Tuesday, Jan. 29, 2008

Vampire Weekend's Moment of Truth

By Evan Rytlewski
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For the last eight months, the chorus of bloggers shouting about how Vampire Weekend will become the next big thing has become absolutely deafening. Today, after almost a year of this hype, the band finally releases its debut album, and soon we’ll see whether these predictions come true.

It’s an interesting test of the blogosphere’s tastemaking chops, since over the few years, new media’s success rate at predicting future stars has actually been pretty low. For every Arcade Fire, there’s dozens of We Are Scientists, Stars of Track and Fields and Softs, attractive bands that were prematurely lauded by trigger-happy bloggers, but (at least so far) haven’t found the success their early supporters promised.

Vampire Weekend rose particularly fast and particularly high. Within months of playing their first real shows, the trendsetting blog Stereogum began trumpeting these young New Yorkers on the strength of their self-released demos, and just two months later, the New York Times was writing them up approvingly.

Usually, bands that green that skyrocket that high quickly come crashing down—sometimes even before the put out a full-length album—but Vampire Weekend could actually buck the trend. In both sound and image, the group’s aesthetic is novel enough to capture the public’s attention, but familiar enough to keep it.

At their core, they’re the same-old, time-tested boys with guitars singing about girls, but they put a pleasant twist on the formula, infusing an agreeable African jangle into their songs in lieu of the usual overwrought indie-rock chords.

And, to go along with their consciously different sound, the band made a bold fashion choice as well: Instead of ultra-skinny jeans and ironic accessories, they treat every day like it’s casual Friday at the office. They dress, in a word that front man Ezra Koenig has embraced, “preppy.”

“There were a lot of things we wanted to avoid when we started the band, things that we were tired of,” Koenig told me in an interview earlier this month, “and maybe that also crossed over to the way we felt about the kind of clothes that we wanted to wear. I went to thrift stores a lot in high school, but I always wanted to find old Brookes Brothers shirts, not ironic t-shirts. It’s two sides of the same coin, really. But it’s funny: You can get a collared shirt for so cheap, or you could pay a hundred dollars for a distressed, weird t-shirt. Ultimately, I feel like one I can relate to more. It feels more refreshing to me, in a way almost like an anti-fashion sort of thing.”

In an era where rich young rockers downplay their pedigree by dressing like street rats, this is a welcome bit of truth-in-advertising. Vampire Weekend looks exactly like they sound: happy, clean-cut and educated. Their gimmick is that they’re not being gimmicky.

The prep-school aesthetic also ties in thematically with the band’s self-titled debut, which is very much the product of four recent Columbia University graduates. These songs are filled with nostalgia for the college life they’ve just left behind—the campus culture, the class crushes, the endless academia —and that’s the album’s appeal. It’s a happy, wide-eyed tribute to the period that many listeners look back on as the best time of their life.

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