By David Ritter | 21 February 2008
“I give a fuck about an Oxford comma” was going to be my snappy opening line until I Googled it. Seems several other grammar nerds have already blogged this gem, though Vampire Weekend’s disparaging of everyone’s favourite punctuation anachronism seems to be their only complaint. One LiveJournalite enthused that they’d found the song through a link on Neil Gaiman’s blog. Yes, grammar nerds like songs about grammar (the way Canadians like mounties on American TV), and they like the postcolonial scent of Vampire Weekend’s yacht club pop. For me, however, the “x, y, and z” diss is only the tip of the iceberg of grievance that I would like to submit against your new favourite record.
But first, let me be clear: this is an accomplished debut. It’s no small feat to come out of the gate with a deftly mixed collection of clean songs that shows few initial signs of indulgence. Ezra Keonig has a good ear for those vocal hooks that stand up front, and the whole thing exhibits a relatively untapped concoction of influences and concerns. My hat is off in particular to Rostam Batmanglij, whose production makes everything light and uncomplicated. In contemporary Strokes-like fashion, the boys keep it short and sweet. Their record clocks in at under thirty-five minutes and their live sets aren’t much longer.
So far so good, and if I’d heard this record pooting from a friend’s laptop speakers with no other introduction, I may have walked away humming. One cannot listen in a vacuum, however, and any pretensions to objectivity I may or may not have are handily thwarted by the swirling vortex of critical praise, backlash, and defense that we chief mages of the echo chamber like to call “le hype.” No one can escape it, but to make matters worse, I am extraordinarily uncool—and not in the way that Rivers Cuomo was uncool. I never know what’s coming up or what people are excited about. I didn’t know anything about Vampire Weekend’s Blue CD-R demo thingy. I have only this album—weeks after most have reviewed it—which I heard about from sources that were already reflecting on the previous cycle of hype/backlash. One cannot evade writing in response to it all. To put it bluntly, this review would be different if I weren’t wondering what all the fuss was about.
If any of the preceding is a disadvantage in terms of authority and perspective, then it may come with some advantages as well. A sober second thought, perhaps? Or maybe it’s the high word count combined with my relatively light review schedule and the absence of pressure to rush out my first impression hours after the release date that allows me to take a long, deep breath and spend my week walking around Toronto thinking about Vampire Weekend, Paul Simon, Talking Heads, and French psychologists Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari. In various works Deleuze and Guattari outline the figure of the “nomad,” a thinker or creative artist who ranges over a vast array of disciplines, genres, concepts, and identities. Along the way the nomad picks up whatever s/he may find useful and discards the rest. The necessary superficiality of this method is countered by its sheer proliferation: with so many different threads and identities operating the nomad whimsically offers a thousand other examples/influences if any one should be found lacking.
Vampire Weekend’s appropriation of various genres and sub-cultures (principally but not exclusively Afro-pop) has all the superficiality of the nomad with none of the range or whimsy. They may appear knowing and irreverent in interviews, but make no mistake: the proud display of influence is deadly serious and forms the central thesis of their project. Consider “Oxford Comma.” Supposedly a capricious, momentary nod to grammar nerd-dom, the reference in fact forms the song’s spinal cord. The song opens with the self-consciously clever line, “who gives a fuck about an oxford comma?” and the allusion is, of course, the song’s title. The song prattles on vaguely about English dramas, words, lies, diction, and, puzzlingly, Lil’ Jon. Nothing much happens except the band alluding to this grammatical construction. While those without specialized training in English may find this reference quirky, those within the community know it’s the too-obvious choice, outing the boys as occasional tourists in the land of grammar who proudly show off their photos without really knowing the terrain. I don’t know anything about Mansard roofs (another central first line/song title allusion) that you can’t find in Wikipedia, but I suspect architecture nerds would say the same thing.
Ditto their musical tourism. Leaving aside their African influences for the time being, their lyrical feet-wetting is exactly duplicated in their nods to chamber-pop. “M79” is the track that most obviously apes this tradition, with its jaunty strings and tinny harpsichord (what more direct, more obvious way to proclaim CHAMBER-POP! than with harpsichord?). Naturally the song’s structure and lyrics remain unaffected by this window-dressing; the strings just drop in here and there to make sure we register the influence. But rather than treat this fairly unimportant element of the song as just one among others, the band has the track start with just strings and harpsichord, and places them way up front in the mix any time they drop back in. As appropriation of a subculture it’s the worst of both worlds: not thorough enough to be interesting but too calculated and pivotal to be lighthearted or spontaneous.
There’s a reason the band has to constantly deflect the suspicion that Graceland is a key influence here: they appropriate the facets of Afro-pop that are most recognizable to Western ears. Their clean, bright guitar tones in particular call attention to this overpowering influence. There is, however, a key difference between Paul Simon’s project and theirs: both are records overwhelmingly defined by their attempt to blend African and American pop, but Paul Simon was an order of magnitude more rigorous in his appropriation. His travel to the continent was literal, not figurative, and he included many African musicians in his recording sessions. While not limiting himself to one particular style, Simon did focus primarily on South Africa which allowed him to dig deeper into that musical tradition. Simon further built Graceland from the bottom up; he recorded the rhythm tracks first and has written often of the changes that forced in the song structures he attempted to float on top of them. His project also emanated from the kind of power and means that only celebrity can provide, but this isn’t the only way to do it. Beirut and Neutral Milk Hotel both provide models of home-honed appropriations of foreign musical traditions that ring with a nostalgic longing for lost origins and a deep understanding of their problematic relationship with their more “authentic” influences.
So Graceland is more serious than Vampire Weekend. It is more rigorous, more accomplished, and more equipped to encounter the galaxy of post-colonial baggage that comes with an appropriation of this sort. Well, what of it? The Vampire Weekend kids are just out for a good time, right? They write winkingly on their website that they are “specialists in the following styles: ‘Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa’, ‘Upper West Side Soweto’, ‘Campus’, and ‘Oxford Comma Riddim’.” They imply in interviews that their label as “that band that plays African music” is a media fiction, and they’re just playing the music they feel. At the risk of repetition, I’ll say again that their record attests to the contrary. The African elements of Vampire Weekend are by far its most noticeable, generously outstripping its nods to new wave or chamber pop. The songs remain fundamentally Western pop songs, so the influence isn’t deep but it is everywhere, from the opening organ patch (another showy opening) to the shuffling beat to the ill-advised background vocals on “One (Blake’s Got a New Face).” When Talking Heads wandered into this territory, they could credibly maintain a certain detachment because the African polyrhythms they incorporated were just one element among many. They had a well-established sonic personality driven by their angled guitars and Byrne’s uniquely abstract vocal style. Their forays into polyrhythm were extensions of previously eclectic, experimental work and since it was only one force in a pack of strong contenders, they never became “that band that plays African music.”
It is this shallow but overwhelming slathering of Afro-pop influence that makes an album full of strong, nerdy songs so irritating. There is a better Vampire Weekend album out there. Imagine even a move as simple as promoting one of their other intertextual nods: writing five songs about grammar, say, or tending toward an equal blend of new wave, chamber-pop, and more worldly sounds. Something to diversify their portfolio a little bit. As it stands, Vampire Weekend’s entire project is predicated so thoroughly on their appropriation of African music that it stands or falls with it, and the impression that they are too proud of how into the Soweto sound they are without really being able to back that up—that they exist in a dead space between whimsy and rigour—really hurts them. Fun and fresh enough on the first couple listens, it remains to be seen whether Vampire Weekend can find long-term favour with the listeners and critics so taken with them at present.