At 1:32 a.m. last Valentine’s Day, a demo titled “Oxford Comma” by a band of Columbia University buds was posted on the blog Music for Robots. Good Weather for Airstrikes reposted the song, with two others, a month later, declaring Vampire Weekend “the best unsigned band in New York City.” In June, The New York Times weighed in with a smitten live review. Stereogum posted the band’s cover of Radiohead’s “Exit Music (for a Film)” in July. And by August, Vampire Weekend had signed to XL Recordings, current U.K. label of, yes, Radiohead.
So here we are with their debut album, as pure a product of high-speed, broadband blogger love as indie rock has coughed up (see also Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, Black Kids), though you can imagine the backlash to come (“I mean, the new versions aren’t much different from the MP3s — plus, their fans dance kinda like hippies”). But musically speaking, Vampire Weekend have made a truly fresh, fun, and smart record — an accomplishment that has less to do with Web hype than with their being very canny magpies.
Much of the hoopla centers on the group’s fondness for shiny, staccato, reverb-free African-style guitar lines. But while suburban New Jersey expat singer/guitarist Ezra Koenig may have had his Afro-pop epiphany after stumbling upon vinyl copies of Madagasikara One and Two at a garage sale, and has been quoted saying things like “The basis ofour whole band is not playing modern rock,” he clearly has a few iPods’ worth of rock history in his head. Vampire Week- end bite the ’80s as hard as any of their peers. “A-Punk” sounds like an English Beat B-side, all high-strung bass line, twitchy high hat, and ska-revival shouts. “The Kids Don’t Stand a Chance” conjures the Police’s upwardly mobile reggae. And “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa” approximates Paul Simon’s Graceland, the prototype African/New York white-boy fusion, cheekily name-checking Simon’s fellow world-music explorer Peter Gabriel.
Other references are more recent. “One (Blake’s Got a New Face)” recalls Phish playing new wave, and “Campus” echoes New York prep-rock brethren the Strokes. But making art always involves mashing up history. And Vampire Weekend don’t front. They spit witty lyrics on subjects they clearly know: tenacious crushes, upper-crust East Coast vacation towns, and coed global consumers spilling kefir on their kaffiyehs (to paraphrase one memorable lyric). Their own cultural borrowing is more akin to Timbaland sampling Bollywood tracks than “world music” per se, and it’s no accident their Euro-American roots get shouted out with periodic bursts of strings and harpsichord. They even rock traditional tribal costumes: button-down Oxfords, cardigans, and boat shoes. Come to think of it, maybe they’re a world-music act after all.