Album Review: Vampire Weekend bites into African, world influences

Vampire Weekend's Web site states the following declaration: "The name of this band is Vampire Weekend. We are specialists in the following styles: 'Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa,' 'Upper West Side Soweto,' 'Campus,' and 'Oxford Comma Riddim,'" Inventing names for their musical styles, especially for a band whose debut album isn't even a month old, is so arrogant it's actually amusing. But while a better name for their style might be "Paul Simon's Graceland Mimicry," this bold cockiness is what they aim for. It's that kind of tongue-in-cheek humor that makes this New York City quartet so fun and fresh.

Vampire Weekend, the band's self-titled debut released late in January, takes its international influences and runs with them. The song "Oxford Comma" sounds like Arctic Monkeys after sharing a joint and a jam session with the late Peter Tosh. "A-Punk," alternatively, speeds up the tempo to a ska pace while adding "Strawberry Fields"-esque flute arrangements. The band does indulge its city roots, though, like when frontman Ezra Koenig (what a great name for a musician) sings on "Walcott," "All the way to New Jersey/All the way to the Garden State/Out of Cape Cod tonight."

But the true Weekend trip is to Africa with a lot of driving music to the aforementioned Paul Simon. "Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa" is where Weekend really starts to show their adoration for Simon's exploration into Worldbeat and South African mbaqanga music. It immediately sounds like "Crazy Love" Vol. III (the track on Graceland is already labeled "Vol. II").

The similarities between the two albums are often enough to question Weekend's sincerity. But it's the strangeness of this marriage with indie rock that keeps things afloat. While everybody in the indie scene is either reviving The Velvet Underground or impersonating The Cure's Robert Smith, Afropop, of all things, has become the untapped resource that is bringing Vampire Weekend success.

Vampire Weekend, though, is far from perfect (how could it be?). As if the band is self-conscious of their distinctive sound, they water it down on a few tracks, resulting in some stale, cookie-cutter throwaways ("Bryn," a shadow of an attempt at a song by The Shins, is nearly saved by a fun guitar riff). Additionally, there is a lingering feeling behind the songs that Vampire Weekend proposes a great idea for a band, but it will likely take a bit of maturing before that idea is fully realized. There are too many close calls and "not quites" to make this a great debut instead of merely a very good one.

Nevertheless, Vampire Weekend is America's answer to Arctic Monkeys. Their thrifty city sound, while not quite punkish, is a smooth counterweight to Monkeys' mod revival. Resourceful and adept while remaining playful partiers, Vampire Weekend is an out-of-left-field hit manifested by a culmination of blog buzz and word-of-mouth. It's a leap out of the gates with enough promise to suggest this is not just a one-trick pony.