When Vampire Weekend released their self-titled debut album in 2008, I was not what you would call impressed… quite the opposite. I found their blend of African rhythms, quasi-punk, stupid name, and over dependence on vocal effects grating at best… juvenile and pretentious at worst. I didn’t care about whether or not they were rich WASPs from Ivy League schools (for the record, none of the four members are WASPs at all), which was one of the more annoying criticisms of their music… I don’t care if you are rich or poor… black or white… if you can make good music, bring it. If not, prepare to enter the dustbin of musical history.
With their sophomore effort, Contra, released in 2010, my ears pricked up a bit. Two songs in particular caught my attention; Horchata and Diplomat’s Son. Although the very things that annoyed me in their debut, specifically the vocal effects, were still present, there seemed to be a maturing of sorts that was absent in the previous album. Plus they managed to rhyme horchata with balaclava… I got a kick out of that.
Jump ahead to 2013 and their release of Modern Vampires of the City. Not only am I now reconsidering my previous opinions, but I have to give them credit for producing one of the better albums I’ve heard all year. Everything you need to understand this album is present in the first four tracks, which is not to take away anything from the remainder of the album… it’s just that those four tracks bring everything that will follow and presents them in such a way that you will be hooked immediately… then be consistently rewarded throughout.
Opening with Obvious Bicycle, there is a restraint at play that I haven’t heard from them before. A spare and quiet song with an almost angelic quality that belies just how richly textured the piece really is. It’s this layering that raises the bar with this album… at no point do I find these tracks repetitive or dull, which is a complaint I have had in the past.
The second track, Unbelievers, is a bit more frenetic, opening with an organ and a vocal track that is so reminiscent of Paul Simon that I wouldn’t have been surprised to hear this tucked away in the Kodachrome era on Simon’s greatest hits. I don’t say that in a disparaging way… I don’t see this as aping Paul Simon, but rather, Ezra Koenig, the lead vocalist and guitarist of Vampire Weekend, using his voice more powerfully than ever before and owning his voice as he hadn’t before, and seemingly not hiding behind all the reverb and autotune that turned me off so much.
Next up is Step… completely guilty of that exact pitch modulation that drives me crazy, yet… I think this is one of the more interesting and surprising track on the album. The piece moves in a way that is unexpected and well crafted with minor hooks throughout that dig their way into my head every time I listen to it. Catchy, creative, and infinitely listenable. I’m not sure if this was the first single to drop, but I know it was the first from the album that I heard. My initial reaction was still the same, not impressed… by the end of the song I was won over.
Rounding out this quad of opening numbers is Diane Young (read dyin’ young). This is where their original punk background pops up and throws it into a blender with some old rockabilly… like the Big Bopper on speed or mushrooms. I can’t say it’s my favorite song from the album, but it fits perfectly and bleeds seamlessly into the fifth track, Don’t Lie, which I would have sworn was simply another movement as opposed to another song entirely.
I would be hard pressed to say which song on the album is my favorite, but I may have to give that distinction to the seventh track, Everlasting Arms. Well constructed with a great bass and drum opening as an organ drones quietly in the background… again, somewhat spare compared with much of what they have produced in the past, but constantly changing and delicately textured and layered in a way that produces a surprising richness that doesn’t seem to lean too heavily on effects, yet embraces the technology that makes an album such as this possible.
I would love to hear them produced by someone like Danger Mouse or Daniel Lanois… to see what someone else could do with their very distinct sound would be interesting to say the least. Again, not to take away anything from Ariel Rechtshaid, the producer behind Modern Vampires, as well as previous work with Justin Beiber and Kylie Minogue… but a producer with a distinct style that might challenge Koenig and Rostam Batmanglij, co-producer and keyboardist/guitarist, to move away from their comfort zone.
In the end, I have to say that Vampire Weekend‘s, Modern Vampires of the City is by far their best work to date and a wonderful addition to my music library, and one I imagine I will be going back to for years to come. I am going to have to revisit their previous albums and listen to them with a fresh ear, and realize that perhaps I had missed something when I was dismissing them as being too gimmicky or juvenile.
Still hate the name,
Cornelius J. Blahg