Critical Backlash: Vampire Weekend

Photo by David Greenwald

This was inevitable, right? Vampire Weekends self-titled debut, in the grand tradition of many indie rock albums before it, is enjoyable, inoffensive,* and mostly forgettable. Pitchfork reviewed it this morning and apparently flew in on the same Afropop plane that the rest of the blogosphere (not to mention this week’s Entertainment Weekly) did: “The first sound on the first song, “Mansard Roof”, comes from Rostam Batmanglij’s keyboard, set to a perky, almost piping tone– the kind of sunny sound you’d hear in old west-African pop. Same goes for Ezra Koenig’s guitar, which never takes up too much space; it’s that clean, natural tone you’d get on a record from Senegal or South Africa,” writes the generally clear-headed Nitsuh Abebe. If this is what co-opting world music sounds like in 2008, M.I.A. must be a Martian (but not like Lil Wayne). [Continue reading…]

While there’s certainly a Worldbeat to the band’s jittery grooves, it’s impossible to listen to Vampire Weekend and not hear their less buzzed-about influences – the Anglophone ones. There’s their Columbia U predecessors, The Walkmen, whose keyboard use and affected vocals they ape; or fellow New Yorkers Au Revoir Simone, whose “Fallen Snow” uses a near-identical keyboard tone to V-Dub’s “Mansard Roof.” The guitar lines and much of the drumming – when it’s not skewing African – is just watered-down dance-punk, a dinosaur trend Pitchfork has apparently forgotten about.

If anything, V-Dub sound like Hot Hot Heat and every other middling, pop-leaning indie band that doesn’t have enough balls to be the Walkmen, enough nerdy heartache to be Death Cab or enough talent to be the Shins. This is not an article on miscegenation, though I look forward to Sasha Frere-Jones’ future 2,000 word rant on these guys; I’m merely pointing out that bands – or perhaps, reviewers – often hide behind the cover of a trend or influence, with the songs themselves going unexamined. An “edgy” style does not a great pop song make (see also: Panda Bear, but I digress).

Abebe compares V-Dub at several points to the Strokes – while the similarities are there, in location, stylistic elements and the band’s likely trust-fund babyism – Is This It? remains a far more compelling document. The songs are fuller and more fleshed-out and Julian Casablancas, with his weary, boozy charm is simply a more charismatic narrator than Ezra Koenig, who just sounds insufferably preppy even when he’s not singing about rich people. Don’t get me wrong: the songs are good. They’re simply too slight to deserve the praise showered upon them. This isn’t going to stop some thousands of hipsters from downloading the album today, but time will tell if the band’s songs hold up; Vampire Weekend is a January release and people will probably forget they exist (like the Shins – remember them? Nobody did last month) by September or so. Unless one of them punches up his girlfriend.

*An Oxford comma in action.

Vampire Weekend – “Oxford Comma”: mp3

(Vampire Weekend is out 1/29 on XL)

Previously: Live: Vampire Weekend at Columbia University, 9.01.07


Critical Backlash is a column where I complain about things. Click below for more.