Vampire Weekend at Metro Chicago, 2008

By Mark Guarino

In the era of Internet celebrity, when everyone is famous therefore making fame irrelevant, bands that make it through that kind of fog find it hard to last further than the next browser refreshing.

Just a few years ago bands like The Strokes and The Arcade Fire blew up because of genuine word-of-mouth and some savvy media manipulation. These days, it’s all about media manipulation — the smarter you can make it seem like a band is famous, the quicker the band will actually become famous.

Which gets us to Vampire Weekend, a band that until two months ago hadn’t released an album yet was treated like newly crowned princes. High profile media appearances — a Spin cover, a “Saturday Night Live” appearance for starters — gave the band the level of exposure that demanded attention, regardless of the fact that most people had never yet heard one of their songs.

At the sold-out Metro Sunday at what was the most anticipated show of the year so far, the band played their biggest Chicago area date yet. (This July they return to headline the Pitchfork Music Festival.) In a show that lasted slightly less than one hour, the band played, according to lead singer and guitarist Ezra Koenig, their “entire repertoire”: 14 songs.

The question to ask next is whether those songs stood up to such an avalanche of hype. The best answer is: What can? Despite the name, Vampire Weekend’s music does not go for the jugular. Instead, it is bright, refreshing, giddy dance pop that borrows guitar tones, counter melodies and shifting rhythms from Paul Simon and David Byrne who themselves — on albums like “Graceland” and Talking Heads’ “Naked” — borrowed heavily from Afro-pop and Brazilian groups.

This continued relay race created only a few endurable songs; the rest just speedy melodies caked with some great nuggets. Koenig and keyboardist Rostam Batmanglij countered the other’s playing with parts that oftentimes were better than the songs they connected with. On “M79,” Batmanglij played quasi-classical piano against Koenig’s peppy guitar lines, both keeping time to an insistent ska beat.

Yet it was evident that Vampire Weekend still needed something more than a declarative sound. Until just recently they were students at Columbia University, which explains the meticulous nature of their song arrangements, but also the general malady of their themes. Koenig encouraged fans to sing the chorus — “Blake’s got a new face!” — and you can imagine that one being thought up at the dorm late one night.

But if Vampire Weekend is to last longer than one album, it’ll likely be due to Koenig whose big, bright voice and high harmonies (“The Kids Don’t Stand a Chance”) with Batmanglij powered each song. His jerky movements were infectious and, this time at least, deserved all those accolades.

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