Saturday, June 15, 2013

Vampire Weekend - Modern Vampires of the City

Vampire Weekend – Modern Vampires of the City
XL, 2013

I think I was probably too harsh with Contra. Or maybe I wasn’t, I haven’t listened to the album since I reviewed it in 2010. I referred to it as milquetoast and suburban and background music. I also wrote “I’m hoping it’s a sophomore slump because I want Vampire Weekend to make another record full of killer pop songs that are so good I don’t care that they’re copping African rhythms or whatever.” That was three-and-a-half years ago. I’ve mellowed out a bit. I’m still a bit of a wanker but I feel like I’ve gotten better at avoiding the hype machine after spending my entire tenure at KJHK living inside of it and, as music director, piloting the whole fucking thing (or at least that’s how I thought of it). I lived in trends, the next big thing, and that’s why when I graduated I listened to nothing but the Lemonheads for six-months straight.

Shortly after the release of their debut LP, I had a chance to interview the band with a friend of mine in the basement of Liberty Hall before a show. There is an audio file of that clumsy interview floating around on KJHK’s webserver (or better yet, it is gone forever. I never transcribed it). I was already a fan, but despite bassist Chris Baio’s bulldoggish attitude any time I said the word “hype” or “blogosphere,” Ezra Koenig was a total sweetheart and I came away understanding that they really weren’t faking. That though I didn’t have very much in common with these east coast boys who dressed like preppies, their hooks were pure, their songs were catchy, and their lyrics weren’t just a bunch of silly bullshit. They had a sense of humor but never got jokey. They were fresh.

Modern Vampires of the City feels like more of a successor to their eponymous debut than Contra (although I suppose the three fit together and illustrate an evolution that is important to judging the band’s work as a whole). It is a violently elegant pop record, and I’m not just saying that because of the harpsichord that pops up and really makes everything sound like a wonderful period piece. The melodies are both immediate and subtle. They are catchy enough to get stuck in your head with enough muscle to get better and better upon repeat listening. Which is why “Step” is the perfect first single. It almost sounds lazy. The song is so spare at times, with Koenig singing just through some light drums and a sleepy bass line. But then there’s the harpsichord, and the pitch-shifting that adds so much texture to the record. “Step” succeeds because it sounds both nostalgic and futuristic.

I pretend that I’m some kind of purist. A wonk bemoaning the fact that none of the music these days has guitars and it’s all a bunch of dipshits standing in front of laptops. And here Vampire Weekend have made one of the best indie rock records of the year and nothing is real. The live drums have been sequenced and programmed to death, the vocals are frequently manipulated, and the EQs have been clipped and manipulated to soften everything. But the songs come through so well. The melodies are what matter, and you can tell the band spent hours and hours trying to make them shine as best as they possibly could. Sometimes I feel like the great records are the ones that make me realize I’m wrong about something. The first time I listened to “Ya Hey” I fell back onto the futon halfway through the song and just listened. I stopped tinkering with my fantasy baseball team and just sat back and listened to the music. I never do that. I have a sort of amendment in my constitution of musical appreciation that says if a record can get me to put down everything and just listen, it has done something magical. It’s a sad relationship to have with music, but holy shit, when something cuts through the multi-tasking haze of my brain and really makes me stop and go “Goddamn, that is a fucking great,” that’s what I live for. The more I listen to Modern Vampires of the City, the more that keeps happening.

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