Vampire Weekend: The Witty Quartet That Avoided the Usual Hipster Band Pitfalls
Vampire Weekend, an indie-rock anomaly.
Alex John Beck
Vampire Weekend is an anomaly. As popular among the hipsters as the straights, it's one of the only bands that might be heard at both American Apparel and American Eagle.
Very early on, the New York City-bred, Columbia-educated foursome earned its "cool" cred thanks to 2008's self-titled debut, which was a dazzling departure from the usual cool-kid music of that decade. It wasn't dark; it was smart, really smart, like a rock album for the Algonquin Round Table. The songs were intelligent and preppie, but with an alt sensibility and lyrics referencing both classic literature and Lil Jon.
Vampire Weekend's newest release is Modern Vampires of the City, and it's a fantastically interesting record. Produced by Ariel Rechtshaid (Major Lazer, Usher), it sounds as if someone gave the Animal Collective dudes a tremendous amount of Ritalin and sent them to finishing school. Because it's so entertaining, one almost needs to be reminded it's a little weird.
In the pre-internet age, cool traveled slowly, at the speed of television, and really cool at the speed of mail. It wasn't until MTV become a fixture in most American households that underground culture began to be delivered instantly to fans and the uninitiated. Now, with the World Wide Web, trends can come and go in a matter of days.
It also used to be that a label would help develop artists, get them suited up and ready for the head-fuck carnival that is pop life. That system was the reason why folks such as Tom Waits, the Flaming Lips, and Bruce Springsteen became icons as opposed to guys who put out one or two oddball, commercially unsuccessful records that a few collectors talk about in the recesses of a blog with a fervor normally reserved for arguments about Star Trek versus Star Wars.
To poorly paraphrase a quote often attributed to Elvis Costello: You have your whole life to write your first album, but you get only six months on the back of a tour bus to come up with the next one. It's a shame he doesn't have something quotable for third records, because Vampire Weekend's Modern Vampires would break the rules as much as the band's second, Contra, reinforced them.
Sure, the group's sophomore effort didn't sound like it was written on a tour bus. (We'd guess during a handful of weekends in the Hamptons.) But it sounded like a sequel. It also featured the most overplayed song of 2010, "Holiday," as well as the absolutely perplexing "California English," which is reportedly a tribute to speed rap.
As F. Scott Fitzgerald once observed: "There are no second acts in American lives." That's an axiom that often holds true for hipster bands. They drop their debut album, make the rounds, score a 9.9 rating from someone at Pitchfork, get some animated GIFs on BuzzFeed, do a guest spot on Saturday Night Live, and then begin the long, slow descent toward "Where Are They Now?" status.
Thankfully, Vampire Weekend avoided the pitfalls. But with Modern Vampires, it seems as if the group is coming to a crossroads again. Turn one way and this witty quartet could become that cool band on the mainstream charts, being featured on the soundtrack of every show on the CW. But veer in the other direction and NYC's smartest cool-kid crew just might change the tone of rock music — at least until the next big thing comes around.
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