Vampire Weekend – Modern Vampires of the City: The Desolation of Smog

2013_VampireWeekend_ModernVampiresoftheCityArtist: Vampire Weekend
Album: Modern Vampires of the City
Year: 2013
Grade: A

In Brief: A diverse and attention-grabbing album that, despite its unevenness, is commendable for breaking out of VW’s comfortable core style and pushing the limits of their creativity.

It seems like it’s impossible to talk about Vampire Weekend without first addressing the allegation that they’re a hipster band. So I’ll just get that one out of the way early and say that I don’t think they are. I have my theories on why they’re perceived that way, though. First off, there’s the music they make – a deliberately un-mainstream and un-macho combination of African rhythms, classical string arrangements, Ezra Koenig‘s boyish, yelpy vocals, and snatches of programmed rhythms or keyboard sounds that seem deliberately out of sync with the current musical climate. The first time you hear it, you’re not even sure what genre it is, and it’s bucking your expectations of whatever genre it’s closest to, so if you respond to this unfavorably, it’s only natural to assume that whoever likes this music is just claiming to enjoy it because what they really enjoy is that it leaves you feeling out of the loop. Second, there’s the name. Vampire Weekend. As I’ve pointed out before, it sounds like it should be the name of a ferocious metal band with long hair and spandex or something. Instead you get four preppy-looking Ivy League boys. If that seems like intentional irony, then bingo, that puts them right smack in the middle of the Hipster-ville town square. Third – and this may be stating the obvious – a lot of hipsters seem to like the band. Of course, nobody these days can really tell the difference between actual hipsters, folks with a sense of humor who find it amusing to imitate and exaggerate hipster culture (and who may in the process be perpetuating it), and folks who just genuinely like something that strikes you as different and weird. It’s a case of guilt by association, really. Word of mouth in the hipster-sphere may well have helped Vampire Weekend to build a following seemingly overnight, but that can only carry a band’s reputation so far. Hipster cred alone will implode upon itself once it starts to spill over into the general public and the once-vaunted up-and-comers have already up-and-gone. And the band’s had enough exposure by now that I’m willing to bet actual hipsters have dumped them in favor of the latest semi-obscure band they can name-drop in order to elicit puzzled responses from folks who worry that they’re supposed to have already heard of ’em. At some point, one has to assume that, love ’em or hate ’em, this band has a reasonably healthy following of folks who have nothing to prove to anyone else, and who – funnily enough – actually like the music they make.

I’ve counted myself among that group of people who listen to Vampire Weekend for genuine enjoyment for five years now. Their first album was hit-and-miss for me, but fun when it worked. Contra really got me going by adding a bit of electronic tinkering to the mix and just in general being one of those non-stop fun albums that kept inviting me back to ponder all of the lyrical flotsam and jetsam floating underneath the shiny surface. My sixth sense told me that the band probably couldn’t continue in that same direction – Contra was surprisingly poppy, after all, and there may have been subtler elements of the band’s sound that some of their fanbase would miss if they veered too far in that direction. At the same time, they had to shake off the notion that the African-meets-classical gimmick was the only thing setting them apart. So, along comes their third album, Modern Vampires of the City, and at first listen, it’s exactly the sort of thing you’d expect from a band in that difficult, transitional phase of their career, branching out perhaps for the first time from the genre trappings of the sound they started with. You’ll catch a little bit of tropical flavor in the laid-back rhythms and vocal chants from a few of these songs, but for the most part, the kwassa kwassa is gone from their sound, leaving the band to walk a curious tightrope between dense and noisy rock songs with sort of a post-punk energy to their rhythms, and laid-back, almost dub-influenced ballads. There isn’t a whole lot of middle ground between the two, which can make Modern Vampires a jarring listen, sometimes muddled in places where past albums would have been clear and shiny, and sometimes sparse in places where past albums would have been luxurious in their instrumentation. Give it time, and there’s a certain magic that the band works, slowly drawing you into a minimalistic groove, right before a switch to the next track suddenly ambushes you with a barrage of bizarre lyrics and sounds. In some ways, I have to respect that – it’s as if a relentless quest for a new, creative spin on their music pushed the band simultaneously to two opposite extremes. About the worst thing a band at this stage can do is to release a string of indistinguishable mid-tempo tracks and call it an album, so at least they’re making sure every song is distinctive. But when looking at the larger picture, asking how well this all hangs together as an album, I have to admit that it’s probably the roughest ride of any of their albums so far. Odd production decisions – particularly in the vocal department, where the group relies way too much on pitch-shifting and other digitized effects to the point where they damage a few of the songs – do drag me down a bit, holding the album back from being a true home run.

