By Eleni P. Austin
When the song “A-Punk” started receiving massive radio airplay 5 years ago, first time listeners mistook it for a long lost track from Paul Simon’s “Graceland” album. The combination of joyful, Afro-Pop melodies and reedy tenor vocals recalled Simon’s improbably successful, mid-career classic.
It came as a complete surprise to find that it was the work of Vampire Weekend. A four piece fronted by vocalist/lead guitarist, Ezra Koenig. Along with Koenig, drummer Chas Tomson, bassist Chris Baio and multi-instrumentalist Rostam Batmanglij, the quartetwere barely out of diapers when “Graceland” was released in 1986.
Vampire Weekend formed as students at Columbia University, taking their name from a film Koenig made as a freshman. On the strength of some buzz-worthy demos, the band embarked on an ambitious tour in 2007 that culminated in multiple appearances at that year’s CMJ Marathon, (a crucial rite of passage for unsigned bands). Vampire weekend was immediately signed to British indie, XL Recordings, (Adele, Badly Drawn Boy, M.I.A., Radiohead, Gil Scott Heron and Portishead).
Their self-titled, 2008 debut blended sharp, Mbanquanga-style instrumentation with literate lyrics about college (“Campus”), grammar (“Oxford Comma”), and architecture (“Mansard Roof”).
Two years later, their sophomore effort, Contra, hewed closely to the same formula with slight variations. It shot to #1 on the Billboard charts and guaranteed the band prime spots at Coachella, Bonnaroo and Glastonbury.
Vampire Weekend characterizes their third release, Modern Vampires Of The City, very much “the last of a trilogy.” Although their first two efforts were produced by Batmanglij, the new one is produced by Ariel Rechtshaid, best known for his work with Usher and (ick) the Plain White T’s.
Kicking things off is “Obvious Bicycle.” Anchored by plinky-plunky percussion and shaded piano fills, Koenig’s sweet and layered harmonies undercut the derisive tone of the lyrics.
The first single, “Diane Young,” starts off catchy, wedding surf guitar licks to a rockabilly beat. But Koenig’s auto-tuned vocals become so unpleasant that the tune quickly degenerates into a cloying, claustrophobic pastiche. From ironic to irritating in a matter of minutes.
Missed opportunities sink both “Worship You” and “Ya Hey.” Couched in a locomotive rhythm and strumming guitars, the lyrics on the former seems like an oblique criticism of Barack Obama… “We worshipped you, your red right hand. Won’t you see us once again?/ In foreign soil in foreign land, you will guide us through the end.” Unfortunately, Koenig’s attempt at political criticism is weakened by his vocal gymnastics. The song comes across as an unsubtle tribute to Alvin, Simon and Theodore.
Loping along with a clip-clop gait, the melody on the latter is also ruined by Koenig’s insistent bleating and braying. In fact, the whole track is weirdly reminiscent of “The Lonely Goatherd” from “Sound Of Music.”
It’s not all bad news for Modern Vampires… “Unbelievers” matches crisp guitar riffs with rubbery rhythms, while “Don’t Lie” is accented by funereal organ fills and thudding percussion. The lyrics on both seem preoccupied with mortality.
The best tracks here are “Step,” “Everlasting Arms” and “Finger Back.” The harpsichord fills that open “Step” recall the breezy Sunshine Pop of the Partridge Family and the Association. The ethereal harmonies evoke comparisons to the Rolling Stones’ buttery ode to delayed gratification, “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.” Salted in the lyrics’ mix of travelogue nonsequiturs Vampire Weekend manages to quote bohemian Bay Area rappers, Souls Of Mischief.
On “Everlasting Arms” an achingly sweet string section bleeds into tribal percussion and gangly guitar chords. At last, a song that references both Afro-Pop and Thomas Dolby-styled Electronica.
Finally, “Finger Back” is frenetic fun. A kick-drum beat and percolating guitars lay a foundation for subtle lyrics that plead for peaceful coexistence between Muslims and Jews.
Other interesting tracks include “Hannah Hunt,” a flickering piano-driven ballad that recalls the smart Synth-Pop of 80s stalwarts, Talk Talk and Tears For Fears. “Hudson” unfolds like a literate and deliberate dirge.
The album closes with the wistful, mostly instrumental coda, “Young Lion.” Here Rostam Batmanglij handles the vocals, offering this brief, inscrutable mantra: “You take your time, Young Lion.”
Modern Vampires… was recorded all over the place, L.A., Hollywood, Echo Park, New York and Martha’s Vineyard. This sense of dislocation bleeds through the album, nothing feels cohesive.
Rather than expand their sonic palette, Vampire Weekend has diluted their sound. Gimmicky vocals, clever-clever lyrics and a vague feeling of hubris cloaks most songs. Ultimately, Modern Vampires In The City is a disappointment.