Artistry evolves in different ways for different artists. The medium commonly constrains the options available to artists in which they could change the route of their expressivity, but at the heart of all artistic evolution there are common threads. Questions arise every time the creative muses begin to brush the shoulder of the artist with their wispy fingertips. Such as reconsidering within what surroundings one will seek inspiration. Such as greasing up the elbows and laboriously learning totally novel skills. Perhaps deciding whether one should keep their previous message intact within new material, or branch out to expose less accessible corners of oneself in a new way that might confound or enlighten a dedicated audience. Revealing to the audience that their preconceived notions and interpretations of earlier statements were true, but only partially so, continually triumphs as one of the greatest statements an artist can make. The acceptance of prior themes, while experiencing the unexpected realization as a fan that you were far short of the artist’s ultimate message, presents one of the most exhilarating sensations for audiences and builds evermore respect for the artist’s integrity and expressivity.
Vampire Weekend has returned with Modern Vampires of the City (XL Recordings, 2013) their third studio release and have validated their previous indie powerhouse albums’ motifs and trends while obliquely rejecting audiences’ expectations and early critics’ trite obsessions with the band’s so-called elitist upbringing, hip inaccessibility, and snob appeal. There is an evolution in sound over the three albums that is glaring, yet smooth. “On our first record we could play pretty much every song before we began to record it. And on the second record [for] about half the songs that was the truth […] and another half were a product of the studio. On this record we wrote songs in many different ways and […] worked on them in many different ways,” Rostam Batmanglij (keys, vocals) remarks to NPR’s Bob Boilen.
Vampire Weekend’s “Diane Young” (live)
He continues to confirm that the songs are more composed than ever before while trying to retain the level of spontaneity they became known for on earlier releases. With the writing having taken place over three years and between individual bandmates in different places at different times, the album has a more cultured and disjointed sense to it. Fans of Vampire Weekend’s african infused twee pop and spectacular vernacular will be appeased with this record, but there are many surprises that continue to highlight Vampire Weekend’s uncompromising attitude towards their craft. Paralleling the aging of the band members through their rockstar twenty-something existence, the album is sophisticated, wiser, and more dutifully serious in its content and musical attributes.
Vampire Weekend’s “Unbelievers” (live)
From their first album, Vampire Weekend was instantly recognizable and advancing pop ideals through short, bright guitar and synth arrangements with fast, articulate vocals employing youthful humor, satire, and strong diction. On Modern Vampires, they carry far more gravity in their material while still retaining the vestiges of prior bouncy pop, but commonly only in one instrument at a time or in one passage of a song. Consider the sparser piano ballad feel of album opener “Obvious Bicycle,” ambient flourished “Hannah Hunt” and ghoulish “Hudson.” These tracks have more intricate rhythms than ever and Ezra Koenig (vocals, guitar) brandishes his extremely sharp tongue by splaying the melodies all over the place but with a darker jazzy cadence that seems to bely his youthful appearance and begins to show us the transition from pop icons to songwriting milestones of the indie era. “Step” pulls a hip hop line from SF bay area rap group Souls of Mischief about getting cheeky with a dude’s girlfriend, and they follow this up with 1700’s organ like a damn minstrel show leading into a surprise anecdotal storyline that plays out over basic pop piano sensibilities but has a touch of avant garde similar to the Beatles. Of all bands to compare them to, the Beatles. But their incessant noodling with their own methods and the natural evolution of their sound including the transition to utilizing a studio as an “instrument” in and of itself echoes the vicissitudes of the great Beatles’ mid-career albums. Even the more straight ahead Vampire Weekend brand of pop like “Unbelievers,” “Everlasting Arms,” and “Finger Back” employ minor chord changes, isolationist lyrical sentiment, and some intermittent hand drumming that all work to provide a sense of freshness to their characteristic formula.
This album sees Vampire Weekend serving red wine in a glass still dripping with white wine from the lipstick stains of earlier sips. While it’s singable and immediately likable, it has real staying power with its suffusive sense of gravity and experimentation. Performing May 11th for Saturday Night Live, clad nearly all in black, the band exploded with the fiery first single “Diane Young” complete with its carpe diem attitude and rockabilly, almost Cramps style, guitar and synth interlude. This band is both recognizable and unrecognizable at the same time. Chris Thomson has the same full-body-bobbing action on drums from days past. The instruments are the same. They stand in the same orientation. But clad in black, with no trickle of a smile? Their faces have aged. So has their status as pioneering artists with more monumental respect from old and new fans alike.
Written by Case Newsom
OurVinyl | Senior Writer