Review: Vampire Weekend, ‘Modern Vampires of the City’


Vampire Weekend, Modern Vampires of the City © XL

Vampire Weekend • Modern Vampires of the City • XL • Release Date: May 14, 2013
Members: Ezra Koenig (guitar, vocals), Rostam Batmanglij (guitar, keys); Chris Baio (bass); Chris Tompson (drums)

New York indie-band Vampire Weekend might have been the coolest Ivy Leaguers ever when their  2008 self-titled debut arrived. Single “Oxford Comma” was the ‘talk of the town’ when frontman Ezra Koenig went all ‘über-nerd’ rebelliously proclaiming “Who gives a f*ck about an Oxford comma?” Sure the multitude of listeners don’t go around asking such a specific, geeky question, but Koenig’s statement was certainly an accurate one (to the effect of who cares?).

After achieving critical acclaim with Vampire Weekend with other notable cuts including “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa” and “One (Blake’s Got A New Face)“, the lovable indie-rockers would return with 2010’s Contra, which debuted at no. 1 on the Billboard Album charts with 124,000 copies. Another critical smash, Vampire Weekend found themselves as Grammy nominees in the alternative music category, though ultimately lost to The Black Keys (Brothers) in one of the tightest alt fields ever that even included album of the year-winning The Suburbs from alt darlings Arcade Fire.

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2013 marks the return of an older, more seasoned band.  No more crazed rants laced with profanity about punctuation marks  or “sipping Horchata” –  this time there are plenty of religious allusions running rampant and constructing a cohesive theme. On their third studio effort, Modern Vampires of the City, the influence of Paul Simon still resides clearly and notably, however the band also expands their scope delivering a clever album with 12 contrasting, distinct, and memorable tracks.  Not just solely one of the best alternative albums of the year, Modern Vampires of the City is one of 2013’s very best albums, period. Better than Phoenix’s Bankrupt!? Hard call, but I give it the edge!

Obvious Bicycle” opens abruptly and a bit off-putting at first.  As the listener adjusts to the groove established by percussion and piano, things fall into place.  Among highlights of “Obvious Bicycle” is Ezra Koenig’s effortless falsetto, which is ripe as ever on the chorus (“So listen oh / so listen oh / don’t wait / don’t wait”) Overall, the opener is quite hypnotic, making the listener hinge on every lyric and the minimal instrumental ideas. The tone of the album is set from the onset.

Unbelievers” proves to be even sharper, serving as an overt statement of the influence of religious/spiritual ideas that recurs throughout Modern Vampires of the City.  Several memorable lines are dissectable, including “We know the fire awaits unbelievers / all of the sinners the same / girl you and I will die unbelievers bound to the tracks of the train”, which seems like a nod to atheism – open to interpretation of course.

Later on the ‘big’ refrain, Koenig sings “I’m not excited / but should I be / is this the fate that half of the world has planned for me?” Also interesting about the cerebral cut is the incorporation of what sounds like a liberal take on Shaker Hymn “Simple Gifts” towards the end. Regardless how one takes “Unbelievers” message, it is filled to the brim with musical excellence.

On “Step”, the cut opens with lyric “Every time I see you in the world, you always step to my girl”, a line that cleverly recurs at the end in ‘chopped-n-screwed’ fashion (the pitch of the vocals is dropped like in hip-hop music). The production has a lush, dreaminess about it, incorporating a classical harpischord patch that serves as a musical ornament.

Like the previous two heavy hitters, “Step” is characterized by sound songwriting: “The gloves are off, the wisdom teeth are out / what you on about? / I feel it in my bones, I feel it in my bones / I’m stronger now, I’m ready for the house / such a modest mouse / I can’t do it alone, I can’t do it alone.” Mysterious and beautiful, “Step” is a third home run for Vampire Weekend.

