Vampire Weekend's African Transfusion

Vampire Weekend's Rostam Batmanglij, left, Ezra Koenig, Chris Baio and Christopher Tomson infused indie and African sounds into their debut album.
Vampire Weekend's Rostam Batmanglij, left, Ezra Koenig, Chris Baio and Christopher Tomson infused indie and African sounds into their debut album. (By Tim Soter)
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By Alison Stewart
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Long story short: After graduating from Columbia, the men of Vampire Weekend began cobbling together their debut, a giddy indie pop album with an African backbeat. They dubbed their style "Upper West Side Soweto" (because they're clever like that -- and because they couldn't let poor Paul Simon have this one thing). They then foisted it on a grateful blogosphere, which proceeded to anoint Vampire Weekend the next big thing before their first full-length was even released.

The finally out "Vampire Weekend" is the best album made by four overly educated, unbearably white kids since forever, or at least since Weezer's "Pinkerton." Despite -- or maybe because of -- the fact that it's the most brazen cultural appropriation since Simon's "Graceland," it's a dazzler, one of those albums that would be interesting merely because it existed, even if it wasn't very good.

Informed by ska, calypso, Men's Vogue, Talking Heads and low-budget horror flicks -- and fortified by organs and various classical fillips -- "Vampire Weekend" is sui generis. Its calling-card track, "Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa," is a preppies-go-to-Africa charmer that acknowledges its own inherent weirdness ("It feels so unnatural/Peter Gabriel too"). Like most of "Vampire Weekend," it's bouncy and driven by bongo-like island drums, though whether the island is Madagascar or Nantucket, it's hard to say.

Mostly, "Vampire Weekend" can be unofficially divided into songs that sound like Madness and other songs that really sound like Madness. It serves up lectures on diction (the springy punk-pop treat "Oxford Comma"), the wisdom of Lil Jon ("Oxford Comma" again; really, it's a pretty great song) and the perils of Cape Cod, which, if you believe the top-notch throwaway "Walcott," is like "Cloverfield" with Kennedys ("Hyannisport is a ghetto/. . . Lobster's claw is sharp as knives/Evil feasts on human lives").

For all its innate oddness, and all the legitimate questions raised by its existence -- should Topsider-wearing Ivy Leaguers really filch so happily from African musical traditions without at least a nod to the political strife roiling that continent, and why does Vampire Weekend hate Cape Cod so much; do its members summer in Maine? -- "Vampire Weekend" is pretty conventional once you get used to it.

Perky, danceable, entirely reasonable, it plays like an old-fashioned pop album with a curiously upright feel: There's little or nothing in the way of vocoders, samples or lengthy jams, and its devotion to such antiquities as verse-chorus-verse structures and four-minutes-and-under-songs is as quaint as if it were powered by a steam engine. It incorporates its cross-pollinated influences so seamlessly that after a while it's easy to forget both its fraught and complicated origins and its easy charm that probably took a lot of work, but never wears thin.

DOWNLOAD THESE:"Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa," "Oxford Comma," "Walcott"

Vampire Weekend is scheduled to perform at Rock & Roll Hotel on Feb. 6.

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