Late last year, Sasha Frere-Jones, the pop-music writer for The New Yorker magazine wondered in print why so many indie-rock bands, largely the province of white kids, have moved away from the conventions of black music: “the ecstatic singing and intense, voice-like guitar tones of the blues, the heavy African downbeat, and the elaborate showmanship that characterized black music of the mid-twentieth century,” as he put it.
He must not have been listening to Vampire Weekend.
The New York band describes itself as “Upper West Side Soweto,” and the songs on Vampire Weekend’s self-titled full-length debut (XL) sound like mid-’00s indie-rock colliding head on with Paul Simon’s “Graceland.”
Vampire Weekend formed in 2006 while the four musicians were students at Columbia University, and there’s a preppy feel to the quartet’s blend of jangling guitars and Afro-pop. Their music goes beyond the dabbling of hipster dilettantes, though: the band incorporates African grooves into its songs with skill and sincerity. Polyrhythmic percussion intertwines with sinewy guitar lines on “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa” (surely the first time those concepts have been interjoined) while singer Ezra Koenig muses to a lady friend about desire: “Do you want to/Like you know I do?” he asks, his voice swooping up into falsetto on the last word.
A more direct rhythm powers “Oxford Comma” as the band scoffs at the standards of English usage, and a galloping beat kicks in to send “Mansard Roof” skittering forward.
It’s ecstatic music, surely; and intense, too, even as it’s joyful. It’s not exactly the blues, but “Vampire Weekend” seems to indicate that 21st-century rock ’n’ roll hasn't completely shed its soul after all.