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Vampire Weekend
Modern Vampires of the City - XL
FILTER Grade: 83%

By Nevin Martell on May 16, 2013

 

Vampire Weekend

It was just six years ago that a friend sent me a .ZIP file innocuously entitled Blue CD-R. It turned out to be the demos for the then-unknown Vampire Weekend. There was a freshness to the NYC four-piece, which irresistibly blended African rhythms, punctual guitar licks, memorable melodies and popped-collar pop. It was the kind of music that you felt compelled to share. I must have forwarded those songs on to at least a couple dozen friends; almost all of them admitted to becoming instant converts.


The ensuing 2008 eponymous debut—which included slightly slicked-up versions of the demo tracks as well as a couple extra tunes—didn’t disappoint. In fact, it turned these darlings of the Gotham underground into headlining phenoms. Contra followed two years later, demonstrating significant growth and maturity for such a young band. Keyboardist and burgeoning remixer Rostam Batmanglij began playing a larger role, leading to greater experimentation with electronic components and hip-hop beats. 


Which brings us to Modern Vampires of the City, an oftentimes-thrilling, occasionally flubbed set, which the band is calling the final chapter in a trilogy. Recording for the album spanned sessions in New York, Los Angeles and on Martha’s Vineyard. Batmanglij and singer–guitarist Ezra Koenig took the leads on songwriting, which shows further growth in some unexpected new directions. They were ably aided by producer Ariel Rechtshaid, who has made a name for himself working with a wide sprawl of artists—from Foreign Born, Active Child and Cass McCombs to Charli XCX, Usher and Major Lazer. 


The first couplet of the album-opening “Obvious Bicycle” comes off like a post-festival ode. “Morning’s come, you watch the red sun rise/The LED still flickers in your eyes,” croons Koenig, accompanied only by the restrained shuka shuka of a tambourine, some languid piano work and the occasional harmonizing. (Finally, there’s an anthem for the disheveled crowds of lost weekenders on the Mondays after Coachella.) 



Those looking for hints of earlier efforts will find some solace in “Unbelievers,” which hums along with the same kind of propulsive energy that has made “Walcott” and “Giving Up the Gun” such highlights in the band’s live shows. “Diane Young” sits in the same vein as Contra’s “Cousins,” barreling forward as a joyous chaos builds around it. By the end, it’s a full-on stomper built for closing sets in a shower of confetti and rapid-fire strobe lights. Even “Finger Back” would fit comfortably on the last album, at least until the choral-backed breakdown. That’s when Koenig whips out his journal and offers up the kind of spoken word that is sometimes best left buried between the pages: “’Cause 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?”


Other experiments bear better results. “Step” is blue-eyed and dripping with the kind of bravado that shatters at the slightest sign of aggression. “The gloves are off/The wisdom teeth are out,” Koenig declares—managing to sound half-manly, half-boyish in the process. Hannah Hunt of San Fran quintet Dominant Legs lends her name to the LP’s sixth track, a languorous Sunday afternoon mellow-out. “Everlasting Arms” is equally leisurely, but feels more unfinished than anything else. The band pulls a reverse Outkast with “Ya Hey,” a booming, building song filled out with an angelic choir. Short and sweet closing track “Young Lion” feels like an appropriate bookend to “Obvious Bicycle,” the kind of song that, like most of Vampire Weekend’s oeuvre, wouldn’t feel out of place in a Wes Anderson film.


Sometimes the album’s occasionally scattershot boundary pushing makes Vampire Weekend feel less like a band and more like Koenig and Batmanglij’s vanity project. This isn’t intended as an insult to the rhythm section, since both bassist Chris Baio and drummer Chris Tomson rock steady throughout. For good or for ill, it does make one point abundantly clear: you can’t just call them a well-mannered gang of Graceland-aping prepsters anymore. They’ve moved beyond that convenient pigeonhole from when that Blue CD-R first made the rounds, but they’re, well, a much more modern affair now.

 

Photo by Alex John Beck

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