Vampire Weekend, a quartet of Columbia University-educated, harpsichord-playing young indie-poppers, has single-handedly started a critical mud fight over the issue of class. While many critics have praised the band as a fresh, creative talent, others have instead focused on the privileged background of its members, and their "appropriation" of Afro-pop melodies. Like the Strokes, Vampire Weekend's melodies are instantly memorable. But, also like the Strokes, it has been mercilessly slagged for its seemingly monied East Coast existence -- the critical equivalent of stealing the rich kid's lunch money after class.
"I think our album has given a lot of people an excellent opportunity to make stupid comments about race and class," says lead singer Ezra Koenig, reached by e-mail in the midst of the band's recent European tour. "Hopefully, it's given people the opportunity to say smart things too, but really, that has much more to do with the journalist/blogger/person than us."
The criticism has ranged from obnoxious – New York magazine reviewer Hugo Lindgren wrote, "If they'd shown up at CBGB circa 1978, these outré Ivy League preppies probably would've been beaten with bicycle chains" – to, well, more obnoxious – "Trust-funded or not, VW's music, lyrically and sonically, emits the putrescent stench of old money, of old politics, of old-guard high society," Julianne Shepherd wrote in the Village Voice. "And I can't get down with that, no matter how many times homeboys drop a Lil Jon reference."
As for the King of Crunk reference, that comes from the band's song, "Oxford Comma," which, ironically, is something of an anti-snobbery anthem. "Lil Jon, he always tells the truth," sings Koenig, a New Jersey native and member of a goofy, side-project rap group called L'Homme Run, which also features an Atlanta guy named Andrew Kalaidjian. (Their MySpace page describes them as a "Rap duo from money-makin' Manhattan by way of ATL and NJ.")
"You have to approach our album with a pretty strong and hateful agenda to walk away feeling like you've just been indoctrinated with conservative politics," Koenig responds. "I find that particularly bizarre."
Though the critical response to their recently released, self-titled debut has been mixed, the popular response has been overwhelmingly positive. Released on powerful indie XL, the album improbably entered the Billboard charts at No. 17, selling a large-by-indie-standards 27,000 units in its first week. Infectiously catchy, the songs on the CD are never much longer than three minutes. They display the band's technical proficiency without flaunting it, from Chris Tomson's efficient snares to Rostam Batmanglij's keys, which float from the back to the front of the tracks effortlessly.
Since Batmanglij produced the album, the band was able to take its time, Koenig says. "We added things in the studio on almost every track. The strings, for example, always take shape in the studio because we don't perform live with a string section." He adds that the group specifically tried to formulate a sound that was outside the dictates of modern rock radio. "As a 'rock' band in the 'modern' world, it's too easy to fall into certain sound/style traps, so you need to set some rules for yourself."
Perhaps the band's secret weapon is Koenig's voice, which isn't the first thing that jumps out at you on the record, but retains an emotive, insistent quality. He sounds most convincing when he's spinning deceptively simple stories, capturing young love, lust and relationship discomfort in a way that feels more J.D. Salinger than Arcade Fire. On "Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa," Koenig sings, "As a young girl/Louis Vuitton/With your mother/On a sandy lawn." In the chorus, he continues: "Is your bed made?/Is your sweater on?/Do you want to?/Like you know I do."
Although songs such as "M79" and "Campus" wouldn't sound at all out of place on a Wes Anderson soundtrack, the most surprising thing about the album is how often, and easily, it returns to African rhythms. Of course, narrow-minded critics have been much more likely to compare it to Paul Simon's Graceland and The Rhythm of the Saints albums than the works of Ali Farka Touré. Not that there's anything wrong with comparisons to Simon, but the timeless feel of Vampire Weekend's best songs seems more evocative of his transcendent hits such as "Cecilia" and "The Boxer."
A heartfelt, immediately memorable song is a heartfelt, immediately memorable song, after all, no matter where the person writing it went to school. That its stories are set in Cape Cod or Manhattan, instead of Kinshasa or Detroit, doesn't change the fact that Vampire Weekend expresses feelings we have all experienced. Those who can't appreciate as much have little business writing about music in the first place.
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