Lyrically, this may be Vampire Weekend’s most intriguing outing so far. Ezra’s songwriting style has always been rather dense, packed with odd cultural observations, expressed in the extended vocabulary of a college student discovering road trips and rummage sales and socially-aware blog sites for the first time, and occasionally giving way to witty puns and rhymes. It’s not often that I can claim to understand them, but there’s a unique flavor to most of his songs that takes me back to the wide-eyed days of freshman year, when I was a sponge wanting to soak up all of the knowledge in existence, but only capable of retaining tiny, discontinuous pieces of it all. Not being sure whether a profound statement was being made or whether they just enjoyed being the big goofballs on campus fueled much of their first album, while Contra focused in a bit more on the ups and downs of wanting to be perceived as counter-cultural – in some ways, they could have been making a ironic commentary on irony itself, but honestly I’m still not sure. Modern Vampires seems to deal with weightier topics in comparison – its songs are riddled with anxiety about things that don’t last, up to and including mortal life itself, and a few of them take aim at God and religion, not so much as a criticism, but just peeking in from the outside, wondering if there’s any space in there for a curious onlooker. These are tricky subjects to broach without being too broad or too melodramatic, and Vampire Weekend strikes a pretty darn good balance of moods as they explore them all, proving they can slam-dunk a dizzyingly fast melodic hook on one song and then completely pull the rug out from under you with a slow, unsettling approach on the next. There’s a lot on theses guys’ minds, but they never seem heavy-handed about it, and despite my nitpicks with production and pacing, I find this commendable. I may still go back to Contra when I need a bona fide pick-me-up, but I’m glad that Modern Vampires is not more of the same – it’s an album that seems to reward those who approach it with caution and curiosity.

INDIVIDUAL TRACKS:

1. Obvious Bicycle
I honestly thought one of my speakers was broken the first time I listened to this song. With its slow pace and its clunky, half-there percussion, I figured they must have panned something off to one side that gave the song a fuller sound. But in a deliberate attempt to stymie our expectations, they’ve done this on purpose. And while the band seems to be sleepwalking through the song at first, the beauty of it comes to the forefront as the song’s rhythm slowly pieces itself together, bouyed rather strangely by bits of electronic sampling, and the piano and backing vocals begin to fill in gaps in the melody. At first, it’s merely a sad sack song about a guy who doesn’t even know if he’s making enough of a difference to go out and even face the world that day. (Choice lyrics: “You oughta spare your face the razor/Because no one’s gonna spare their time for you.”) But soon enough, it comes alive, the guys’ voices sweetly intertwining around the minimal words in the chorus: “So listen….. oh, so listen… oh, don’t wait… don’t wait.” And there’s this sadly pretty little piano coda at the end, almost the kind of thing you’d expect in a dramatic “talkie film” as intertitles tell us what is becoming of our hapless protagonist.
Grade: B+

