Album Review: Vampire Weekend – Modern Vampires of the City

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After three years in the making Vampire Weekend released Modern Vampires of the City on May 13th 2013 said to complete the trilogy of self-titled debut, VampireWeekend and follow up, Contra. Upon first listen the album is varied, flowing, upbeat with the signature Vampire Weekend ‘sound’. The pre-release, tongue-in-cheek promo videos with Steve Buscemi increased this feeling of an easy-going album and personally gave me a sense of Vampire Weekend making a cheerful, fun album just in time for Summer. Second, third, fourth, fifth, six and seventh listens and it seems the running themes are: the affects of the slave trade and colonialism on African music, fatalism and negro-spiritualism- not so happy-go-lucky but somehow not “preachy” either.

The third song of the early-releases was ‘Obvious Bicycle’ which is the album opening track. It’s gone from one of my least favourites from Vampire Weekend to one of my favourites in a matter of listens. The chugging train-like percussion reminiscent of the music to come out of the African Slave Trade, followed by the ‘field hollers’ call-and-response style hook and Nyabinghi drumming. This is all due to the sample used: ‘Keep Cool Babylon’ by Ras Michael and The Sons of Negus.

It was a shared love of Punk Rock and African Music that initially brought the boys together to make their debut album which critics absolutely slated them for, calling them ‘the whitest band in the world’ to which they took exception, given their Ukranian, Persian, Italian and Hungarian heritages. Their influences are still relevant and it’s nice to see a growth in their use of inspiration. Lyrically there are hints of hopes of repatriation and Rastafarian imagery consistant with the song theme. This is all mixed up with the use of oriental scale melodies and pure American vocals- lovely.

What feels like a cheap electric Church organ opens the second track, ‘Unbelievers’ followed by fanfare-esque melodies, again rhythmically-driven music which continues the African theme, a musically intricate instrumental which is layered and orchestral then juxta-posed by an Anglo folk-flute sound. Somehow they have managed to create a track which sounds modern and ‘now’ yet is actually well-informed and intricate. I can go crazy and take it as far as to say that there’s clear influences of 20th and 21st Century expressionism through their use of major triad melodies with quartal harmonies- as seen in compositions by Scriabin, Poulenc, Debussy, Stravinsky… These are some clever boys!

The album continues with the other early releases ‘Step’ and ‘Diane Young’. ‘Step’ is another track to use samples and this one is ‘Step to My Girl’ by Souls of Mischief. I think it’s a much more mature track. There is certainly a degree of simplicity in terms of melody, chords and also less on the rhythm with gives them a chance to communicate ideas solely through lyrics- which the album needs and we’ll see again in ‘Hudson’. There’s a theme of ‘girl’ being a metaphor for music which makes the lyrics read kind of differently. There’s the beginning of the themes of fatalism too which continue into ‘Diane Young’ and ‘Don’t Lie’ both double entendres for dying and thus, life ticking away, a focus on time running out. Despite all these rather morbid topics they’ve tended to stick to major keys with only a few exceptions.

‘Everlasting Arms’ screams ‘Paul Simon’ to me. Linking back to the ‘Peter Gabriel too’ lyric from ‘Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa’ of the debut album. This song has its ties to the Hymn ‘Leaning on the Everlasting Arms’ which, yet again, is a continuation of the album themes. I love the Stravinskian track opening followed by synth organ and African drumming. The melodies are faultless and it’s definitely one of my favourites from the album.

Fast-paced ‘Finger Back’ and ‘Worship You’ keep the album momentum going. There’s a rap-influence and more African style rhythm-driven melodies with the fast-pace spat words complete with onomatopoeia for extra percussion. ‘We worshipped you, your red right hand’ leading into ‘oh, sweet thing, Zion doesn’t love you’ from ‘Ya Hey’ continues the theme of spiritualism or lack of, similar to ‘Unbelievers’. During interview lead singer, Ezra Koenig says, ‘[the album…] has some heavy themes about trying to figure out your place in the world and what you believe in and how your beliefs affect your relationships to other people, we don’t mind goofing off a little bit.’ They’ve approached sensitive subjects in a way that isn’t instructive or judging which is the best way to write good content-filled lyrics.

The entire album is turned around with the arrival of track ‘Hudson’. The main composer for this track was drummer, Chris yet somehow ironically, considering the rest of the album, the rhythm isn’t the sole element. ‘Hudson’ is very much the solemn dirge the album required, it stands as a further chance to emphasise the album themes just in case we haven’t got them yet and lead us to the finish line that is ‘Young Lion’. I am not entirely sure how well this track works as a finale, but originally I felt that about ‘Obvious Bicycle’ as an opener so perhaps it’ll grow. Musically it’s simplistic, lyrically it’s simplistic but content-wise it’s still deep and ties up loose ends which might have been necessary.

I think part of my hesitations towards this album was the simplicity that ‘happy’ music is associated with. Theoretically consonant, major music is less intricate and ordinarily connected to similarly less intricate lyrics. This is a real ‘How To’ album for writing clever, yet deep, happy music and it’s really refreshing. The entire album feels balanced and there isn’t a single bit that seems to have just been thrown in for the sake of it- every move is measured.