Vampire Weekend – Modern Vampires Of The City
It’s tempting to dismiss Vampire Weekend as so much style—and a lot of people seem willing to give into that temptation. Ever since their breakthrough debut, their detractors often liked to point out (and almost always exaggerate) the band members’ perceived affluence, acting as if an artist’s financial status predetermines the quality of their work. It’s the same sort of criticism the Strokes faced in their early days, but the reason it remains a central point of discussion about Vampire Weekend is that they consciously adopted an upper-strata social status as part of their image, and it bled through into their artwork, their preppy outfits and sometimes even the subjects of their songs. Their songwriting chops were always there, but since the group flaunted their fashion, people were often quick to brush the group aside as frivolous. They were musicians who got lucky with a few fluke hits, but weren’t built to last—let alone become a “great band.” And in the face of this criticism, Vampire Weekend soldiered on, absorbing their influences and spinning them into a signature sound over the course of two very good, very smart records, their eponymous debut and 2010’s Contra. Their winning streak continues with Modern Vampires Of The City, a moodier, more substantive VW record that should finally end the debates surrounding the group’s worth. It’s their best album yet.
If Vampire Weekend have a sound they’re known for, it tends to lean towards the raucous, exuberant pop song, something like “A-Punk” or “Cousins.” And while they haven’t erased that side of their personality—check “Unbelievers” or the brilliant, freewheeling “Diane Young”—it certainly takes a backseat to texture and atmosphere, two elements that complement the weightier subjects at hand. Ezra Koenig’s lyrics have always been bookish, both in their expansive vocabulary and their obscure references, but here he tackles Big Topics, chiefly morality. Images of death, time, age and history pop up everywhere here: Some take the more positive route (“Diane Young” salutes those with a lust for life; “Obvious Bicycle” urges listeners to make a mark before it’s too late), while many more are bleak and bewildered (“Hudson” is a cynical look into New York City; “Don’t Lie” shutters at a “headstone right in front of you”). In short, there’s unease everywhere here: unease about the future, unease about your faith and beliefs, unease about if anything is going to get any better. Written out like this, Modern Vampires sounds like it could be a drag, and with Koenig’s tendency to layer his words with detailed, expressive allusions and motifs, it all begs for over-analysis. Yet, the record is engaging, direct and unpretentious, partly because Koenig keeps a lot plainspoken and partly because VW broaden their pallete, while keeping their songwriting as strong as ever.
Rather than make an album full of singles, the songs here are diverse and downcast, full of odd song structures, left turns and a dour tone, even in its uptempo moments. Part of that has to do with the production: bandmate Rostam Batmanglij is behind the boards again, yes, but this time he works with Ariel Rechtshaid, whose work with pop and electronic artists tends to favor some fog in with the polish. Together, they give the record the appropriate balance of fussy studio wizardry and pick-up-and-play directness, which keeps the record grounded, even when it takes risks. Of course, most of it has to do with the tracks themselves. Opener “Obvious Bicycle” signals their intent to try something new: Miles away from the summery “Mansard Roof” and “Horchata,” wistful harmonies and gently struck pianos carry the day, and it battles fellow bookend “Young Lion” for the position of the group’s most unabashedly gorgeous song yet. “Step” is a richer, mature take on VW’s studious, Afro-chamber pop; “Hannah Hunt” bursts from a sweeping, nostalgic look at a cross-country trip to something altogether more pained and cathartic. And even though the record’s more serious tone naturally slows down the tempos, “Diane Young” and “Worship You” still give the rhythm section of Chris Baio and Chris Tomson plenty to work with. Given the all-encompassing themes here, it’s unsurprising that there’s a spiritual quality to this album, too. Sure, the lyrics do some of the heavy lifting on that front, but drones, hymnal choirs and atmospheric reverb abound, not to mention titles like “Worship You” and “Everlasting Arms.” And that vibe culminates in perhaps the record’s best song, “Ya Hey.” Floating on a dub-inspired bassline, martial chanting and some wildly screwed vocals, Koenig questions his faith while reaching out to respect and understand God. It’s complex, compassionate and searching, adjectives foreign to most decidedly black-and-white religious (and anti-religious) professions in pop music. It’s that sort of curiosity and open-mindedness that makes VW both a band of substance and a band for the masses. Modern Vampires Of The City is the album that cements Vampire Weekend as one of America’s best pop groups going today—intellectually stimulating, emotionally gratifying and catchy as hell.
Vampire Weekend – Contra
And then Vampire Weekend was everywhere. Well, at least as everywhere as an indie band can be these days, really only rivaled by MGMT in their underground/mainstream appeal. But the attention was warranted, mind you, because their 2008 self-titled debut album was really one of the more surprisingly assured and tuneful debuts of the decade, able to back up their hype with a significant amount of substance. The question lies, then, in its follow-up. Bands with such notoriety and distinct style wind up with a whole lot of backlash, and Vampire Weekend are no exception. Yet, they may be able to silence a good amount of their detractors with 2009’s Contra, which is neither a rehash of the first album nor a radical departure. Instead, Vampire Weekend have crafted an album which is still unmistakably theirs but adds a slew of new elements to the mix. Lyrically, Ezra Koenig is still obsessed with places, details, and polysyllabic rhyming (all of which are illustrated by the first few lines of the album, by the way), but here he is much more subdued and his lines often reflect a growing struggle in social status and image. Take the sparse closer “I Think Ur A Conta”, where Koenig tells a lover “you wanted good schools and friends with pools…Never picks sides, never choose between two but I just wanted you.” Vampire Weekend know they are of a privileged social class but they aren’t ashamed and they don’t think that you should be ashamed of your status either whatever it may be. They try not to worry what others think of them which gives them a confidence in their own musical growth.
Consequently, Vampire Weekend have expanded upon the quirks of their sound giving them a wider sonic palette without abandoning their mix of new wave and Afro-pop rather than rehashing their sound or drastically changing it in reaction to their success. Yet, the only two songs that could fit comfortably on their debut are the breezy opener “Horchata” and the jagged, jittery “Cousins”. On Contra, synthesized beats and sounds are more likely to jut up against organic percussion and orchestration courtesy of keyboardist/producer Rostam Batmanglij. Elsewhere, an M.I.A. sample and a rocksteady beat sit comfortably with lyrics of a rough drug-addled night on “Diplomat’s Son” and electro-pop propels “Giving Up The Gun”. Sure, most of this isn’t as immediate as their predecessor but when a follow-up to one of the most successful indie albums of the 2000s is this satisfying, who’s complaining?