2. Unbelievers
As much as I like this album’s unorthodox beginning, the unassuming, vaguely up-tempo pace of this song makes it feel like we’ve been dropped right into the middle of the album – something about it seems a bit smooshed in the production department, and too easygoing on the guitars, unsure whether it wants to be a sunny, organ-driven pop song, or a feisty rock song. It gets there eventually – after a couple choruses or so, when Chris Tomson‘s drums catch on fire, that’s the first obvious reminder that you’re listening to a nVampire Weekend album. But for the majority of the song, the music takes a back seat to the lyrics (even if the melody is decently catchy). To be fair, this brings focus to a bit of intriguing songwriting that it might not have been given in more of a chaotic, fast-paced song. Ezra’s pretty sure that he and his lover fit into the “them” side of some religion’s definition of “us and them”. They are the unbelievers. And he’s asking what it would mean to take their doctrine at face value, to believe that he and someone he cares deeply for are doomed so long as they continue not to espouse that religion’s beliefs. It’s sort of weird to hear such harsh words in a song with such a chipper melody: “We know the fire awaits unbelievers/All of the sinners the same/Girl, you and I will die unbelievers/Bound to the tracks of the train.” There’s a potent question buried within one of the verses – “Who’s gonna save a little grace for me?” The song brings a lot of questions to mind about how we religious folks treat others who don’t believe the same way we do. Sometimes the human being gets lost in the categorization, or in the perceived need to push doctrine upon them. But before I can ponder those difficult questions too deeply, there’s this unbelievably uplifting Irish flute sort of thing that comes right in over the clattering drums, and suddenly I’m wishing the song hadn’t taken so darn long to build to such a cool climax.
Grade: B

3. Step
“Every time I see you in the world, you always step to my girl.” See, I want to hate the song for that awful rhyme (which is its chorus, by the way) and for so awkwardly borrowing the whole “step to” vernacular. Wasn’t that outdated ten years ago? Are they just being ironic white/Indian boys again? But those concerns soon melt away, as a minimalistic bass line meets a stately harpsichord sample that unabashedly borrows the chord progression from the apparently granddaddy of all pop songs, Pachelbel’s Canon. I’m not joking here – the effect is pretty cool, even if pace-wise, this once again feels like it belongs later in the record. If I had to compare it to an old Vampire Weekend song, I’d pick “The Kids Don’t Stand a Chance” (which, notably, was the closing comedown track after a whole lot of upbeat stuff on their first album). But production-wise, this is new territory for the band, relying quite heavily on Rostam Batmanglij‘s array of keyboard licks and unusual samples. Ezra’s vocals are pitch-shifted here and there, not quite going overboard with it as they do later in the album, but definitely giving it the feel of a remix to a song we’ll never hear the original version of. What helps me to get grounded amidst all of the weirdness is that the songwriting, aside from that terrible chorus, is actually pretty sharp. Just in the first verse, Ezra’s dropping a bevy of geographical and possibly political references, but then hinting that he’s only pretending to be as informed as these place names make him sound: “Back, way back, I used to front like Angkor Wat/Mechanicsburg, Anchorage and Dar es Salaam/While home in New York was champagne and disco/Tapes from LA, San Francisco/But actually Oakland and not Alameda/Your girl was in Berkeley with her communist reader/Mine was entombed within boombox and Walkman/I was a hoarder but girl, that was back then.” It’s the same sort of madness that I loved in “California English”, but actually halfway intelligible due to the reduced speed, and for the most part, that’s just how this record rolls. Some interesting stuff comes up later in the song about how “his girl” is a tough enough chick to handle herself, and to not need his protection when some other dude tries to make a move on her. So I feel like this one has a lot to say. I just think it belongs a little deeper in the track listing, that’s all.
Grade: B+

4. Diane Young
Aha, here we go! Everything that Vampire Weekend has been holding back suddenly explodes forth, like the cork being popped off of a champagne bottle. This one’s every bit as manic as “Cousins”, but they’ve chewed it up and spit it out in the studio a hell of a lot more, giving the drums a bit of a “boxy”, over-sampled sort of sound, pushing the guitars a few gears past overdrive, and most notably, pitch-shifting Ezra’s voice to hell and back during one of the group’s most iconic chorus. What, you don’t think “Baby, baby, baby, baby right on time” is iconic? Well, either way, you won’t be able to get the sound of it out of your head. What’s hilarious is how the song is a full-on sprint, referencing every possible “live fast, die young” trope it can think of (including the title, which in case you didn’t get it, is a pun), only to come to a screeching halt for that refrain, which has little other than a tambourine to support it. The contrast is striking, and every aspect of the song conspires to make it one of the year’s catchiest and most intriguing singles. Even the abrupt ending, a noticeable contrast to how most tracks on this album take their sweet time to wind down, pulls off a pretty slick segue into a track which has very little in common with it.
Grade: A+

