at the Andy Warhol museum, not even days before! A friend who only listens to hardcore had the CD on her coffee table! There they were, nervous and freaked-out on the cover of Spin magazine at the library! Even the funk DJ on the college radio station was singing their praises. What the hell was going on? I mean, I seriously couldn't get away. Things were getting weird. These 4 pale guys in sweaters and chinos were EVERYWHERE.

It was apparent that I had stumbled on to this month's Big Thing. So I borrowed the CD from someone and listened to it again. And it was good. Actually, the more I listen to it, the better it gets. What's more, it sounds less and less formulaic and more and more original. At this point, for influences, all I have left is Simon and Garfunkel (minus all their super annoying naïve cheeriness) and Wes Anderson soundtracks. With a lot of dainty clavichord.

Like Wes Anderson, these guys suffer at times from getting carried away with themselves. But they are also, like Anderson, capable of creating art that feels archetypal and classic without just going on a nostalgia trip. In their case, this means snaring and bottling up the essence of catchiness, almost in pure form. Everything is smooth and clean-edged. There's a beautifully glib road-trip guitar, little bits of flute and other chamber music twiddlings, including that clavichord. Seriously, listen to the first 30 seconds of "M79" and tell me this isn't the Royal Tenenbaums, I dare you. The album has that lovely transcendent quality of being music you'll like even if you don't know anything about music - your mother would probably like it as much as you do. The singing is breezy and smooth, imbued with wonderful confidence and clarity even when it slides into a falsetto.

Still, it took me a little while to see what all the hype was about. I mean, it sounds good, you know? Pretty good, but not the kind of thing I would call genre-shredding or revolutionary or any of those other things we music reviewers love so much. But now I get it. This is a good album. It's not a great album – it's not the Beatles, nor is it the Pixies. And as an album which doesn't try for greatness, which just focuses on creating charming little songs for art history majors and the like, it's carved out a really solid niche for itself. There's a lot of pretension in singing about week-long vacations in San Juan and checking out your romance studies professor, yes, but at least they aren't bullshitting anyone. They're following the old creative writer's advice – WRITE what you KNOW. I feel like they understand that as kids born well-off, in New England, educated to the point where they would even think about writing songs about things like Mansard Roofs and Oxford Commas, it would be dishonest to pretend that they were something else. In wearing its privileged heart on its sleeve, this album effectively goes through a trial by fire. If they were trying to write punk songs (and they do incorporate a little punk chorus, charmingly) instead of vaguely wimpy but really sincere pop songs, they would come across as completely inauthentic. They'd be co-opting music and emotions that belong in dirty, dirty cities with rusted-out factories everywhere and greasy fish sandwiches the size of your arm. Like Pittsburgh. Instead, they're not hiding anything. By being so unabashedly themselves, these guys have won over their audience. It should be cheesy, but I think it worked.

Ben Phelps-Rohrs

If you like Vampire Weekend, check out some of these other favorites:

Tokyo Police Club
Shout Out Louds
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