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Monday, May 20, 2013

Vampire Weekend: Modern Vampires of the City (Release Date: 5-14-2013)

        Forget everything you know about Vampire Weekend. Or... wait a minute. Maybe don't? Much has been made of the maturation that the band's latest release represents, music scribes everywhere noting how the boys have put down a few of their old tricks, and picked up a few new ones. And while the african influences and whitest-of-white collar lyrical mentalities have begun to fade, I can't help but see many critics as throwing the baby out with the bathwater. How much could these guys have really changed if their songs still contain lines like "Back back, way back/I used to front like Angkor Wat/Mechanicsburg, Anchorage/and Dar es Salaam," and are powered by zippy, weightless guitars? And yet, there's this tangible difference between Modern Vampires of the City and everything that the band's done up to this point. I've spent a long time soul searching for the answer, and this is where I've arrived: It's just better.

        Don't get me wrong; I've loved these guys from the start, and no, my inner hipster had no trouble writing that line whatsoever, thankyouverymuch. Modern raises the stakes in just about every imaginable fashion, from its extended length and track list, to its somehow unpredictable and immediate song structures, to Ezra Koenig's suddenly soul-baring lyrics. It turns, 'Hey, hey, hey, hey!' into Ya Hey, thumbing its nose at both God and Outkast in the process. It employs auto-tune and harpsichord on the same damn song, and has the audacity to use the track as the first single. Everywhere you look, Modern Vampires of the City is having its cake, and eating it, too

        That aforementioned lead single, Step, proved mightily indicative of the album at large. It's far more spacious than these guys have ever dared before, dolling out a melody that feels like the wiser spiritual cousin of M79 in languid, self-assured movements. The lyrics, which tell the story of a young man opening up to the world and the love around him, would feel canned if not so beautifully penned and uttered by Koenig, sharing more of himself here than either pervious albums could have possibly foreseen. Both as a single and on the LP itself, Step, is followed by Diane Young, a gonzo speed-demon of a thing that's emerged as the primary track to traverse the airwaves thus far. It's mad-cap vocal distortion and unlimited, 'baby's,' have delighted as many fans as they've frustrated; the song has grown on me a ton since I first heard it a few months ago, but there's positively no mistaking it as the album's best tune. In other words, don't let Diane Young dissuade you from Modern. Even if that 2:40 burst of weirdo glory doesn't do it for you, there's a mountain of other treasures to sort through.

        Take Hannah Hunt, for instance, a number that could almost be seen as Diane Young's perfect foil. Koenig goes full on story-telling mode, relaying the details of a damaged couple's trip across the country, filled with minute details that somehow tower in meaning. The instrumentation is down-tempo and methodical, a variety of sounds employed, but never more than two at a time, guitars sliding contentedly below. The song finally erupts near the 3-minute mark, Koenig wailing the same chorus as before with a whole new sense of urgency and meaning. And then it's gone, refusing to overstay its welcome in the pursuit of a lofty epic, prompting endless repeated listens in the process.

        In the name of fairness, Modern Vampires is not without fault, the LP standing proudly among the most front-loaded I've ever heard in my life. A few songs that crop up near the end, Finger Back and Hudson among them, are certainly not bad tunes, but after that incredible seven song run that opens the album, they sadly emerge as something of an afterthought. Such a fate does not await Ya Hey, however, the only true home run hitter on the disc's backside, a stomp and chant that feels entirely irrepressible and immeasurably cathartic. Lengthy dissertations on the track's lyrics and meaning have been written and posted by the handful, but suffice to say, it's just about the headiest dissection of religious expectations and doubts that you'll ever hear in a pop song. It's subversive, and potentially a bit egomaniacal, but there's no denying its ambitions or its intimacy, and to the right ear, it's also strangely touching.

        Vampire Weekend's self-titled debut arrived a little over six year's after The Strokes' now-canonical first disc, Is This It?, and it's easy to view Julian Casablancas and the boys as a cautionary tale of sorts. Both exploded out of New York City on a tidal wave of hype, both favored fashion, opulence and cool over the heart-on-sleeve aesthetic independent music tends to favor, and both took a singular (see: limited) style, and rode it all the way to the bank. But where The Strokes struggled to write both songs that stood up to their lo-fi glory days, as well as tunes that broadened their horizons, Vampire Weekend manages both. They've obliterated the notion that they might be a one trick pony without ever fully betraying what caught people's attention in the first place, which simply has to be the very hardest part of moving from, 'new,' to, 'established.' 

        By this point in their career, The Strokes had already released First Impressions of Earth, and haven't gotten back on the horse since. It already felt (and continues to feel) like a foregone conclusion that Is This It? would represent the peak of their powers, but no such aura hangs over Modern Vampires of the City... in fact, it's quite the opposite. The LP plays less like a summation of the band's collective talent than a promise that there are plenty more surprises and triumphs yet to come. These guys are only getting started. A bold declaration of a band that is here to stay, and 2013's best album to date.

Grade: A

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