It’s a story we’ve grown quite familiar with in this first decade of the 21st century. You know, the one about the rich kids from upper Manhattan harboring aspirations of slumming it on the Lower East Side like the art ghetto legends they read about growing up. But unlike The Strokes, the Columbia University grads who made up the band Vampire Weekend, at the tender collective age of 23, know nothing of the area they have since staked their claim in, at least not in the literal sense. Rampant redevelopment has since chased off just about every adventurous club, record depot and bar (not to mention more than a few historic landmarks) that once dared to set up shop in the crime-infested blocks above Alphabet City.
Today, the once rat-and-needle-infested alleyways of the Bowery are sponsored by American Apparel and Norfolk, Ludlow and Orchard Streets have since been sanitized for the droves of spoiled brats from Buttfuck, Ohio whose parents bankroll their $2,000-a-month veal box on Avenue C where they snort K and read VICE until M.I.A. takes the stage at the Bowery Ballroom. I mean shit, even The Strokes themselves, whom many believe dropped the first hammer down on the crack that has since split the divide between the Lower East Side of yesterday and today, were playing residencies at Arlene’s Grocery back when they could still dip into the Lansky Lounge for a post-gig shot of Wild Turkey and then head next door to Ratners for a little late night borscht.
But Vampire Weekend, with all of its pre-press hype and blogger endorsements, have been poised to become the crowned princes of a section that has since become the embarrassing bane of just about every single person who has either lived or hung out there from the ’60s up through the short months following 9/11. And for someone who was born and raised in New York and remembers the days when the hottest spot for lunch off East Houston was Yonah Schimmel’s Knishes and the only place to cop vinyl was King George’s sorely-missed Records Wanted, one cannot help but lump these latest loves of the hipster death cult alongside such other neighborhood travesties as the hated Blue Condominium, which assisted in the closing of the much-loved avant-garde performance space Tonic and the Duane Reade that sits like a fat greedy bastard on the ground where the once strangely beautiful gas station museum once stood. I mean, look at these fookin’ guys. That whole preppy thing that has critics wagging their little tongues — “Ooh, they wear rope belts and button-down shirts!”. I would’ve loved to have seen how many bottles and batteries they’d get thrown at them if they passed by CBGB during a hardcore matinee circa 1991 dressed like that (or even the Mars bar, which still remains a defiant testament to the days that used to be on the Bowery).
But then you put on Vampire Weekend’s debut album, and, as much as it might pain you to realize, all those sweeping generalizations and pre-game disdain you may have accrued with each stupid fluff piece you read about them in whatever music rags you waste your money on go right out the window.
Not since Talking Heads bowed out with their masterful 1988 swan song Naked has NYC been so dutifully represented by such a melodically robust collection as the 11 that comprise this eponymous redux of Vampire Weekend’s acclaimed “Blue CD-R” demo. Rather than just blindly ape Liars or Echo and the Bunnymen or the Anthology of American Folk Music or whatever the flavor of the month is in Williamsburg this week, Vampire Weekend, now based in Brooklyn following their cumulative graduation from Columbia, pull their mojo from a variety of highly unlikely sources for kids so young. Most predominantly among those sources are the high life sounds of King Sunny Ade, the jangle-and-strum dalliance of The Feelies and yes, though you have probably read this in every other review of this album, the Afro-metro ascensions of Paul Simon’s Graceland and, perhaps even more so, “Shaking the Tree”-era Peter Gabriel. Hell, they even sing the former fox-headed Genesis frontman’s praises on the album’s primary single, the Chris Martin-endorsed “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa” (though they quickly cancel it out by also bigging up the dreaded reggaeton in another verse of the song).
Sure, frontman Ezra Koenig’s lyrics reflect upon a life of privilege, where one can afford to argue to the case of the “Oxford Comma” while on the look out for a “Mansard Roof” with a girl named “Bryn” after reminiscing about summers on Cape Cod and overseas excursions to Dharamsala. But like Stephen Malkmus, his words drip with a kind of latent sarcasm that makes you feel as though he’s trying to take a little bit of the piss out of his silver spooned roots. And just when you think they are fully embracing their WASP-y heritage on songs like “Campus” and “Walcott”, who’s to say they aren’t just gladhanding the whole scene while stealthily dropping a simultaneous deuce right on its collective boat shoe (perhaps a poetic razz from frontman Koenig after being bitchslapped with the harsh reality of low income America after teaching middle schoolers in Bed-Stuy?)
As a matter of fact, who gives a damn what these guys are singing about anyway? Just listen to the music they are making, some of the happiest and most cohesively vibrant pop NYC has produced since Koch was in office (bonus authenticity points for staging a concert on the strange and remote Roosevelt Island in June of 2007). Hearing their wonderfully melodic fusion of purely white sentiments and positively black sensations gives one hope that, in spite of the roar of wrecking ball-welding cranes knocking down city history to make way for more condos to house culture-drowning denizens and the world-eating retail chains they frequent, good pop will overpower any din of corporate chaos, no matter how cacophonous it may be. Or how preppy the guys creating it may look, which reminds me… you’re right, Ezra – who really cares about an oxford comma, anyway?