Vampire Weekend, Audio, Brighton<br />Does It Offend You, Yeah?, Brixton Academy, London

Preppy Ivy Leaguers Vampire Weekend love their Afrobeats &ndash; either that, or they've been listening to too much early-Eighties Talking Heads

Simon Price
Sunday 02 March 2008 01:00

Faster than you can sneer the words "Indie Graceland", the garlic cloves, crucifixes and wooden stakes are already out for Vampire Weekend. And, prima facie, you can see the reasons.

The history of the white man engaging with African music is not a glorious one. At worst, one pictures Prince Charles jiving stiffly on a state visit. At best, one remembers Talking Heads' inventive use of African-inspired basslines circa "Once in a Lifetime". And there, by the way, is the rub: Vampire Weekend – exponents of what they smirkingly term "Upper West Side Soweto", drawing specifically on Congolese music – may be the only white rock band around now who are dabbling with the Dark Continent, but they're not the only one ever, and with the eternal present-tense of the internet, we don't need long memories to know that.

And if you can't beat Byrne, then why – apart from the fact that Byrne is a 55-year-old man with grey hair and you're an eligible and shaggable twentysomething fresh outta Columbia uni – are you bothering?

The temptation is understandable. African music often sounds as though some blind watchmaker has opened up a traditional Western pop song and allowed its silvery cogs and springs to come spilling out. Who wouldn't want to play around with that?

Vampire Weekend clearly couldn't resist. And it needs to be stated, up front, that everything they do is done with love. Because it's easy to get the wrong impression, with song titles such as "A-Rock" (almost certainly a pun on the genre J-Rock, where J is for Japanese, and A is for African) and "Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa" (which I actually like, for its echoes of the Ronseal-like, exactly-what-it-says-on-the-tin titles you used to get on Herb Alpert or Acker Bilk albums).

Like someone using a stolen film projector as a spotlight, they're throwing borrowed illumination on to their music, but not the intended patterns. Half the time they sound like The Strokes if they'd grown up watching the Eighties telly ad for Um Bongo ("they drink it in the Congo") instead of listening to The Velvet Underground and Nico. The other half, it's dinosaur dabblers like Peter Gabriel or Paul Simon. "Oxford Comma" makes me think, more than anything else, of Billy Joel's "An Innocent Man".

Lively as they are, Vampire Weekend are not as nimble-fingered as, say, Fela Kuti's band, if not exactly ham-fisted. Ezra Koenig, I note tonight, can sing fairly well, and he can play Africanesque guitar. But not at the same time.

The elephant in the room is the question: why would you listen to Vampire Weekend when you could be listening to real African music? The answer to that – possibly involving the ultimately unjustifiable feeling that you have more in common, culturally, with a bunch of privileged, preppy Ivy Leaguers than you could have with an African, any African – is not a comfortable one to swallow.

Already, the name Does It Offend You, Yeah?, painted big and bright on the backdrop, has set any right-minded person's teeth on edge. The question mark at the end, in particular, unfailingly brings to mind Nathan Barley character Jonatton Yeah?, the callously blasé editor of sugaRAPE. Indeed, Barley himself and his coterie of "idiots" (one of whom, the actor Joe Van Moyland, appears immediately after DIOYY? as the leader of Joe Lean and the Jing Jang Jong) would doubtless have considered this fluoro-clad, Reading-based quartet "well weapon", because a more Hoxton-friendly band it's hard to imagine. However, when Morgan Quaintance (it's up to you to decide whether this name is any more credible than his stage name Morgan Yeah?) announces "Check it: don't vote Boris Johnson", I warm to them slightly. When he and his band bring the noise, I thaw a little more. Matter of fact, they fail to offend me. (Is that their raison d'être scuppered?)

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Their sound is a brutal thing: martial beats, big phat bass notes on the synth, unrepentant slabs of guitar, and vocoder overdrive on every mic. I'm reminded of Chromeo with carbon monoxide poisoning, or Carter USM with a private education. There's something very late-Eighties about them, too: I think of the wave of scam bands (AOC, BAD, SSS) and the more success-challenged ZTT acts (Das Psych-Oh! Rangers, Nasty Rox Inc).

Quaintance and sidekick James Rushent's attempts to get the crowd to cheer are painfully inept. (He's the son of Human League producer Martin Rushent.) "It's good to be back home" gets the tumbleweed treatment, and when they start thanking the tour caterers by name, glances are exchanged. He does, however, succeed in causing a scrum by throwing a hideous hoodie into the pit. "The people at the back are like, 'It's just a cheap hoodie!' It's not. It's a lifestyle."

"Let's Make Out" is the track that sends this NME Awards tour audience nuts. Air is punched. A cowbell is hit. A glowstick is thrown. Ultimately, Does It Offend You, Yeah? are a band with a big sound and little songs. If it was the other way around, I might hold out more hope for them.

Vampire Weekend are on tour in May, and Does It Offend You, Yeah? tour the UK in March

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