I’m not going to pretend that I was blown away the very first time I heard the sonic offerings from the Vampire Boys of New York (a.k.a., Vampire Weekend). My first reaction to their music was a blend of “meh”, “huh?”, and “hmmm . . . not bad.” Probably not what they were going for, as far as first impressions are concerned, but there you go. I’m not too proud to admit it. Over the years, I’ve had a sort of love/indifferent relationship with VW, oscillating from listening obsessively to a few choice tracks of theirs, and never listening to them for extended periods of time. I’ve always found them a little too “pop-ish”, occasionally cringing at some of their subject matter choices; I mean, it’s kinda hard to take songs about Oxford commas, and Horchata seriously, no matter how cleverly social commentary is woven into those songs (but, then again, I think Night of the Living Dead is a good first date movie, so my tastes might just be a little twisted). It’s therefore understandable that their newest album Modern Vampires of the City made me excited as hell.
Oh, no; wait, it didn’t. I didn’t even know about it until it came out.
Well, all this changed when I first heard their single ‘Diane Young’. The very first time I heard it on BBC Radio 1, I was a little confused. I hadn’t heard the DJ announce the name of either the song or the band, and it threw me off a little to hear a lead singer that sounded suspiciously like VW’s Ezra Koenig. It threw me off even more to hear him sounding like something akin to a cross between Elvis, Michael Jackson, and some other, wonderful fuzzy, clattering sound that I can’t quite describe. You could have probably taken a picture of my face and pasted it in the dictionary beside the definition for “shocked” when I finally heard to whom I’d been listening (if you’re the kind of dick who destroys books for fun, that is). Their sound had remained somewhat the same, but their style had changed. Gone were the punks, gone was Cape Cod. We were out of Africa (yup, that’s a movie reference), and the band’s sound had graduated from their frenetic, tweeny, poster-boys-for-the-indie-music-industry jive.
When the album came out it validated my suspicion that Weekend have finally grown up (and that, hopefully, their days of writing hot chocolate advertisement jingles are over . . . seriously, Horchata, people? Horchata!?).
‘Obvious Bicycle’ is the first track on the album, and already we’re hearing something new: a piano. Huzzah! That alone is enough to convince me to ignore the track’s dangerously twee title (straying into Horchata territory again, aren’t we boys?). The song sounds almost like a sort of ode to the young, out of school, and unemployed, but thankfully it doesn’t stray into sermonizing. When the chorus kicks in, the song opens up into a glorious, almost hymn-like vista of epicosity (yeah, I just said “epicosity”; deal with it).
‘Unbelievers‘ starts off more reminiscent of VW’s earlier sounds, and for a second I was afraid that they’d slip back into their old ways. However, around the one-minute mark my fears were allayed. “I’m not excited, but should I be, / Is this the fate the half of the world has planned for me?” Koenig sings over a driving, yet subdued beat, and you instantly get the feeling that VW have graduated into the serious songwriting big leagues. Yeah, sure the song is bright and happy-ish, however the subject matter is more sober, and it sounds like they’re seriously considering their topic, instead of simply poking fun at it.
‘Diane Young’ is actually a play of the phrase “dying young”, and it sounds almost like nothing else that the Vamps have put out. The fast-paced, fuzzy, almost rockabilly aesthetic almost make this a party track. I was surprised to find Misirlou-esque descending guitar lines, subtly hidden in the track’s musical background, which reminded me a little of surfer rock. This track firmly cements the feeling that the Weekenders have embraced adulthood, turning their backs on their Cape Cod musings. Koenig’s vivaciously vicarious and viciously vibrating vocals recall to mind an Elvis/Michael Jackson cross that works to perfection where lesser artists would have probably slipped into cut-and-pasting, or worse, parody. If there’s one song that’s going to change people’s perception of Vampire Weekend, it’s most likely this one.
‘Hannah Hunt’ is perhaps one of the Vamps’ best works to date. It starts off slowly, almost sparsely, telling the story of a couple, bickering as they drive cross the country to Phoenix. You would be well justified in calling this track almost religious, aside from the lyrics themselves. For the first two-thirds of the song, it sounds almost like a confession, with Koenig’s voice taking on a distinctly un-Vampire-ish tone. Piano plinks and plonks, and upright bass drones further heighten the track’s almost cathedral-like ambiance and mood. Around the two minute and forty second mark, the song blossoms outwards into a truly majestic chorale that despite being somewhat instrumentally sparse, works to phenomenal effect. Lastly, the high, falsetto dabs of Koenig’s voice that come right after the chorus, sound almost like a church choir, accompanying this gorgeous musical confession.
