A lot can be gleaned about Vampire Weekend from the fact that their most evenhanded assessment to date has come from Teen Vogue. The band has stirred critical discourse to new heights of speciousness and inspired bloggers to treat them—as blogs do many new, well-intentioned bands—with the pitched frustration that toddlers reserve for first encounters with toys featuring more than one moving part. Prior to the release of Vampire Weekend, finally out this week, this band’s catalog was 14 minutes long.
Teen Vogue, on the other hand, chirped with disarming objectivity and accuracy about VW’s background (Columbia University), sound (modest, wimpy ’80s-style college rock peppered with immodest rhythms like highlife and some oddly baroque ornamentation), and, of course, the fact that frontman Ezra Koenig recently bought a Ralph Lauren sweater. It was covered with embroidered dogs.
It’s a gesture that plenty of people might find obnoxious, but so is Kanye West’s. Why the black guy showing off his Ralph Lauren gear is standard and a white guy doing the same is considered hoity-toity is America’s problem, not mine. Moralizing about VW’s style is pointless; I can only praise how cleverly they’ve integrated it into their music. And if I can’t, it doesn’t matter, because Vampire Weekend is a jaunty indie-pop album with decent melodies and a distinct rhythmic sense, made by four reasonably good-looking young men.
But it’s also an album of subtle rebellion, one that seems to know how to play its audience as much as its own preppy stance. “Oxford Comma,” for example, isn’t about how much they learned in college, but about how formality, in the coat-and-tie sense, can do as much harm as good. They only mention the punctuation mark to ask “who gives a fuck about” it; the song’s most poignant line is “Lil Jon, he always tells the truth,” because the truth is the truth no matter what kind of slacks it wears, and to think otherwise is as superficial as people accuse the band of being. It’s an accession that they wear the clothes, but clothes don’t make the man.
Location helps, though. About three-quarters of Vampire Weekend‘s myriad references form a compendium of the Northeast: Mansard roofs, WASP-y names like Bryn and Blake, Cape Cod and Mystic Seaport. There’s Benetton and Louis Vuitton; there’s Peter Gabriel and the Congolese dance style kwassa-kwassa. But the band signifies the past as much as the upper class—the kwassa-kwassa was most popular in the late ’80s, most hospitals don’t house “young man’s wings” anymore, and Benetton’s ubiquity in magazine ads passed nearly 20 years ago. VW is Anglophilic, too, but in the queerest way possible: “Serial comma” would’ve been enough to throw people, but they used “Oxford.” On the ska-tinged bounce of “A-Punk,” Koenig’s narrator describes “the pueblo huts of Mexico” as “exotica.” On “One,” the word “Occident” is used.
The band’s music carries the same aesthetic. The groove of “Mansard Roof”‘ suggests soca (and gets away from drummer Christopher Tomson and bassist Chris Bai in the spirited way that college rock sometimes does), and keyboardist Rostam Batmanglij churns out a synth-cello arpeggio so prim it verges on cartoonish. On “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa,” Batmanglij plays a harpsichord sound over a bunch of hand drums. It’s tiny endearing contradiction after tiny endearing contradiction.
Vampire Weekend is a world drawn with the details of an insider, but that doesn’t mean the portrait isn’t critical. The last line of “One”—”Oh, your collegiate grief has left you dowdy in sweatshirts/Absolute horror!”—is as bitterly mocking as Evelyn Waugh or Whit Stillman (who also took their snipes at the upper class from a close range). What makes VW not the Decemberists is simple: The Decemberists were not sea captains in the 1900s, whereas Vampire Weekend did go to an Ivy League college in the Northeast, and at least one of them was a literature student. Their style is restlessly cultivated, but it’s rooted in their experience. And under all the wit and posture, they bury real sentiment. On first listen, “Campus” seems to whinge about collegiate romance, but after a few listens you realize it might be about how people who once converged for a one-night stand are forced to coexist as parallel lines in closed environments. Of course, later, when Koenig wants to say, “Baby, I’m sorry,” the words comes out as malformed as inbred royalty: “I stand corrected.”
Vampire Weekend play January 30 at Bowery Ballroom, boweryballroom.com