Vampire Weekend - Modern Vampires of the City | Album Review | By Volume

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Vampire Weekend

Modern Vampires of the City

As Vampire Weekend stretch themselves, the guitars snap and the songs really start to matter.

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Author: on May 13, 2013
XL Recordings
May 14, 2013

It’s odd to think of Vampire Weekend as underachievers. This is a band that has Ivy League diplomas, one of the Internet Age’s most highly anticipated debut albums, a Billboard #1 follow-up, and a reputation for incorporating World Beat elements into indie-rock so seamlessly that half marvel at their audacity while the other half accuse them of misappropriating the cultural funds of an entire continent. As a savvy blog commenter once noted, Vampire Weekend “realized that there was an inherent ridiculousness and contradiction in pairing lyrics of privilege with a musical style that (mainly) belongs to Africa (the oppressed). Vampire Weekend is clearly aware of the fact that their music, draped in Afro-pop frippery, is frivolous. But it sounds good, and they have fun with that fact.”

But no matter how complete their sense of irony is, how many festivals they headline or SNL episodes they host, a quirky, off-kilter guitar pop act such as VW was never really made to bear the massive mantle of World’s Biggest Band that some critics thrust upon them. They sound most at home when played at summer beach parties where teenaged sons of investment bankers are spilling spiked Arnold Palmers all over their Sperry Top-Siders. Floppy haired front man Ezra Koenig wasn’t just talking slavery politics when he wrote “The Kids Don’t Stand a Chance” – he knew the expectations heaped upon his band of youngsters were not commensurate with their ability to live up to them. Now, that is irony.

Modern Vampires of the City is evidence that this is changing fast. The band’s third album is richly recorded, lends itself to subtler pleasures, and balances catchy hooks with delayed gratification – a clear sign that Vampire Weekend have learned a few things by getting older. In some ways, they may have gotten better just by hanging in there. Since 2007, cross-culture sound plundering has become a commonplace and even celebrated practice (M.I.A. and Gang Gang Dance never got this kind of shit, did they?) The blogosphere has spawned and crushed a thousand lesser bands, and expectations have become a bit more right-sized for the New York City quartet. Modern Vampires of the City marks their arrival as musicians capable of crafting sublime melodies and thought-provoking lyrics around resonant, increasingly complex themes – the very definition of great songwriting.

The band’s signature sound – bouncy, irregular, charming, and easy to hum along to – is still very much in tact here. Propelled by maniacal machine-gun drum fills, a burping saxophone, and surf-rock guitar riffs, first single “Diane Young” fills the customary spot of modern rock hit a la “A-Punk”, “Holiday”, or “Cousins”. It’s also, not coincidentally, one of the album’s least interesting tracks. It’s on mid-tempo ballads “Step”, “Hannah Hunt” and “Ya Hey” where the band truly shine, their hooks unfurling over multiple listens like timed-release pleasure capsules. “Step” has a melody close enough to the golden aural ratio of Pachelbel’s Canon in D that it approaches timelessness, but it’s driven by booming garbage-can snares, mountains of harpsichords, and a sample from an old Souls of Mischief rap song. Koenig’s geographic tongue twisters and lyrical koans (“we know the true death, the true way of all flesh / everyone’s dying, but girl – you’re not old yet“) are offset by an honest, plain-spoken summary of his frailty: “I feel it in my bones.”

Indeed, there’s a touch of gray around the temples and a haunted look to the eyes of Modern Vampires that works heavily in the band’s favor. Years removed from collegiate bliss and now approaching thirty, Vampire Weekend are contemplating weightier themes, which include their own mortal end (observe the song about Henry Hudson’s drowning death, the ticking clocks and headstones in “Don’t Lie” and skeleton face paint worn by the band during their Halloween performance of “Unbelievers”.) and what role God plays, if any, in life’s greatest mystery (song titles like “Unbelievers,” “Everlasting Arms,” and “Worship You” pretty much run the gamut of options). Koenig shares a gorgeous, heartfelt conversation with his Creator in “Ya Hey”, whose title manages to both reference the unpronounceable name of God and, when transposed, pay tribute to one of indie/pop/rock/rap music’s Holy Grails of songwriting. In a ridiculously clever mash-up of religion and pop culture, Vampire Weekend finds a way to turn the Tetragrammaton into an ear-worm chorus.

If Contra’s effervescent sound was defined by Rostam Batmanglij’s keyboards, then Modern Vampires of the City is the band’s drums album – Chris Tomson’s percussion has always served as compositional ligature for Vampire Weekend’s songs but here it’s processed and amplified until the snare strikes land right in your face. This sound dynamic helps carve out a fantastic sense of space that allows some of band’s finest melodies to ease right up next to you and stay awhile. On superbly understated opener “Obvious Bicycle,” Koenig’s simple appeal rings out over beautiful, unadorned piano keys: “so listen / don’t wait“.  It’s pure and gentle, but the message reverberates for miles – notice what is around you, cherish it, seize the days before they trickle away. Vampire Weekend can’t help their scholarly tendency toward making obscure literary references, quoting scripture, and name checking other musicians in their songs (at least they’ve upgraded the hipness factor from Peter Gabriel to Modest Mouse and Desmond Dekker), but those erudite sensibilities come across as clever more often than precious.

By the time you get into the album’s second half, where Vampire Weekend finally start to flex the polyrhythmic muscles and hit the bastardized, skanking guitars riffs they’re known for, you suddenly realize that Modern Vampires isn’t Afro-pop, or “Upper West Side Soweto,” or whatever gross stylistic approximation Robert Christgau is crying foul over these days – it’s just great music. Period. Batmanglij acknowledges that the band has always excelled at concealing darker themes inside its sunny disposition, but that skill is exercised with even greater nuance on Modern Vampires of the City – an album marked by mortality, personal quests, and endless questioning. There’s a climactic moment on “Hannah Hunt”, a song that’s been knocking around in the band’s back catalog for years, where Koenig mourns a dying relationship by unleashing a full-throated wail: “There’s no future, there’s no answer.” It marks a welcome reach for both the singer and his band – a willingness to drop some of the restraint, push limits, and get outside their comfort zone. For the first time in their careers, Vampire Weekend sound like they’re straining more than just a little, raging against the dying of the light… you know, caring about things other than being the soundtrack to your summer beach party. Gone are the Nantucket reds and fresh faces; in their place remain pensive black turtlenecks and wizened eyes. It’s a look that suits them very well.

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