MusicWeekend

Vampire Weekend’s Formal Coup

by Lucas Fagen on February 8, 2014

Everlasting Arms

Swiping tunes from all over the place and sampling everything from hip-hop to hippie folk, the new Vampire Weekend album demands exegesis. “Everlasting Arms” definitely incorporates some Bach organ melody I can’t quite place. Pachelbel’s “Canon in D” gets screwed around with in both “Step” and “Don’t Lie,” with the latter going out on a guitar riff that reminds me of nothing so much as the Smiths’ “Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now.” “Obvious Bicycle” hijacks the Nyabinghi rhythm of Ras Michael & the Sons of Negus’s “Keep Cool Babylon.” “Step” reminded me first of the Carpenters’ “We’ve Only Just Begun” before I found out its melody and lyrics can actually be traced to the 1993 song “Step to My Girl” by the funny alt-rappers Souls of Mischief, which sampled smooth-jazz architect Grover Washington’s 1973 cover of Bread’s 1972 single “Aubrey.” And that’s just the beginning.

Having met during college at Columbia, Vampire Weekend became famous rather quickly via the support of enthusiastic bloggers, a tour backing the Shins, and Spin magazine, which put the band on its cover in March 2008 only two months after they released their first album. The said self-titled Vampire Weekend was a resounding overall success. After being named 10th-best album-of-the-year in Rolling Stone and 7th in Pitchfork, it’s since gone gold in America and platinum in England. Singer/guitarist/thoughtful young person Ezra Koenig, virtuoso keyboardist Rostam Batmanglij, bassist Chris Baio, and drummer Chris Tomson have remained celebrated critical darlings, with their 2008 debut, 2010′s Contra, and now 2013′s Modern Vampires of the City all receiving highly complimentary reviews both from the old-school rock vanguard epitomized by Rolling Stone and the callow-ironic hipsters for whom the Pitchfork writers are wise, honored gurus. All three albums share a crisp, elegant style, yet each inhabits its own individual sonic space. Their musical detail and lyrical erudition imply there’s more going on than meets the ear — samples, allusions, highbrow references, that sort of thing. Nevertheless, they remain committed to the familiar pleasures of the short, cheerful, catchy song, and pop is their metier: both Contra and Modern Vampires of the City charted at #1 on the US Billboard 200, the first time an indie band has ever done this with two consecutive albums.

Because they’ve stayed on XL despite being able to sign with any label in the world if they wanted to, and because their trademarked sound is hard to replicate, Vampire Weekend are typically categorized alongside such independent chamber-pop succès d’estime as She & Him, Death Cab for Cutie, Camera Obscura, Ra Ra Riot, Jens Lekman, and Grizzly Bear. This makes sense, as they all share a certain baroque cheer, and all owe significant debts to Belle & Sebastian. But where most of the above fixate on finesse and/or nostalgia so obsessively their music is suffocated by its own precious mannerism, the exceptions being Lekman and Camera Obscura, there’s something expansive and sociable about Vampire Weekend, and I don’t just mean in tone. Favoring upbeat songcraft reminiscent of the Beach Boys or the Hollies, within the form they’re remarkably nuanced masters of stylistic appropriation, from Afropop to ska to reggae to whatever. Not that they write secondhand genre exercises or that they rip off African musicians — anyone who thinks so should listen to more African music. But they do subtly incorporate discrete elements from anywhere and everywhere into a fresh guitar-pop synthesis, and their lyrics are similarly referential. Is it any wonder rock critics love these guys? Figuring out precisely where that drumbeat came from or what cultural happening that turn of phrase alludes to is our favorite parlor game.

Committed to a standard of gleeful fun rare in all kinds of music, let alone scholarly indie-rock, 2008′s self-titled Vampire Weekend ebulliently defined this synthesis. Over sharp guitar lines and bouncy synth motifs, fizzy beats and foamy riffs, Ezra Koenig murmurs and howls tales of campus life and student romance, and although the band’s relentless college-identified name-dropping did get annoying at times (sample titles: “Bryn,” “Oxford Comma,” and let us not forget the classic single “Mansard Roof”/”Ladies of Cambridge”), the overall effect is less bratty entitlement than adolescent delight, its most irresistible moment the soukous lick that anchors “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa.” Polishing and refining the formula they’d invented on the last album, 2010′s follow-up Contra upsized the music considerably, with Koenig singing about slightly more adult issues like social class and, well, student romance. Hinged on the fusion of Western and African guitar styles, its hooks range from xylophone to marimba to cello to pitched drum machines to M.I.A. samples to a hilariously Auto-Tuned Koenig delivering the chorus on “California English”; far from the disorder one might expect, if anything Contra is brighter and cleaner than the debut. This was definitely chamber-pop, as evinced by the childlike piano lullaby “Taxi Cab.” It was also enticing and sublime pop sans qualifier.

ContraNow they’ve released 2013′s Modern Vampires of the City, which expands and strengthens the style yet again, doing to Contra what Contra did to Vampire Weekend. It’s fuller, richer, like port, or dark chocolate, or the smell of pine needles, but at the same time their tunes have never been this bright or immediate, realizing a joyous buoyancy the other two albums only hint at. This music is dense and syncretic, encompassing tinny piano figures, ringing guitar chords, crunching reggae beats, pitch-altered vocals. Sometimes an Irish accordion solo will come careening out of nowhere, and elsewhere rollercoaster saxophones/tubas underpin the bassline. “Everlasting Arms” is carried by watery congas and highlife-evoking guitar jangle until suddenly a chiming cathedral organ takes over in the second verse. “Don’t Lie” alternates a similar organ in a lower register with guitar strums/violin stabs before swelling into a chorus keyed to some of the most pleasurable harpsichord playing you’ve ever heard, climaxing when the harpsichord and violin finally meet, then winding down on some more highlife guitar. “Ya Hey” builds and builds on its bouncy bassline, dinky piano quatrains , and rock-steady drums until the refrain comes and Koenig coaxes a vocoded chipmunk into belting out the title hook. The irrepressibly neo-African “Worship You” is so deep in its exuberantly crowded rhythmic propulsion you expect its vibrant military beat to go on forever. Then comes a buzzing, hyperactive keyboard interlude, and a cathartic moment with Koenig wailing as the beat keeps stopping and starting. Sometimes the album seems like a weird smorgasbord of sound effects and exotic instruments. But because everything is arranged so masterfully, constructed with the intricate accuracy of a stained-glass window or an illuminated manuscript, and because everything adheres to familiar songform in the end, the hooks mesh like magic.

Embedded in traditional pop structures, the sheer range as well as the careful placement of their imagined, reaccessed borrowings keep such structures fresh — you keep finding new details, little flourishes, a ring over here, a ding over there, a boing where you least expect it, and Modern Vampires of the City is at once a straightforward collection of catchy songs and the kind of modernist collage that recontextualizes known scraps of culture into new music. Assuming a lean, expressive clarity, their soaring melodies, infectious choruses, and playful jingles earn the kind of sunny, breezy uplift that seems lightweight until you become addicted to its dazzling warmth. Their formal coup brings so many diverse elements together and affirms the whole of human culture. Rivaling Marshall Crenshaw, Tallulah, Out of Time, and “California Girls”, they’ve achieved nothing less than simple, shameless pop beauty.

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