Review: Modern Vampires Of The City, Vampire Weekend

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tried to hate Vampire Weekend. Like many, I found their twee/hyper-literate sensibilities a little too gratingly self-aware.  They would know of mansard roofs, kwassa-kwassa, and Oxford commas. Yet it’s truly hard to absolutely fault a band for their background. So what if they had graduated from Columbia?  Certainly abstract ideas and world influenced rhythms had exploited pop music before, a la The Talking Heads.  Vampire Weekend’s problem seemed to be more of an affectation; they weren’t so much the snooty educated vanguard as they were beloved by the people that were.  Music thrives with identity after all, and those grammatical shindigs found at summer homes in Cape Cod had found a place on the radio. 

There was a temporal and spatial reasoning as well.  The Strokes had become New York City’s musical darlings overnight but had faded just as quickly, their avoidance of emotion, their committal to being non-committal had caught up with them.   2008 was a long time to wait for a new buzz band, and NYC underwent a cultural renaissance. Gone was the romanticism of skeevy lounges and frenetic punk fantasy, in its place a more marketable youth heaven. Shows such as Sex in the City and Gossip Girl not only brought out the high society of NYC life, they made it acceptable, accessible, and lusted after.  Vampire Weekend perfectly fit the mold, thrust into the landscape of hipsterdom, Upper West Side obsession and the ever growing backlash.

Aside from a brief dash of an affair with “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa”, “Oxford Comma”, and “The Kids Don’t Stand A Chance”, my strong dislike was successful, they couldn’t be songs that I could delve into, obsess over, rinse and repeat. Their follow-up album, Contra, was little more than a blip of my attention, and even then mostly due to the squabble over the album cover.

Vampire Weekend is almost incessantly tuneful– you need only hear the opening guitar riff to CCKK once before you have it stuck in your head for life. Unfortunately, it infers something worse than a guilty pleasure because you don’t want to be associated with the people (who, it should be said, are derided in the actual song) who are its main subject.  Even the most opined detractors can’t akin Vampire Weekend to talentless hacks. However, on the wave of their debut they were easy to pigeonhole. Koenig recounted in a recent interview “we were essentially the preppy African guitar band.” They’ve been trying to avoid the label ever since.

Vampire Weekend certainly knows their audience. The cheeky urbane types that would delight in showing their friends that Vampire Weekend announced their latest album through an ad in the New York Times, or that they teamed up with Steve Buscemi to venture on psuedo-awkward adventures across the GIF-able city. That’s really the only thing that bothers me, but it is arguably no worse window dressing than many a pop album uses for promotion.  

Here’s the thing, the music trumps all of it. Whereas their debut found them trying to sound different from the pack, Modern Vampires Of The City (horrible title and all) succeeds with pure ambition. 

“Obvious Bicycle” starts the album with spare instrumentation, a compressed piano and a shuffling drum beat that hints at unconventional ( A drum beat that comes from an obscure reggae artist Ras Michael’s “Keep Cool Babylon”). Mortality has already been discussed at length as a theme for this album, but time is also important, as Koenig sarcastically chides his friend “You oughta spare your face the razor/ because no one’s gonna spare the time for you.” The chorus comes across as a soaring hymnal aimed at the reluctant Carpe Diem millennials, “Listen, don’t wait." 

The second song on the album, "Unbelievers”, reminds me of Billy Joel.  Not surprising given Koenig’s proclivity for defending the man.  Especially the harmonizing on the refrain “We know the fire awaits unbelievers/ all of the sinners, the same.” The droning organ and drum interplay also make nice bedfellows with the rising and falling vocals.

“Step” has been glowingly reviewed so far, and it’s easy to see why, with its homespun yet ornate sound collage that could perfectly back a Wes Anderson film. Here, Koenig is perhaps at his most referential and reverential, quoting Souls of Mischief’s “Step To My Girl” (in turn a quote of Grover Washington Jr’s “Aubrey” which is a cover of Bread’s original) The iterations of iterations are telling of the song’s theme, music, and how each generation shapes it and believes their own to be better.  So too does Koenig relate the universality of music, from Dar es Salaam to Berkeley.