5. Don’t Lie
Unfortunately, the transition’s about all that I tend to find noteworthy about this one. Here, they keep the cluttered drum sound, but drop back to a medium tempo, sort of just chugging along on auto-pilot due to the song having a much more conventional structure and melody. Some classical samples leak in here and there, but not as memorably as they did in “Step”, so this feels like another one that can’t make up it’s mind whether it wants to be aggressive or laid-back, though it isn’t as charming in that split-the-difference department as “Unbelievers” was. Ezra’s still obsessing over the suddenness of death and the seeming folly of making long-term plans here, to the point where he seems to be telling a girl to go with the reckless, spontaneous side of her heart and choose him, rather than going for the logical safe choice of a man she’s apparently already engaged to. Knowing Vampire Weekend, this is probably more of a deconstruction than an expression of an attitude they seriously hold – it’s the kind of decision that would seem like a good idea to a headstrong college student, but that would turn out to have unexpected repercussions later in life. You know, past the part where the forbidden lovers kiss with the sunset in the background, and the credits roll, and we all walk out of the theater with the “happily ever after” merely implied.
Grade: C+

6. Hannah Hunt
These guys aren’t quite done testing my patience yet. One of their most climactic songs shows up at the midpoint of the album, deliberately miring us in watery guitar sounds and light, plinking piano, giving itself more wide open space than any other VW song to date except for maybe “I Think Ur a Contra”. To say that this one had to grow on me is an understatement. It seems to be exploring the aftermath of two young lovers running off together, making a road trip “from Providence to Phoenix” and noticing that even though their whimsical, boehmian lifestyle seems to make time stand still, it is nevertheless creeping inexorably forward. Somewhere far from home, his darling Hannah snaps out of her dream state and lashes out due to the sudden realization that she’s homesick. And he’s left all verklempt, wondering how their best laid plans could have fallen apart so suddenly. This leads to a quiet refrain, which is then repeated an octave higher, with crashing drums and a whole lot more frustration: “If I can’t trust you, then dammit, Hannh/There’s no future, there’s no answer/Though we live on the U.S. dollar/You and me, we’ve got our own sense of time.” I love how the song slides right into that unexpected climax, but I think they might have played the build-up to it a bit too light. Still, it’s one of the more attention-grabbing tracks on the album, and one that many seem to have cited as an early favorite, so maybe I’m just playing catch-up on this one.
Grade: B-

7. Everlasting Arms
If you’re wondering what the heck happened to most of the guitars on this album, then you’re not alone. But the drought is almost over. Bass and drums (mostly programmed, as far as I can tell) dominate this one, though it’s still one of the more easy-going tracks on the album. Once again, I’m strongly intrigued by Ezra’s openness about difficult spiritual questions. Here, he almost seems to take a “Can’t live with you, can’t live without you” approach to the Almighty Himself, as if he was somehow predestinated to turn away from belief in, or at least obedience to, the God he was taught exists. “Oh I was born to live without you/But I’m never gonna understand, never understand”, he sighs, and then later he drops this baffling tidbit: “I hummed the dies irae while you played the hallelujah/Leave me to my cell, leave me to my cell.” While musically, this one seems to mostly stay out of the listener’s way, there’s a lot going on in these lyrics, at least if you know anything about church music. I only know what the heck the “Dies Irae” is due to the David Crowder Band focusing an entire album on the requiem mass last year, and then of course there’s the Protestant hymn “Leaning on the Everlasting Arm”. Somewhere within these references, the song seems to be saying, “I believe that this master exists, but I don’t feel safe trusting him.”
Grade: B-

