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A throw back to the hybrid music of Paul Simon

By Maxwell Price

Section: Arts

February 29, 2008

dc02290802.jpgIf we trace rock and roll music’s roots back far enough—through jump blues and boogie to blues and African shuffles—indie band Vampire Weekend appears doubly indebted to west-African pop. Not only does it inherit a three-century legacy of melding black and European influences into rock music, it pilfers directly from the source.

Most scholars of rock music readily concede that the allegedly American genre owes many of its rhythmic and structural characteristics to the work songs and spirituals of African slaves. These distinctive song forms evolved from sand dances, field hollers and ring shouts brought directly from West Africa’s shores along with a myriad of percussion instruments and even the precursor to the banjo.

Though this cross-cultural heritage might surprise some Euro-centric rockers, Vampire Weekend’s mix of new wave hooks and tribal beats inevitably sounds familiar. After all, artists from the Specials to Paul Simon have made careers (or at least highly successful albums) out of melding Afro-Caribbean musical traditions with modern rock innovations.

From the sunny arpeggiated keyboard chimes of opening track, Mansford Roof, it’s clear that the four Columbia grads that comprise the most blogged-about band of 2008 are pop connoisseurs.

They take cues from ska and Afrobeat as well as pop punk à la Elvis Costello and Talking Heads-influenced new wave. More impressive than their eclectic taste, however, is their ability to distill a variety of styles into a unique and coherent sound.

For this reason alone I feel that the frequent comparisons Vampire Weekend has garnered to another over-hyped alternative band, the Strokes, are appropriate. Nevertheless, if critics originally felt comfortable pigeonholing the latter into the nascent “garage punk” pseudo genre of the early 2000s, perhaps they’ll hesitate slightly before reducing Vampire Weekend’s distinctive sound to a stereotype.

The strongest tracks on their freewheeling self-titled debut tend to draw most heavily from African sources. In “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa,” for example, a shape-shifting guitar line interlocks with jaunty bass and bongo rhythms while Ezra Koenig’s vocals flutter melodically.

“One (Blake’s Got a New Face)” interposes syncopated keyboard chords with a falsetto call and response chorus that calls to mind Britt Daniel on potent uppers. If the word “genius” can ever plausibly be used in reference to Vampire Weekend, it’s surely in reference to the seemingly effortless way they spew out unbelievably catchy hooks.

There is a palpable feeling of spaciousness in the songs’ arrangements, even when augmented by XTC-esque string accompaniments. Yet, behind the sparse, clean keyboard tones and minimalist drums, a sense of manic energy occasionally emerges. The ricocheting guitar chords of “A-Punk” and tremolo intensity of the “Campus” chorus reveal the band’s indebtedness to the David Bynre tradition of uptight punk geekiness.

Vampire Weekend’s lyrics are littered with proper names and wry pop culture references. While their oblique rhetorical flourishes might alienate some listeners, an egalitarian spirit is infused through couplets like, “Why would you lie about anything at all/First to the window, then it’s to the wall/Lil’ Jon, he always tells the truth.”

When all is said and done, Koenig and his crew probably aren’t as innovative as their biggest proponents suggest. But even when they manipulates its influences like cut-and-paste collages, I guarantee that no band this year will dominate your shower-singing repertoire quite like Vampire Weekend.

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