Wednesday, 8 May 2013

These Guys Don't Suck: Modern Vampires of the City Track-by-track Review

Now that Ivy League songsmiths Vampire Weekend’s latest LP, Modern Vampires of the City, has been released to stream on iTunes, I thought that I’d give a brief track-by-track review of what is easily their most accomplished and enjoyable album to date. With its agile allusions to heavyweight pop icons like Bob Dylan, Brian Wilson, and Paul Simon, it would appear that VW are self-consciously attempting to position themselves within the great American songwriting tradition. I don’t want to spoil the review in advance, but it’s fair to say that they’ve nailed it.

Here's a link to the album stream in case you want to listen along:

  1. Obvious Bicycle
We’re eased in gently with an understated, piano-led melody, the crunching percussion foregrounded in the mix as so often in VW’s work. When the chorus kicks in – all radiant, sixties-esque harmonies – we get our first hints that VW are determined to realise the biggest, breeziest pop sound imaginable on their latest LP.

  1. Unbelievers
The carnivalesque organ sound instantly conjures the influence of Dylan’s seminal Blonde on Blonde album. Indeed, VW seem to be intentionally alluding to the grizzled elder statesman of Americana with the titles of the album’s first two tracks, which together echo the Dylan number ‘Obviously Five Believers’, or maybe that’s pure coincidence/evidence that I need to get out more. Despite its seemingly pessimistic lyrical slant, bemoaning the rise of a fundamentalist strain in American Christianity, the mood is irrepressibly festive, with its hints of folksy flute and music hall piano.

  1. Step
The Simon and Garfunkel vibe comes to the fore here as VW slip into a more melancholy, yet beautifully poised, register. Ezra Koenig’s vocals arrive as if from a distance, and the waltz-like instrumentation has a slight reverb which gives the whole track the feeling of having been recorded in some ghostly, abandoned NY ballroom. The enigmatic, literate lyrics emphasise VW’s emotionally candid yet playful persona, insightfully pointing up the way in which a pretentious yet insecure young postgrad might try to conceal his need for emotional connection behind some hopelessly high-falutin’ allusions. Once again, the almost hymnal chorus is sublime, most of the backing dropping away to revel in the boyish charm of Koenig’s falsetto.

  1. Diane Young
Kicking things up a gear, VW rolls out a modern retooling of Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly and Elvis, like some classic motor fitted with a new superpowered engine. The irresistible melody is continuously broken down and reassembled, drum machines and guitar seemingly short-circuiting in staccato bursts and explosions, whilst Koenig’s voice is electronically shot up and down in pitch. Like those 50s rock originators it borrows from, this is a song all about the fastest rides, the most carefree people, and wildest summers, and its whiplash speed of delivery conveys that brilliantly.

  1. Don’t Lie
A fairly typical VW song, with its hints of baroque classical accompaniment and immediate, summery charm, is given extra beef by the pumped-up percussion courtesy of drummer Chris Thomson. Proceedings take a Caribbean twist in the last thirty seconds with the introduction of a reggae-style guitar lick – a first indication of things to come.

  1. Hannah Hunt
Another album highlight. Heavy on the bass, which forms an oceanic backdrop against which floats Koenig’s story of what appears to be some kind of shaggy dog love affair. More than halfway in, it suddenly explodes into all-out ballad material, as all of the band join in for a cathartic reprise of the chorus.

  1. Everlasting Arms
Dominated by a blissfully warm synth track, the reggae-esque guitar from ‘Don’t Lie’ makes a return, weaving in and out of the pattering percussion, again giving the song a festive feel – this time something closer to a beach party.

  1. Finger Back
One of the album’s more straightforward tracks, driven by Koenig’s Beach Boys-channelling vocals, which rise and rise to the point of euphoria, and the propulsive melody. Notably, such a well-crafted pop song that it can even survive the moment when Koenig presumably intentionally flirts with hipster self-parody by singing about someone falling in love ‘at the falafel shop’.

  1. Worship You
On this track, VW are seemingly going for the soaring atmospherics M83 recently attempted on Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming, only I feel that VW realise it more successfully. The brief verses are blown away like dust in the wind by the overpowering, pulsating, synth-led choruses, which manage to evoke drunken elation at a summer musical festival and were presumably written precisely to be performed at such a venue.

  1. Ya Hey
Probably the single best track on the album, and the greatest indication of how VW’s songwriting chops have evolved over the past few years. Encompassing several different genres, from the Marley-esque reggae previously hinted at, to baroque pop, and embracing both commercial accessibility with its massive chorus, and a more experimental impulse (check the bizarre, Smurfs backing vocals), it’s a runaway triumph.

  1. Hudson
Perhaps the most stylistically unique and unprecedented track in terms of VW’s back catalogue and general approach on this album. Koenig’s vocal melody and the orchestral flourishes put one in mind of a gloomy show-tune from a downbeat Broadway musical, but this is coupled with a martial drumbeat and stuttering, electronica-informed production. After the upbeat 40 minutes preceding it, this much moodier piece arrives like a bank of storm clouds covering the sun. Taken altogether it’s very intriguing, and just another sign of the fertile directions in which VW have been able to develop a sound that originally seemed as if it might have reached its limits on their first two albums.

  1. Young Lion
Not so much of a proper song in itself as a brief coda, Young Lion has little of the same brio and excitement as what has gone before it, but with its dainty piano and swooning harmonies, it sounds like a final breath of satisfied achievement. Yes, like a lot of VW’s work it edges towards coming off as slightly smug, but, on this quite remarkable pop album at least, they’ve earned it.