“Diane Young”, an obvious homophone of dying young, is Modern Vampires Of The City at its most energetic. Koenig’s vocal jumps like Buddy Holly on speed while the whiplash rhythm section whirls around him.  There’s even a nice bit of vocal manipulation at play here on the chorus (Koenig explained this as an attempt to simulate vocal changes through aging) but the bridge, an apoplectic electronic approximation of a car crash, is a bit jarring. It’s still a tremendously engaging song, even if the Kennedy reference is a little too macabre, considering two of them were assassinated.

The booming organ and drum combination is back on “Don’t Lie”, kissing cousins of J. Giels Band’s “Love Stinks” . The descending bass line is a star here, with a catchy refrain to boot.  "Don’t Lie" is a nice breather after the frenetic “Diane Young” and the build of the arrangement, dashes of harpsichord, strident string arrangements that compliment the cooing vocals, its all here.

“Hannah Hunt” finds Koenig at his most vulnerable, a tale of a relationship that was doomed to fail. The lyrics are heavy on double meanings here, particularly on the refrain where Koenig relates “ Though we live on the US dollar/ you and me, we got our own sense of time.” Time is money, but the homophone (sense, cents) is a nice choice of words as well.  Again, locations are littered, from Providence to Phoenix, Waverly/Lincoln, and Santa Barbara. In that framework, “Hannah tore the New York Times into pieces,” could just as well be the time they spent in New York as the typical paper.  "Hannah Hunt" also features one of the prettier bridges on the album and is an easy favorite on the album.

“Everlasting Arms” might be Modern Vampires Of The City’s most direct confrontation with religion.  Opening with the stark "I took your counsel and I came to ruin, leave me to myself, leave me to myself.“ Koenig quotes the "Dies Irae” a famous hymn of death and destruction, and even models the vocal melody after it in apposition to “Hallelujah”.  It’s a song of contradicting patterns, the sharp dark strings, the soothing vocals. The sense of being alone in the world and begging for a different explanation.

Strangely, I saw one reviewer liken “Worship You” to a hyperactive “I’m Looking Through You”, but if I were to nail a Beatle reference to one song on the album, it would be “Finger Back” with an unholy amalgamation of “I Am The Walrus” and “Hello Goodbye.” Koenig again puts human emotion and religious propriety at odds with the telling spoken bridge “Cuz this Orthodox girl fell in love with the guy at the falafel shop/ And why not? Should she have averted her eyes and/ Just stared at the laminated poster of The Dome of The Rock?” Just as Koenig was at odds with strict grammarians in “Oxford Comma”, he feels the rules are meant to be bent in “Finger Back” too.

“Worship You” is an exercise in vocal calisthenics, not really my favorite on the album, but interesting nonetheless. In an interview, Koenig described it as an attempt at “some kind of celtic song (about 3:44 in)”.  Given that “Worship You” has also been described as “arabesque”, it’s almost uncanny that Koenig had mentioned this nearly eight years ago. 

Many reviewers have also picked up on the fact that “Ya Hey” has managed to both reference God (Yahweh), and one of the most popular songs in the last ten years: Outkast’s “Hey Ya”. It’s a neat parlor trick, and the song is indeed catchy, but the zealous railing against religion is starting to get a little tiresome by this point.

“Hudson” however, throws the album completely on its head: there’s no song quite like it in Vampire Weekend’s oeuvre. It’s a city gone completely dark, apocalyptic, haunting choral arrangements, and intriguingly, a tale of human failures in light of all of the religious foreboding.  Koenig not so subtly implies that the time or place don’t matter, conflicts will always be the same.

“Young Lion” emerges like the dawn after “Hudson”’s dark night, after a flourish of classically styled piano, Vampire Weekend’s harmonies take over, repeating just one simple line “You take your time, young lion” over and over again. Backed only by an upright bass and choral harmonies, “Young Lion” is a sudden, and stunningly gorgeous end to the album.

Vampire Weekend have proven that they are more than just a one-trick pony, highly capable of melody and encompassing darker themes. I really did try to avoid listening to Vampire Weekend once, but with Modern Vampires Of The City, I may have finally stopped worrying and learned to love the music.

Top Songs:

Hannah Hunt

Finger Back

Find Modern Vampires Of The City on:

Amazon (LP)

iTunes

XL Recordings

If You Like Modern Vampires Of The City, try Big Echo by The Morning Benders

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