Diane Young” is a clever play of words, when hearing it contexually lyrically: “If Diane Young [dying young] won’t change your mind / baby, baby baby, baby ride on time”.  A manic, enjoyable lead single, “Diane Young” is easily one of the effort’s more enthusiastic ear-catchers.  With lyrics locked down, the best lyrics aside from the earlier wordplay has to be “Irish and proud, baby, naturally / but you got the luck of a Kennedy…”

Soulful organ is added to the proceeding “Don’t Lie”, which is anchored with gargantuan drums that are hip-hop ‘hard’ – if you follow the lingo! Koenig basically wants to know “…does it bother you? / the low click of a ticking clock / there’s a lifetime right in front of you / and everyone I know.”  Some strings further adorn as “Don’t Lie” progresses, presenting another consistent gem.

Hannah Hunt” gives the band a true singer/songwriter styled number, mysteriously restrained for the majority of the cut.  The chorus doesn’t reveal itself until the end, as Koenig sings “If I can’t trust you then damn it, Hannah / There’s no future, there’s no answer / Though we live on the US dollar / you and me, we got our on sense of time…” Towards the end, the cut turns grandiose with Koenig reiterating the chorus an octave higher.

On “Everlasting Arms”, the play on religion  continues once more (“Leaning on the Everlasting Arms” is an example of a common church hymn that references God’s ‘everlasting arms’ FYI).  Also playing ‘devil’s advocate’ (really, no pun intended, I promise!),  a reference of the occult seems a reasonable interpretive conclusion given the chorus: “Hold me in your everlasting arms / looked up, full of fear, trapped beneath the chandelier that’s going down…”. Those open-ended meanings man!  Conservatives won’t be happy. 😕

Finger Back” is one great big ball of fun. Energized, enthusiastic, and manic, Koenig is at his best here, shedding through vocals at a maddening pace, capped off by the tongue-in-cheekish chorus: “Bend the finger back, snap! Oww, Oww, Oww…” Continuing on a spiritual vibe, a whacky interlude is inserted (“See ya next year in Jerusalem / you know, the one at 103rd and Broadway? Cause this Orthodox girl fell in love with the guy at the falafel shop…”) between the previous verse and crazed but exciting “and then blood, blood, blood, blood, blood…” vamp.  Whoa!

Adding to the adrenaline rush is followup “Worship You”, which is similarly uptempo, with Koenig singing rhythmic, hip-hop speed vocals during the verses.  The most memorable, eyebrow raising lyric? “We worshipped you / your red right hand / won’t we see once again / in foreign soil, in foreign land / who will guide us through the end?” Koenig, whatchu talkin’ bout Willis?!? coughatheismcough, cough.

Ya Hey” continues with the upmost consistency and the questions marks.  “Ya Hey” certainly seems to making reference to Yahweh (aka God). Continuing on the inquisitive path, Koenig sings “Through the fire and through the flames / you won’t even say your name… only “I am that I am” / but who could ever live that way?” Sure to piss extremly devoted people off, the song itself is superb showing VW at their best.

Penultimate cut “Hudson” features some cohesion lyrically, reviving reference to the ‘ticking clock’ of “Don’t Lie” (“…the time has come / the clock is such a drag…”). Keeping things mysterious, the synthetic vocal pad and organ mix create a timbre that sounds directly linked to a cathedral.  Vampire Weekend close there ambitious third effort with “Young Lion”, something of a lullaby with iterations of one simple line: “you take your time, little lion.”

Ultimately, Modern Vampires of the City is nothing short of being a captivating, memorable affair. As sports analysts would say, “the team is loaded!” Unique through and through given unapologetic eclecticism and creative restlessness, Vampire Weekend deliver an alternative tour de force that easily atones for a three year hiatus between albums. Ezra Koenig sounds as exceptional as ever, delivering strong vocals throughout. Magnificent an effort it is indeed!

Favorites: “Obvious Bicycle,””Unbeliever,””Step,””Finger Back,” “Worship You,””Ya Hey”

★★★★½

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