8. Finger Back
Aha, there’s the snappy guitar lick I’ve been looking for! Possibly too snappy, compared to what’s come before. This is the segment of the record where Vampire Weekend snaps the hell out of their trance and decides to do everything confoundingly fast. The stuttering rhythm of this one, with Rostam’s organ chords following Ezra’s edgy riff and vocal melody note-for-note, will probably be enough to irritate the crap out of some people. It jumps all over the place melodically, from high to low, to the point where the lyrics are obscured a bit as a consequence. I don’t mind it. I love getting immersed in a good “motor mouth” song and then having to go look up what was said later and see how much of it I was able to piece together. And these lyrics don’t disappoint – they’re bizarre, and actually a little violent, as Ezra expressing frustration with someone who is twisting his arm (or at least bending his finger) as a form of torture to get him to cooperate. What the heck this has to do with the spoken bit in the middle of the song about an Orthodox girl falling in love with a falafel shop employee is beyond me. But given this album’s odd preoccupation with religion, it wouldn’t surprise me if the band had borne witness to some sort of an interfaith love story, and the subsequent fallout that came from it when their families found out. Mash a bunch of diverse cultures together in a city like New York, and it’s only a matter of time.
Grade: A

9. Worship You
Now there’s a song title that I was pretty sure I’d never see outside the realm of Christian music! This one’s pretty clearly about worship in the past tense, since the chorus says, “We worshipped you/Your red right hand/Won’t we see you once again?”, as if a deity had just up and left his followers. So it’s not exactly a cheerful song, though you wouldn’t note it from the galloping acoustic guitars and the lively drum march, let alone the lyrics that whiz by so fast, you have absolutely no hope of understanding them without a lyrics sheet. As subdued as Vampire Weekend had been playing it up until about track 7, these last two came as a complete surprise. Once again, this will annoy some people, but for me it’s a fun surprise. The band has successfully kept me guessing, and they’re doing it not only by changing up their musical approach, but by exploring the discomfort of an individual who has washed his hands of his old religious beliefs, or who seems to be at least considering doing so. Usually songs about religion are black and white – they’re all “Yay, God!”, or they’re all “I hate God”, or maybe “God doesn’t exist and the whole thing is a sham”. Sure, lots of songwriters ask honest questions, but a guy trying to work out how he feels about God, over the course of several songs, seems to be a pretty rare thing in the music industry.
Grade: A

10. Ya Hey
Just as “Diane Young” reigned supreme over the front half of the album, this track seems to anchor its back half, serving as a sort of emotional climax as the record gradually winds down. The pace here isn’t nearly as frenetic as the last two songs, but I see it as the end of a trilogy nonetheless, because this is where Ezra gets really deep into it with the religious references. They aren’t particularly positive ones – it was fun to recognize “Ya Hey” as code for “Yahweh” (the Hebrew word for God), as well as the Biblical phrase “I am that I Am”, but there are a lot of tough questions hurled at the sky in this one, most notably why entire tribes of people, from America to Babylon to Zion, seem to be turning away from their beliefs, and why an omnipotent being easily capable of proving its existence chooses to remain invisible and inaudible. The old me would have been tempted to pick apart the theology here and try to “answer” the questions, but the important thing here is that this is an honest frustration that a lot of believers and skeptics alike stumble across at some point or another along their journey. And I like that the band is brave enough to tuck away all of these little bits of soul-searching into an epic song, which builds off of a slow but steady drum beat, replete with handclaps and Chris Baio‘s brilliant bass playing, adding in dramatic choral samples and even a bit of vaguely African-flavored chanting (come on, you knew the African influence had to come in somewhere) that brilliantly bridges the gap between what seems like mindless syllables to get the crowd to sing along “Ya Hey! Ya Hey!”, and the actual name of the being they’re choosing not to directly name. I remember listening to the band’s Coachella set on YouTube before the album came out, and this being one of the few new songs they played, and how instantly I fell in love with it. But there’s one aspect of the studio version that I haven’t quite come to terms with yet, and that’s the extreme pitch-shifting that happens during most of the chorus chants. As Chris, Ezra, and Rostam are all singing into the pitch-shifter, their voices come out sounding like Alvin and the Chipmunks. I wish I were exaggerating, but I’m not. It’s going to irritate the ever-living crap out of some people. Personally, I can live with it, and I still think the song is amazing, but I think it worked just fine with normal voices as well. Maybe if they let that chorus chant play normally a few times through, and then brought in the pitch-shifting later, letting the song get weirder and weirder as it progressed, then it would serve its purpose without being such a polarizing feature of the song.
Grade: A

