Monday, July 29, 2013

Vampire Weakness (CD Review) by Alison Ross

I really want to hate Vampire Weekend, but I don't know how. Every time I think I have struck the final nail in the coffin that contains my chagrined confession of liking them (I disliked most of their second album, Contra, for example), they come out with something brilliant and subversive. Yes, I used subversive in the same paragraph as Vampire Weekend, those Ivy-League frat boys that reek of Ivy-League privilege and play songs for their Ivy-League groupies on Ivy-League mansion lawns. It's all very Great Gatsbyish - so much so that you half-expect Jay Gatsby to walk on stage and sing a duet with them. 

And Vampire Weekend's music IS buttoned-up indie-pop, so stiflingly textbook that you expect to listen to it whilst playing a round of polo during your afternoon tea breaks. The problem is, and this is where it gets sticky with's also adventurous and infectious. 

Besides, from what I understand, their Ivy-League background is greatly hyperbolized by the "haters" - sure, they went to Columbia University, and sure, their sartorial sense is informed more by J. Crew than by the funky streetwear one normally associates with a rock band, but apparently they do not all hail from affluent families. 

And in the end, of course, it doesn't matter a band's socioeconomic status, but somehow it seemed mightly offending for a bunch of rich white dudes to be co-opting beats from poor African communities (their first two albums incorporated a sound that the band brazenly termed, "Upper West Side Soweto." But from what I understand, Paul Simon also did that...but he seemed more authentic in his attributions...). 

But then one must also realize that besides not actually being rich (maybe upper middle class?), half of the band is not ethnically caucasian either. Singer Ezra Koenig is Jewish, and the keyboardist Rostam is Persian. So much for hyped-up mythology! 

So now that I have debunked a few of the fairy tales surrounding this band while still acknowledging some of their hypocrisies, let's get to the meat of the matter: the music.  

Modern Vampires of the City is a stark departure from the more claustrophobic sonic ethos cultivated on the first two albums. The debut album was brilliant and quirky but limited in sound and scope, while the second album, Contra, was a continuation of those limitations, and still obstinately reveling in the Soweto sounds they seemed so proud to exploit. And Contra, to my ears, was just grating; it showed marginal musical growth, some of the hooks were cloying and annoying rather than pleasantly idiosyncratic like on the first album, and I was ready to write them off. Sure, there were some good songs, but it just seemed like Vampire Weekend were already stagnating in the same ol' style. 

But then comes Modern Vampires of the City and it's done a number on my head. The band has completely eschewed its Soweto stylings, and ardently embraced folk, classical, rap, rockabilly to stir up a sonic stew that's genre-bendingly delicious! The melodies are transcendent ("Step" being the true standout, with its beatific melancholy and nods to hip hop and baroque music), the hooks are toxically addictive, and the musicianship is masterful. There is one weak song on the album in my estimation - "Young Turks" - and even that is a forgivable flaw, since it's merely mediocre rather than outright bad. And the more haunting numbers toward the end of the album, such as "Hudson" and "Young Lion" serve to evince that really, ALL the numbers on the album have a mercurial strain, and are not as buoyant as those on the first two albums. 

Lyrically, the songs also reflect leaps in maturity. No more immature musings about preppy fashions, pretentious academic semantics, and drinking yuppie drinks in wintertime. The musical maturation has occurred concurrent with thematic evolution. Religious faith, politics as relating to foreign policy, nostalgia as it's relevant to love and loss and music, and so on are conspicuous topics on this album. And it all logically follows, too, since when the debut album was made, the boys in VW were college kids, while by now they have seen the world and lived a bit. The lyrics are more worldly, less collegiate. 

This album is experimental, yes, and yet it's still patently a Vampire Weekend album. For example, it still employs familiar tropes and devices such as airy vocals, staccato guitars and a marching drumbeat; there are also horns and a mournful piano and overall musical precision (as opposed to sloppy aesthetics that make, say, a band like Black Lips interesting). 

And the production effects that some have referenced as gimmicky, to me serve a Dadaist/absurdist purpose (can Dada serve a purpose? Or does that suck away Dada's mojo?), and even though they can "mar" an otherwise lavish melody, they also spice up the songs and rescue their generic potential. For example, the sublime track "Ya Hey" is both marred and made more intriguing by the "chipmunk" chorus. It's grating and humorous at the same time - and it's a pretty audacious move to knowingly muck up a melody like that. And the vocal effects on "Diane Young" give it a fun, 1950s sock-hop twist. 

Modern Vampires of the City has converted me once again to this band that I hate to love. But this time around, I am foregoing the chagrin and outright confessing that this is my favorite album of the year, haters be damned.*

*Do I like it better than Deerhunter's Monomania? Hmmmmmmmmm. Do vampires suck deer blood? Do deerhunters kill vampires? Answer those questions and maybe then I will have an answer for YOU. 

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