Sunday, June 30, 2013

Modern Vampires of the City (Vampire Weekend) (2013)

Wallflowers United

I remember five years ago when Vampire Weekend’s self-titled debut hit the internet and the main concern from its detractors was how this upstart Ivy-league band was just a set of poseurs. There was easy charm to the record but quite a few critics played hardball, berating the band’s clean-cut preppy Afro-pop sound. Mark you, a band can do a lot worse than being the new Paul Simon but the debut succeeded because the juxtaposition of influence and lyrical affluence was a great fit. It’s become a template even, one that has come to define Vampire Weekend’s sound and shaped their young discography. Flash-forward to now and its stunning how these very same critics have become the band’s biggest fans, bombarding blogs with headlines that proclaim Modern Vampires of the City (MVOTC)as some sort of revolution in popular culture, let alone indie rock and pop.

I disagree but it’s not hard to find common ground in liking the band. Even if you have just a cursory interest in contemporary rock music, they’ve always been a hip, cool band to dig. Their two previous albums still hold up as mostly fresh material even if it’s clear that, sonically, the guys have expanded their territory with MVOTC. This is as it should be and not the other way around. This has been the band’s biggest drawing-card: the willingness to grow into diverse sounds and run with the mood.

At nearly forty-three minutes, Modern Vampires of the City is the band’s longest album and the reason is the lush arrangements involved. They’ve proved themselves masterful at production before but this time we witness them luxuriating in it. What’s been tricky for them is presenting a singular point of view and that’s where the songs work hard to fall in line. At times it sacrifices lyrical clarity just to compensate but make no mistake; the band is arming itself for the long haul.

I’m not sure if the LP’s title is a stab at reinventing themselves but out goes the Afro-pop for the most part and in comes something closer to Americana. Outside of the dyslexic opener (Obvious Bicycle), we get slick, bigger sounds than we’ve never been privy to. Unbelievers works up some jangly fun, especially when the piano comes crashing in even though its crispness feels a bit stiff. Step goes even further with lead singer, Ezra Koenig cooing that he’s “stronger now” and in the process manages to sound dated yet brand new. It’s a clever trick-- a new stylish one we haven’t heard from them before. Diane Young apes Elvis Prestley’s youthfulness without blushes, a surprising risk that pays off. These are the two instances where the band’s wit seeps through its immaculate conception. It’s a marvel to hear Koenig lose himself in the track and the band responds with thunderous guitar riffs.

Things go downhill from there, or, rather, get predictable. Hannah Hunt slows the tempo of the album but gives us the most endearing moment of Vampire Weekend’s career: as it reaches the three minute mark, Koenig give us a sudden emotional shout (‘though we live on the US dollar/ you and me/ we got our own sense of time’) and it’ll send shivers through you. It’s one of those moments where music connects to the listener in an inexplicably vital way.

It ends abruptly but as I go through repeated listens, I can finally put my finger on why the band hasn’t grown on me as it has to others. Even when compared to other lead singers, Koenig hasn’t yet perfected the art of defining himself as a solo voice that commands awe. That’s what is missing on MVOTC…why it’s a good little record but not a great one. It’s why Ya Hey apes nu-reggae instead of redefining it. It’s why the ender Young Lion is blah instead of a sonic blast of awesomeness. There’s too much obedience in the band’s sound, as if they only have one uniformed and polished way of doing things.

Therefore, if anything, MVOTC reminds us that no matter the new suits or riffs involved, Vampire Weekend remains a band and not a lead singer tagging a few friends along for a joyride. Whether one views this as a blessing or limitation is totally up for interpretation but Ezra Koenig hasn’t broken any seismic new ground here. He’s trying clearly but if the last decade has proved anything with indie rock bands, it’s that the restless energy of the lead singer always splits away eventually and the band is either stronger for it or dissolves. I’ve been listening to Wolf Parade’s exceptional debut of late (2003’s Apologies to the Queen Mary) and can’t think of a better example as to what can fix this hold Koenig is in. He should listen to how that group’s lead singer, Spencer Krug utterly loses himself in tracks like I’ll Believe In Anything and Sons and Daughters of Hungry Ghosts and recognize the transcendence. Koenig doesn’t have the same level of genius Krug has…no other male in rock does currently but the point is that it is time for him to try to be more like Krug or hand the reins over to someone else in the band at times so we can hear what new ideas they may have.

RATING: 7/10

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