11. Hudson
Unfortunately, this album ends on a real downer. I don’t mean to say that this is a bad song from an artistic viewpoint – quite the opposite, in fact. Like “Obvious Bicycle”, this one starts out seeming a bit unmoored – Ezra is singing this strange melody that has no supporting instrumentation behind it to give it context. It’s unsettling and downright off-putting for a few verses, and eventually, what seems like random noodling on the bass eventually becomes a pattern that helps you to get used to it, while jacked-up drum samples finally pull themselves together into a slow, sad, fateful march toward an explorer’s imminent death. The choral samples are back, too, but they’re about ten times eerier than they were in “Ya Hey”. The resulting concoction is a very cinematic one – almost the kind of thing you can imagine playing over the aftermath of a post-apocalyptic battle scene, when all of the futuristic cities lie in ruins and there’s a tattered American flag poking out of the rubble somewhere. Ezra’s lyrics seek to intertwine the tragic irony of places on the map being named for people who died there, with his own personal story, the places he was born and the places he’s been, and how or where he’ll be remembered when it comes his turn to die. I appreciate the band’s ability to set a creepy tone for this one. I appreciate a little more about the song every time I hear it. Still, some of the sampling is so harsh and dissonant, and intentionally out of sync with the rest of the song, that I can’t help but feel they overindulged a bit with this one. I supposed I’d rather hear the band taking these kinds of chances than just resting on the success of past albums, and once again, you’ll find other critics citing this song as a highlight, so please do take my comments here with a huge grain of salt.
Grade: C+

12. Young Lion
“Hudson” was, quite honestly, the album’s true finale. This song, with nothing to say other than “You take your time, young lion”, could almost be a hidden track, or perhaps the same kind of coda for “Hudson” that “Obvious Bicycle” got tacked onto it as part of the actual song. In any case, it’s about a minute and half of Rostam playing the piano (which, to be fair, is quite pretty), while the guys sing that mournful refrain four times. There’s a eulogy-like quality to it, but then again, it could be a reminder to not get so preoccupied with death that we fail to make the most of the life in between. So, while this one doesn’t do much for me personally, I can see some merit to the peaceful pause it offers us after all of the rushed chaos and troubling questions and haunting specters that have appeared right before it.
Grade: C

WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Obvious Bicycle $1.25
Unbelievers $1
Step $1.25
Diane Young $2
Don’t Lie $.50
Hannah Hunt $.75
Everlasting Arms $.75
Finger Back $1.75
Worship You $1.75
Ya Hey $1.75
Hudson $.50
Young Lion $.25
TOTAL: $13.50

BAND MEMBERS:
Ezra Koenig: Lead vocals, guitars
Rostam Batmanglij: Guitars, keyboards, backing vocals
Chris Tomson: Drums, percussion
Chris Baio: Bass, backing vocals

LISTEN FOR YOURSELF:
http://open.spotify.com/album/2Qi2SySN2ePZwMLDSv9Krn

USEFUL LINKS:
http://www.vampireweekend.com
https://www.facebook.com/VampireWeekend

Originally published on Epinions.com.

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