Vampire Weekend Sink Their Teeth on Modern Vampires of the City
Vampire Weekend burst onto the music scene in the spring of 2008 with an idiotic name and a genius collection of cerebral chamber pop songs set to high-pitched vocals and intricate, yet sparse, guitar licks. Each of the songs on their debut album move along with a brisk, calculated determinacy, infusing archaic string arrangements and repetitive complex guitar melodies to tremendous effect that should have been impossible given their age and inexperience at the time, but they proved that it's usually these exact factors that give birth to the greatest music. There really isn't a single blemish on the entire record; "A-Punk," "Walcott," "Campus," and, most especially, "I Stand Corrected" (which was a late addition that almost didn't make it on the album) represent four of the most well-crafted songs of the first decade of the 21st century, while the worst song on the album, "One (Blake's Got a New Face)," is still a highly enjoyable listening experience. In all, Vampire Weekend was a glorious exposition, but there were a few hangups.
While the heavily publicized anticipation of their self-titled (and therefore dumb sounding) debut album garnered them a lot of adoration from the indie rock press, their WASPy image, Ivy League attitude, and literary lyrical sensibilities also yielded a fair amount of scorn. Many people found the band's pedantic intellect and charmed upbringing a bit tough to swallow. Furthermore, two years worth of shameless self-promotion via online word of keystrokes probably hurt the young band as much as it helped them.
Because of this extended build up, VW was viewed as both the most enigmatic and promising indie rock band since The Strokes debuted nearly a decade before them. People couldn't decide whether they loved or hated them, despite the fact that most had yet to hear a single track for themselves. However, once the album was finally released, their pretension (one of their songs is entitled "Oxford Comma"*) threatened to derail their career before it began, while simultaneously working to enhance their indie rock credibility - pointing to the strong possibility that perhaps the conscious acceptance of preferential paradox is the definitive feature of the Indie Rock scene?
At any rate, the brilliance of the album eventually prevailed, and there was soon much debate over the destiny of this group of over-privileged, over-educated, seemingly omnipresent youths from Columbia University. The conventional Rock & Roll crowd despised what the docksiders on Ezra Koenig's feet represented and would have just as soon seen Vampire Weekend staked through the heart on a Tuesday, while music critics fawned over the front man's highly informed, highly in-tune lyrics and the band's fusion of experimentation and familiarity. Fashion sensibilities and Evelyn Waugh inspired poetry aside, the real question was where the band would go after making such a triumphant introduction.
Cracking the Eggs
This strange brew of overwhelming critical adoration and relative commercial indifference led the band to their second album Contra. Abandoning the poppy minimalism they'd perfected on their first album, their sophomore effort saw the band begin to experiment more heavily with world beats and African rhythms, as they traded much of their guitar influence for a veritable cavalcade of unnecessary synthesizers. The results weren't horrible, but they weren't stellar either. Already a very textually-rich band, they seemed to disregard many of the key fundamentals that they relied upon so heavily on their first album in favor of yet even more substance on Contra. Imagine Jay Gatsby feeling uncivilized, and you'll have a pretty good idea of the headspace being navigated by Vampire Weekend as they were recording their follow-up in 2009.
Oh, you ought to spare your face the razor, because no one’s gonna spare their time for you – “Obvious Bicycle”
Contra spent its first week on the top of the charts, but that was due more to the excellence of their first release than any merit of the album's own. If Vampire Weekend is a record whose genius relies on its guitar-based structures, Contra is an uninspired dud more concerned with expanding the percussive element of its already playful tunes. The problem is that, while many of the delicate guitar licks remain, they don't blend well with the excessive percussion.
Vampire Weekend is decidedly not a Prog band, but it felt like they were making a halfhearted, misguided attempt at becoming one. Most of the songs on Contra simply have a bit too much going on, which can be a good thing with the right band, but, in this case, it's more distraction that intresting complexity. The smartest choice probably would have been to abandon some of their myriad musical influences. Contra is kind of like trying to carry in too many grocery bags from the car at once: Inevitably, at least one will rip, usually cracking the eggs. You roll your eyes, mutter a muted curse word, and resign yourself to waiting until your next shopping experience to try again.
Despite the lingering catchy hooks and clever turns of phrase, the record felt too deliberate - as most second efforts in life normally do. A very real sense of insecurity permeates this second collection; it's almost as if the band was terrified of even trying to replicate the poppy brilliance of the first album... so, they just chose not to (or maybe they actually just tried too hard). Again, this isn't to say that Contra is bad, but it is comparatively different and probably a bit too alternatively ambitious. They knew they couldn't stick to the same template as their debut, but they weren't yet ready to blaze a new trail. This didn't stop them from the attempt, but it probably should have. Of course, if they'd never made Contra, they likely wouldn't have made Modern Vampires of the City, and that would have been a tragedy.
Sinking Their Teeth
It's been three years since we last heard from Vampire Weekend, but it turns out that good things really do come to those who wait. I'm going to go out on a very narrow limb hovering over a very deep canyon here and predict that there will not be another album released this year that will even hold a candle to Modern Vampires**. Like countless bands before them, it appears that Vampire Weekend have learned from their victories as well as their defeats. They have matured to the point where the sophistication of their music at last equals the sophistication of their personalities, and they've finally shed that Ivy League pretension that pissed off so many would-be listeners. The lyrics are more relaxed, less esoteric, and decidedly more cynical. On their first two albums, they tried to mimic the serious young intellects who only wanted to play their instruments and diversify their style (e.g. The Killers' Sam's Town - a good album that nevertheless takes itself too seriously), but now they're fully embracing their best attribute: an exceptional aptitude for filling up three minutes of blank space with immense amounts of sound, making an abandoned songscape feel delightfully claustrophobic.