‘Worship You’ perplexes me somewhat. It has that fast-paced, somewhat cutesy vibe that most of VW’s earlier works have, and yet it doesn’t cause me to go into a diabetic coma from too much saccharine cuteness. Fast-paced, with Koenig giving his best wordy, pseudo-white-hop performance, which probably requires lyrics to properly understand (either that, or I’m getting old and need hearing aids). The religioso chorales of ‘Hannah Hunt’ make a full-powered comeback on this track to great effect. Auto-tuned fuzzy guitars lend this track an almost Middle Eastern tinge around the one-minute-and-fifty-seconds mark. It’s possible that the Weekenders intend to write their way around the world, and if their songs sound like this one, I’d be glad to make the trip with them.
‘Ya Hey’ is a glib play on God’s Hebrew name, Yahweh, which makes me wonder: “Have these boys found Jesus?” Okay, Jehovah’s Witness humour aside, this track is extremely enjoyable to listen to, both musically and lyrically. “Oh, the motherland don’t love you, / The fatherland don’t love you, / So why love anything, / Oh, good God” Koenig sings, almost as though he’s God’s therapist, asking the Lord to tell him about His problems. Babyish, slightly auto-tuned squeaks here and there seem to poke fun both at the creator’s problems, and at the concept of religion itself. I could see how this track might be a little offensive to some people, but it’s a song so it doesn’t matter, since everyone knows religious people don’t listen to anything other than Bach or Handel. Speaking of the Father (Father Bach, I mean), there’s even a little piano noodling around that reminded me strongly of Bach’s piano preludes. Perhaps a little dig at one of the most prolific church composers? Who knows. Vampire Weekend work in mysterious ways.
‘Hudson‘ brings something completely new to the table. Bleak, desolate, and a lot of other adjectives that mean “bleak” and “desolate”. It’s probably the most radical departure from the Vamps we’re used to. A march-like drum beat, coupled with interjections of discordant noises and the general funeral feeling provided by the backing choir give this track the distinct feel of a requiem of sorts. The organ and chorale section that comes in around two-minutes-and-twenty-five-seconds remind me (quite oddly) of Mozart’s Requiem, and works to great effect in the track. This might just be the “most awesomest” track on the album, and I’m not too proud to admit that, when I first heard it, it elicited a Reevesian “woah” from me. It’s that good.
‘Young Lion’ closes off what is one of the best albums of 2013. The quiet chorale (which has become somewhat of a staple of the Weekenders’ sound by this point), along with the simple, almost one-liner piano accompaniment give this track a beautiful sense of finality. You get the feeling that you’ve been on a sort of journey with this album, through regret, loss, and self-doubt, and come out the other side changed for the better. It really sells the feeling of reaching adulthood, something that I wholeheartedly appreciate.
What I loved about this album was the fact that it got me to listen to a whole Vampire Weekend record in one go, instead of picking and choosing tracks. I was actually looking forward to the next track, and except for a few songs, my expectations were not disappointed. However, I did have two gripes with this album, specifically:
‘Everlasting Arms’ sounds a little stale, and a little too pedestrian for my tastes. On an album that’s filled with clever quips and brilliant songwriting, this track is a little disappointing.
‘Finger Back’. Oh, ‘Finger Back’. Why? I thought we’d left ‘A-Punk’ territory behind. Why’d you guys go and turn back to your old sound? You were doing so well up ’till now. Bright, almost nauseatingly twee, fast-paced, and slightly pretentious, this song is easily the lowest point of the album. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not bad, but compared to the previous seven tracks, it’s just kinda disappointing. The short, spoken interlude that comes around the two-and-a-half-minute mark, feels like a pretentious, slightly facetious addition that’s meant to highlight the seriousness of the track, and which only makes me dislike it even more.
The Verdict – 9.5 (Amazing)
– An amazing, new sound from a band that have made their living on sophomoric ballads about hot chocolate (no, I will not give that up).
– New instrumentation and new subject matter are a welcome change from their previous albums.
– Feels as though the Vamp boys have finally grown up, and the result is great.
– Sound editing is amazing, and makes the album extremely listenable.
– ‘Diane Young’ might just be the best song to come out in the past year.
– ‘Everlasting Arms’ sounds a little flat.
– ‘Finger Back’ sort of shoots the new VW sound in the foot, going back to their Horchata days.