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Understudy Abroad 

The indie-rock quartet Vampire Weekend has been the buzz band du jour for nearly a year now, from well before its 2008 self-titled debut on XL Records dropped and earned the group real estate on many year-end best-of lists. The group, which met as undergraduates at Columbia University, slid onto the fast track in part because they were in New York City, where local critics include those from the nation's paper of record. However rare that type of good fortune is, the buzz is deserved. The group combines ska and Afro-pop exuberance with now-familiar indie touches like lanky, weaving guitar lines and elaborate string arrangements to make one of the most original pop records in some time " wearing Oxford-cloth shirts and school ties while they do it. It's hardly the standard tale of rock 'n' rollers clawing to the top of the heap through a haze of cocaine and stinky van rides. The dormitory-formed band is named for a soundtrack it recorded " the song 'Walcott" recounts its plot " for a film apparently about a vampire in New Jersey. The members were not out of school long enough to earn the graduate degrees they seemed fated for before embarking on their first national tour. Success so far has enabled one member to quit his day job as an English teacher.

Released in January of this year, Vampire Weekend's eponymous first album debuted at No. 17 on the Billboard charts. It has had an effect on the contemporary hipster population that echoes what the English Beat " more so than even the Clash " did for reggae and ska. The band channels the sunniness of African beats and vocal patterns a la Ladysmith Black Mambazo into catchy, not particularly aggressive rock that is so Westernized in lyrics and themes that it becomes a fresh pop sound " completely American as opposed to a reference to its origin. The album is no Graceland or Buena Vista Social Club, and that's what makes it good. If it can be compared to a previous pop record, it's I Just Can't Stop It, and it's all the better for it. (For the record, the English Beat plays this week as well, see Best Bets, p. 39.)

Of course, the four Columbia grads are smart enough to be fully self-aware about their derivations and the humor in their seeming incongruity. The band's tagline, often repeated in the press, is the tongue-in-cheek advertisement that they are well-versed in such styles as 'Upper West Side Soweto," 'Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa" and 'Oxford Comma Riddim" (the latter two reference the titles of two of the tracks on the record). In their lyrics, the dawn isn't rosy-fingered " it creeps over the horizon in the 'colors of Benetton."

The album itself has a unique " almost bizarre, if it didn't work so well " balance of first and Third World aesthetics. The hints of ska and Afro-pop couple with a highly literate sensibility that would have to be described as 21st century post-preppie " intellectually savvy indie rockers raised with global awareness. With rhythms that recall David Byrne's early fascination with world beats, the band is self-confident enough to tell its own stories: an articulate lyrical combination of collegiate romance, references to both current hip-hop and architectural detail ('Mansard Roof") and a standard expression of rock 'n' roll defiance framed by references to punctuation. In 'Oxford Comma" " with the chorus, 'Who gives a f*** about an Oxford comma?" " they know from which they speak. Keyboardist Rotsam Batmanglij interned for that bastion of propriety, the Oxford English Dictionary, as an undergraduate.

In most of the copious press Vampire Weekend has gotten, plenty of attention has been paid to its collegiate signifiers: the band's plaid scarves, topcoats and chinos, their penny loafers and self-effacing references to preppie hallmarks like madras plaid and New England WASP vacation spots. Preppies playing African music is a joke that writes itself, and the band is young enough and smart enough to be self-conscious, but they needn't be. The seamless incorporation of African and Jamaican references with effortlessly lovely melodies, smart lyrics and genuine musical enthusiasm earns them credit on their own steam.

click to enlarge Vampire Weekend plays sunny indie rock influenced by Afro-pop and ska.
  • Vampire Weekend plays sunny indie rock influenced by Afro-pop and ska.
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