Look, Muff, a band for us

April 4, 2008


Does anyone remember The Official Preppy Handbook? First published in 1980 and subtitled "Look, Muffy, a book for us," Lisa Birnbach's satirical overview of old-school, deep-pockets, upperclass WASP society was packaged as a straight-faced "reference guide," full of tips on how to dress (heavy on the golfer's pants, pastel Lacoste polo shirts and monogrammed sweaters), where to study (Ivy League colleges the only choice, of course) and how to indulge in such typical demerit-worthy bad behavior as smoking and drinking (complete with "20 Verbal Expressions for Vomiting"). Noticeably short, however, were any picks for the perfect preppy music.

If only Vampire Weekend had existed when Birnbach was compiling her classic comedic tome. The New York quartet's recently released, much-hyped debut album would have been the perfect CD to package between the book's garish plaid covers.

Vampire Weekend came together in early 2006 when guitarist-vocalist Ezra Koenig linked up with bassist Chris Tomson, keyboardist Rostam Batmanglij and bassist Chris Baio. (The band is now sometimes joined by additional guitarist John Atkinson.) All of the members are Columbia University graduates, with majors including English literature, music, Russian, film studies, math and economics.

The buzz about Vampire Weekend began to build from its first gigs at university literary societies and frat parties, was fanned by D.I.Y. recordings widely floated on the Internet and had become nearly deafening by the time the band played several shows at the CMJ Music Marathon last fall. Propelled by an appearance on the cover of the March issue of Spin ("The Year's Best New Band ... Already!?"), the group was the must-see act at the recent South by Southwest Music Festival. (Anyone shut out of Sunday's sold-out show at Metro can console themselves with the fact that the band will be back to play the Pitchfork Music Festival in Union Park in July.)

Having made no secret of my dislike for this band, several of my friends have accused me of class bias. Given that I survived this paper's tenure under Lord Conrad Black, I have plenty of reasons to be wary of ostentatious displays of wealth, but I'm professional enough to check such biases. Others have suggested that I'm reacting to the hype, but hey, I've disliked this group since I first heard it via its MySpace page, and neither the hyperbolic blather nor the musicians' pedigrees ever stopped me from championing the Stokes.

No, my beefs with Vampire Weekend are mostly musical and lyrical.

Jokingly calling their sound "Upper West Side Soweto," Vampire Weekend builds a carefully constructed hybrid of Afro-Caribbean rhythms and melodies (Koenig has cited Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Kanda Bongomen, reggaeton and bachata music from the Dominican Republic as his main influences) and well-mannered indie-rock or orchestral pop a la the Decemberists or Belle & Sebastian.

"The ideal avatar, preppy African with equal parts of fresh and clean," Koenig said when the Blue and White asked him to describe "the ideal Vampire Weekend." "Preppiness with West African guitar pop, a perfect fusion of happy world music with Western, New England preppiness."

By no means are those disparate cultures natural bedmates. The best African and Caribbean pop is a joyful celebration of life issued in defiance of oppressive political forces, poverty and disease, or pretty much the exact opposite of the inspiration for the soul-searching of most preppy artistes. This is not to say that preppies can't make great art. But Koenig is hardly following in the footsteps of J.D. Salinger, John Updike or John Irving by illuminating the profound emptiness hiding behind the cheerfully privileged facade; he is celebrating the superficialities.

"Calculated" -- ultimately, that word is at the heart of what bugs me most about Vampire Weekend, and my gripes crystallized at SXSW, where the band members were ubiquitous, walking the streets wearing their Dockers and polo shirts, with white cardigans casually but carefully tied around their necks, while in Texas, in the daytime, with a temperature of 92 degrees.

Surely, sweating a bit is preferable to being caught poorly dressed. "Oh, your collegiate grief has left you dowdy in sweatshirts / Absolute horror!" Koenig sings at the end of "One (Blake's Got a New Face)."

In the end, just as Kiss had its thunder, fire-breathing and makeup, the indie-rock heroes of the moment have their synthesized strings, guitars that sound like African thumb pianos and overarching preppy shtick. And me, I just like to keep my favorite comic books and satires separate from my rock 'n' roll.