Vampire Weekend – ‘Modern Vampires Of The City’

Out go the synths, the electronica and Africa. In come the American heartland and heavenly choirs of angels

Vampire Weekend had the misfortune of arriving in 2008, just as the landfill-indie boom was hitting its peak. Clean-cut and puppyish, the New Yorkers were often dismissed as poster boys for indie music’s most vapid incarnation: the giggly-wiggly, T4 On The Beach pig-noise peddled by the likes of The Wombats (eugh), The Hoosiers (gah) and Scouting For Girls (just kill them).

But to align the quartet with such dumbfoolery was to miss the point. What we suddenly had in Vampire Weekend were the cleverest kids in the indie classroom: true innovators possessed of formidable intelligence; unprecedented mergers of Afrobeat and songwriting refinement whose self-titled debut brought together New York high society and the dusty wilds of Paul Simon’s African avalon, the hallowed ‘Graceland’. Then, in 2010 came the follow-up, ‘Contra’. The New Yorkers’ second album blew their sound wide open, somehow transforming their debut’s Upper West Side homage into a kind of urban pop music, brilliantly geeky and dense with R&B-style production detail.

Which brings us to ‘Modern Vampires Of The City’ – a pretty, moving and perfectly nourishing album almost entirely devoid of the sonic smarts that made them. Frontman Ezra Koenig said of ‘Contra’ recently: “We had more to say musically”, and in the same interview revealed that “distinct because it’s instinctive” was to be their guiding mantra in the making of the new record. They’re thinking with their guts this time. Consequently, out go the synths, the electronica and, for the most part, the guitars. Even Africa has been replaced by a more American heartland feel. There are now heavenly choirs of angels. Like, all the time. One such choir is on opener ‘Obvious Bicycle’ (bicycles: so often obvious). Kind of a hymn for the Ivy League set, it’s anchored by a piano (a Vampire Weekend first), lending the song stateliness. But when its simple vistas open into the angelic chorus, the effect is cloudbursting. ‘Hannah Hunt’ wavers between piano-bar singalong and blissful torch song, and ‘Step’ sounds like one of Arcade Fire’s sad ballads. It’s representative of what is the Vamps’ most languorously paced album.

Album highlight ‘Ya Hey’ is a thing of unique grandeur in indie. Koenig yodels before the track is met with a mighty choral wave, like the sound of a million men chanting from a mountain top. ‘Don’t Lie’ has rock organ, big strings and smashing drums driving the song toward an uncharacteristically uninhibited crescendo, while ‘Everlasting Arms’ bumps their debut’s more Strokesian moments up a notch, making for a surging pow-wow of orchestral indie.

There’s some idea-recycling on the poor man’s ‘A-Punk’ of ‘Unbelievers’, and though ‘Diane Young’ is the band’s best party track to date, its cyber-billy stylings are a tad dodgy. But otherwise, ‘Modern Vampires…’ is a consistent Vampire Weekend album. In line with its spirit of simplification (‘Contra’ was busy), Koenig’s vocals dominate, defining the tone and personality of the music while basically carrying the rest of the album. It also reveals Koenig to be a melodist of almost matchless pedigree in indie. His lyrics, however, are quite generic this time around, stripped of that novelistic detail so evocative of the world of moneyed New Yorkers.

The woodwind and martial-drummed darkness of ‘Hudson’ and the gallop-beat driven ‘Worship You’ prove they’ve still got ideas, but when on the one occasion they properly hit the sonic laboratory the result is ‘Finger Back’ – by some distance the worst track here. It’s Frankenstein-like, and this from a troop of one-time alchemists who made Auto-Tune sound like the best thing that ever happened to violins. This is a gorgeous album, but sacrifices had to be made. They’ve undeniably lost something that made them special in the first place.

John Calvert

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