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WERS is spotlighting Vampire Weekend’s latest release, Modern Vampires of the City, as our Album of the Month this August. If an overarching theme to the album could be nailed down it would be reworking something old in a very new way. The record employs classical American musical mainstays like the piano, double bass, and organ but bends, morphs and molds them to the band’s own twisted desires. The hollow reverberations and woody timbre of these instruments grounds the sound in a historical framework while allowing the band to take flights into sordid storylines and dub step dissolves.
Ezra Koenig and Rostam Batmanglij are the primary Vampire Weekend songwriting team. After the critical and financial success of the band’s second album Contra (2010), the duo began the existential task of deciding what direction they should take with the next album. “We … had endless discussions about vibes and what we think the album could be,” said Koenig in an interview with ShawConnect. “Of course you have ideas in the back of your mind but there are so many surprises along the way that whatever vision you may have always has to be a slave to the songs. We certainly think big but we’re always happy to contradict ourselves as we make the record.” It is these contradictions that make this a three dimensional album. Vampire Weekend reference other musical methodologies in their songs (the album title comes from the first verse of a Junior Reid song entitled “One Blood”, the song “Step” is an homage to The Souls of Mischief song “Step to my Girl”). These references aren’t just shots out for their own sake. Ezra and Rostram seem to relinquish control and embody alter egos in these songs. This disembodiment allows them to surpass typical pop hang-ups and continue to create innovative tracks that please both casual listeners and the vampires of the city themselves, who take to the shadows and devour every note, lyric and aural atmospheric.
The album begins with “Obvious Bicycle,” a quiet track that could pass as an Oasis song with a flat tire. The music evokes the image of a silent picture gradually slipping frames while a silhouetted viewer sits alone in an old Times Square theater. All the while the listeners are being lulled into introspection by the mesmerizing harmonies and honeyed melodies. Next up is “Unbelievers” a song that chugs down the track like a Steam Punk locomotive while the wurley keyboard blasts out a tune. The steadily quickening drum beat builds a tension that can only be vented by the organ bellows that level us out and get us safely back to the station. The masterful construction of this song is reminiscent of Jackie Mittoo of Studio One Records, Jamaica at his best.
The third song on Modern Vampires of the City is perhaps the most ambitious. “Step” begins by quoting the Oakland Hip Hop troupe the Souls of Mischief. The Souls hit a high point of commercial success back in 1998 with their song “93 till infinity,” but remain local legends amongst Northern Californian Rap fans. Vampire Weekend uses the lyric “Every time I see you in the world you always step to my girl” to begin their song. Uninitiated listeners may mistake the entire song for a cover, and indeed there is something in the lyrical delivery that sounds a lot like a rock group redoing an NWA song. However “Step” is far from derivative. The song is an electro X-mas ballad coated in a German Rasta drawl that takes you miles above the hard city streets that inspired the original song. The whimsical echo and haunting jangling on the track are done at a Kraftwerk cadence with the jubilant distortion of an A Clockwork Orange symphony.
The singles on the album are “Diane Young” and “Ya Hey”, both of which are masterful in their own unique ways. “Diane Young” is a snappy, clappy, powerhouse that could be seen as a tribute to the child that Elvis Presley and Todd Fink of The Faint never had. While “Ya Hey” is a more intimate song that skates across icy piano notes as it injects the type of post-modern production that serve as Rostam Batmanglij’s signature on the album. Modern Vampires of the City is both a sleeper album that deserves to be taken home and steadily digested through a good pair of headphones and a grind-core thriller that knocks down your front door with an axe. It is this contradiction that keeps Vampire Weekend’s music relevant in the August of 2013.