If lots and lots of people love you and just as many people hate you, you are doing something right.
Vampire Weekend, as we all know by now, rode the wave of Pitchfork hype to stardom and wireless printer commercials. Fame. Fortune. Judd Apatow-produced movies. They drew in as many haters as lovers due, probably, to being different and therefore accused of being simply hipster bait. Truth is, Pitchfork and the other cool blogs were right and they were indeed blending South African pop seamlessly with New England classically-trained preppiness to introduce a wholly unique take on whatever the hell “indie rock” is. In 2008, Vampire Weekend made year-end lists like mad, for good reason. Then in 2010 they had to try and follow up that monster. Contra was also almost universally critically acclaimed, but the fan response was split. Some thought it to be more of the same greatness but produced better, while others, myself included, thought the big label budget did the songs harm. The South African influence was dialed back to next-to-nothing on all but a couple tracks, replacing calliope keys and rag-tag beats with heavy synths and drum machine and Pro Tool-fixed live drums. It didn’t feel unique anymore, and though the songs were good, they were buried under the production. Now we come to the present and album three, Modern Vampires of the City. So let’s dig in.
“Obvious Bicycle” starts the quartet’s newest set gently, maybe in response to Contra’s bombast, a not-so-obvious opener with a piano focus and minimal percussion. It leads beautifully into “Unbelievers,” bringing back their initial sound a bit but more subdued, with a simple kick drum bump and just-as-simple vocal harmonies. Then that heads into previously-released single “Step” which again keeps things on the chiller side while recalling the band’s debut, with a harpsichord bouncing between the speakers and a spare arrangement in the verses. It’s not layered with tons of shit like so many Contra tracks. The chorus is a beautiful lilting melody sung mostly in falsetto by frontman Ezra Koenig, ”Such a modest mouse” taking me by surprise that they’d casually drop in a reference to one of my favorite bands ever (just for meeee?). However, pop cultural references and musician name-drops, while immediately funny or “neato,” age poorly. At least Modest Mouse should stand the test of time more than, say, Lil Jon (from their debut’s “Oxford Comma”), though if that’s not the case please put a bullet in future me.
Other single “Diane Young” is fantastic and finally, at track four, pumps the album up a bit. This one didn’t grab me at first when I listened a month ago on YouTube; in fact, the vocal effects (alternating between dropped octave weirdness and helium squeakiness) turned me off, but now I love it and it makes the hook even more memorable (and is fun to try and imitate). The bari saxes lay a foundation under the track, and later there is a kickass elastic guitar solo and crunchy organ arpeggios that fly up and down virtuoso Rostam Batmanglij’s keyboard. And a brief tangent, how awesome is it that a member of a “Vampire (bat)”-named band has “Batman” in his name? Just noticed that, but I am short on sleep so shut up.
“Ya Hey” is unfortunately not “Hey Ya” performed in reverse, but is a pretty sweet bass-grooving track once you get past the mousey voice and get to the pretty piano lines and gentle lead vocal over a subdued backing choir. “Finger Back” is the album’s “A-Punk” or “Cousins;” they always want to throw in a uptempo track, and these are always among the best on the albums. The short “Young Lion” ends the album on a laid back note like it began, with plucked double bass, percussive upright piano and gentle floating vocal harmonies.
Overall, Modern Vampires of The City sounds fantastic, but not overproduced. It’s not the instant classic their debut was, and yet it has better songs. The genre-mashing gimmick they created has long since passed with these guys and they were more aware of it than anyone. They were smart enough to try out other avenues immediately, and while they stumbled a bit with Contra, they’ve gained their footing again with this fantastic set of songs.