An incredible amount of hype has been heaped on Vampire Weekend. Signed to XL on the strength of only an EP and a seven-inch, the quartet of recent Columbia University graduates has been garnering attention for a sound that at first draws immediate comparisons, at least musically, to the effortless African rhythms of Paul Simon’s Graceland. As a template, they certainly could’ve picked worse. But in judging the band on its own merits, Vampire Weekend’s debut comes across as a confident, precise, and, for better and worse, mature collection.
Despite the advance warning on the blogs, there are actually only two songs that undeniably warrant the Paul Simon namedrop. The syncopated Congolese rhythm and clean-picked guitar melody propelling “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa” has no parallel in the insular world of American indie-rock, but would fit in perfectly after “I Know What I Know” on Graceland. That the high-fret bass runs and keyboard lines seem copied from “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes” is insignificant. This and “Bryn” are concise encapsulations of what Vampire Weekend does best — take the simplest facet of a melodic line and, with drummer Chris Tomson’s rhythmic command, make it the song’s pristine focus. The members merge Africa and New England and then quickly move on.
But “Cap Cod Kwassa Kwassa” is not the album’s best track; it’s merely an introduction to the band’s aesthetic. “Campus” and “Oxford Comma” better represent not who Vampire Weekend is but who Vampire Weekend could be in the future. They also happen to be perfect jump-off points to discuss what keeps this album from being as successful as it could be.
With references to Dharamsala, passports, Chap Stick, butlers, neckties, the United Nations, diction, English dramas, and, finally, inexplicably, Lil Jon, “Oxford Comma” is perhaps the most confusing keyboard-driven pop gem that is ostensibly about oft-misused punctuation. The problem is, essentially, that it’s too ironic for its own good. The music swells in all the expected places, but there is no feeling behind it. And the song feels cut off; where brevity typically suits the band, “Oxford Comma” suffers from it and feels lacking.
And on another standout, “Campus,” the band comes across as, despite the four-on-the-floor pulse and lilting, impressive melody, too carefully crafted and intellectually distanced. For a singer who sounds remarkably like Alex Turner from the Arctic Monkeys, Koenig’s repeated lyrical theme in “Campus” — “I pull my shirt on/ walk out the door/ drag my feet along the floor” — is a pallid attempt at description compared even with a throwaway Turner lyric like, “Though they might wear classic Reeboks/ Or knackered Converse/ Or tracky bottoms tucked in socks” (from “A Certain Romance”).
The song’s flourishes of both classical orchestration and African polyrhythms mixed with lyrics like “In the afternoon you’re out on the stolen grass/ And I’m sleeping on the balcony after class” only further the elitist vantage point of the band. You can dance to them, and you can sing along with them, but you can’t identify with them. Much is made of Vampire Weekend’s intellectual pedigree, but if they want to progress on more than the innovation of their music and a preppy, privileged aesthetic, the lyrics need to step up on an emotional, empathetic level.
The album’s true highlight, then, is the second-to-last track, “Walcott.” At 3:42, it clocks in as the third-longest song, yet it passes by in a blur of pounded, descending piano chords and tastefully minimal and staccato orchestration. There is no African lineage. Rather, what makes it so powerful is what tracks like “Mansard Roof,” “M79,” and the otherwise stellar “The Kids Don’t Stand a Chance” lack: vulnerability. Koenig remains calm a little removed in his depiction of the wealthy dissatisfaction of a privileged Eastern seaboard lifestyle, yet in the final chorus something finally opens up. As he reaches to his higher register for “Walcott/ Don’t you know that it’s insane/ Don’t you want to get out of Cape Cod/ Out of Cape Cod tonight?” we hear the band finally unleashing some of the pent-up passion masked by the intellectual distance of the previous tracks. They are, after all, kids, and on “Walcott,” their youth and unchecked emotion are, if only for a brief moment, wonderful virtues.