Everyone’s a coward when you look them in the eyes - "Finger Back"
As a grunge aficionado, I usually loathe heavily produced music, but VW have become absolute masters of the studio. It's something many people may not notice at first, but this is easily the richest, most textured album the band has released. In fact, it's one of the most perfectly produced albums that I can think of off-hand. Like offensive lineman, producers are usually best left in the land of anonymity, and, if they're not, that usually means that they've somehow made a glaring mistake. That said, it's easy to point fingers at bad producers, but it's much more difficult to recognize excellence in the field. Of course, this makes the production of Modern Vampires all the more impressive.
For the new record, rather than multi-instrumentalist Rostam Batmanglij assuming primary producing responsibilities, as he had on VW's first two albums, the band invited an outside resource into their recording sessions for the first time. Ariel Rechtshaid had previously worked with such dumpster trash jackasses as Justin Bieber and Kylie Minogue, but his pop leanings actually mold perfectly well with VW's rock influence. They no longer seem at all confused about incorporating their wide range of stylistic influences. Nothing feels forced, and everything fits seamlessly together, both within the individual tracks and in how those tracks fit together to construct a larger whole. Mellow, sharp, chill, urgent, ambient, subdued, clamoring... all of these characteristics work because they are all perfectly-timed reactions to one another.
Coming in from the Cold
Songwriting heavily dependent upon vocal melody isn't something that Vampire Weekend did that often on their first two albums, but there was good reason to believe that they were fully capable of such (i.e. "I Stand Corrected"). Take, for instance, the first track on Modern Vampires, "Obvious Bicycle." At its core, the song is nothing more than a bare collection of chords subtly played on an upright piano, coupled with Koenig's gorgeous crooning melody discussing the vicious ambivalence of the world. However, as the locomotive percussion chugs along, low-key, yet persistent bass effects come into play, foreshadowing the warm enormity of both the song and the album as a whole. As the song builds with more percussion and heart-wrenching backup vocal harmonies, it feels as though you've crawled under a set of ancient flannel sheets on a frigid December evening. This is Vampire Weekend doing their best 2006 Cold War Kids impression, and usurping their predecessors as the undisputed kings of experimental minimalism.
Irish and proud, baby, naturally, but you got the luck of a Kennedy - “Diane Young”
It's not all cozy catnap time in the inviting bed chambers of Modern Vampires, however. "Finger Back" is an urgent and upbeat groove with plenty of complimentary bass, synthesizer, and percussion that would have fit in nicely as the best song on Contra (or as one of the best songs on a Neutral Milk Hotel album). It's the perfect example of what the band does best these days: Figure out a fun guitar melody, wrap some clever lyrics around it, and then pour on sound as thick as the New Hampshire syrup they were surely raised on. Chris Baio's bass fuzz clogs up the tune, but doesn't choke it, as Chris Dromson's drums blaze away, seemingly terrified of what may happen if they slow down. Eventually, Ezra does stop the song for a brief moment to deliver an absurd monologue about a falafel shop, but it actually works within the context of the song's overall structure. It's a candid and unexpected moment on one of the album's standout tracks, exposing the band's new found ease with their own vulnerability. "Finger Back" is a tune made for ridiculous concert festival lawn dancing on a hot summer's day, of which, there will surely be plenty. (VW is headlining Lollapalooza, Outside Lands, and Austin City Limits... and that's just here in the States.)
The more I listen to this album, the more I'm amazed at how certain musical devices that I usually loathe work so well when done by Vampire Weekend. For instance, at the heart of the album is the first single, "Diane Young" - a not-so-clever linguistic twist on dying young. (I suppose we can forgive Ezra this one misstep, especially since the song itself is such a schizophrenic masterpiece of contemporary pop.) The track features some pretty heavy autotune, but the difference between the way that Vampire Weekend and someone like Akon uses this cheatery is that the former doesn't rely on it as a means of merely getting by on some difficult vocal notes, but rather as a deliberately ironic twist on Koenig's already capable vocal talents. Thanks to the song's despondent subject matter, VW's utilization of this overused tool brings to mind Wham!'s "Wake Me Up Before You Go Go" jitterbug chorus in an expertly crafted modernization of such silliness. The frenetic, up-tempo structure of the tune makes an early trip to the grave seem almost inviting - a warm respite from the cruel realities of an even crueler world.
There's that word again, warm, which is probably the simplest and most apt description of Modern Vampires. As opposed to the low-fi quality of their debut, and the confused navigational route of Contra, this is an album clearly made for the antiquated musical medium of classic vinyl. There's a distinctly fuzzy clarity to it that cannot be properly expressed on CD or iTunes***. Aside from the audible bombasticity of the album, it's also properly suited for vinyl because the nostalgic concept of the medium harkens us back to a time when the pursuit of originality still existed, a time when bands and artists were more than just interested in expanding their boundaries, they were capable of actually doing so. Vampire Weekend didn't care about venturing out on their debut, they failed when they made the attempt on Contra, but now they have succeed in spades on Modern Vampires of the City. Cheers Brooklyn, you're lucky to call them your own!
* Apparently, this is not meant to be ironic.
** If TOOL releases an album this year, I am no longer responsible for said prediction.
*** Or, by writers.