Tag Archives: Vampire Weekend

Vampire Weekend ‘Father of the Bride’ – Review

11 May

On the cover of ‘Father of the Bride’, Vampire Weekend’s first album in six years, the earth is represented as a cartoonish symbol, offset by the striking whiteness of the background and a corporation logo for ‘Sony Music’. There is a song, ‘Unbearably White’, that elaborates on this tussle between nature and the bright, white hum of the digital environment we’ve created. ‘Presented with darkness, we turn to the light’ argues Ezra Koenig. But it’s the blinding light of computer screens, mobile phones and televisions that he’s referring to. In Ezra’s vision, nature will fight back. ‘There’s an avalanche coming…’ The album itself is populated by digital noise, electronic gargles and processing but these sounds are superseded by crickets chirping, frogs ribbeting and birds singing. In the liner notes, Father of the Bride is dedicated to planet earth, and in interviews Ezra has described being nostalgic for a Nineties brand of environmentalism and the Sega Mega Drive game ‘Ecco the Dolphin’. If their last album, ‘Modern Vampires of the City’ exuded an anxiety very specific to being in your late 20’s and living in NYC, then ‘Father of the Bride’ is about reengaging with nature, in a way that approximates hope. There is a freedom and relief to this. It’s like the soft exhalation after holding your breath. The smell of wet pavements after a storm.

Both the opening and closing tracks open with Ezra singing ‘I know’, but his wisdom isn’t borne from a knowledge of what is certain; rather an acceptance that some things aren’t, and will never be certain. ‘Father of the Bride’ has a certain calm stoicism that marks it out from its predecessor in a way that is unexpected considering how tightly wound and preoccupied with the passing of time, that album sounded.

It doesn’t start off this way. The record opens with wedding day drama – a bride uncertain of whether to stay or go – and this sense of quandary carries through to ‘Harmony Hall’, which establishes a theme of individuality vs group think. In this vision, the more that people harmonise the less articulate the message becomes. Individuals become lost in the crowd. ‘Wicked snakes’ are revealed. The song’s most memorable line is perhaps the most universal catch-22 of all – ‘I don’t want to live like this, but I don’t want to die.’ It’s a call for the freedom and peace that the rest of the album responds to.

This idea is returned to on the album’s pretty closer ‘Jerusalem, New York, Berlin’, where Koenig meditates on another heady concept – heritage. In particular, his heritage as a Jew, raised in New York, living in the shadow of both Berlin and Jerusalem. Like Harmony Hall, It’s loosely about lending your voice to that of the crowd until you eventually lose your sense of individual identity. Sometimes you can surrender yourself to a bigger idea that ultimately can’t save you, whether it’s religion (as represented by Jerusalem), culture (New York) or politics (Berlin): ‘You’ve given me the big dream but you can’t make it real’. It’s a song that acknowledges both dream and disaster and holds them along side each other as colours on the same spectrum. It asks the questions and provides no answers, with an acceptance that maybe there is no answer, just an ‘endless conversation’. On the boyunt ‘Stranger’ he puts it another way – ‘I used to look for an answer, I used to knock on every door / but you’ve got the wave on, music playing, don’t need to look anymore.’

‘Stranger’ is a self-assured riff on maturity. In every sense it exudes a confidence that only comes with experience. If before Vampire Weekend sounded like a band constantly searching for an itch to scratch, then the opposite is true on ‘Father of the Bride’ and its ‘tasteful palette’ of sounds. Warm horns and lush sprinkles of piano tickle the edges of the track and – of everything on the album – ‘Stranger’ in particular lifts the band to a higher level of serenity. The song details a cozy night at home, with Ezra listening to his wife and sister in law having a conversation downstairs. ‘I’ve left those wilding days of old, your house is warmer, the wilderness is cold.’ Some fans might miss the frenzied energy of Vampire Weekend’s early work or the rattling anxiety of ‘Modern Vampires of the City’ but few could argue with the largely content place they’ve now settled in. 

It’s definitely the baggiest they’ve ever sounded. The freshly pressed slacks are splattered with pricks of mud. The crisp, button down Oxford shirt has wrinkled and come untucked. The fringe has fallen below the eyebrows. It’s the sound of a band who are assured enough to allow their rigorous standards to slip ever so slightly but have the confidence to pull it off.

And after six long years away, it’s only fitting that Vampire Weekend return with an ambitious set of eighteen songs. Springsteen’s ‘The River’ has been cited as the model; a double album with a sense of thematic unity and cohesion rather than the sprawling, say yes to every idea approach of ‘The White Album’. Amidst this comfortable confidence is the sense that Vampire Weekend have never tried this hard before. Despite its length and strong sense of adventure, the mix is crisp bright and poppy; Ariel Reichsted is behind the boards, sharpening the hooks and generally making sure every diverse sound is blended in a nuanced way. As a consequence, the production is decidedly less idiosyncratic than Rostam’s used to be but also more accessible. In fact, the album is accessible on every other front as well. Ezra has largely dispensed with the expensive adjectives and exotic proper nouns that rippled through his older work. He still dances around the point, and his songs continue to be rich in allusion and metaphor, but usually there is a discernible message that might once have been cloaked or concealed.

The aspirational sophistication of the band’s early days lingers in the finer details – such as the baroque piano breakdown in ‘Harmony Hall’ and the combination of formal strings and Palm Wine guitar on ‘Rich Man’. But generally the references are more 20th century American. Several of the songs closely resemble the middling pop-rock of AM radio in the mid 70’s – Fleetwood Mac , Paul Simon, Carole King etc while a jammy middle stretch of the album has reminded a lot of people of Phish and Grateful Dead (references which admittedly go over my head I’m afraid). It’s the most collaborative album the band have made, featuring guest appearances both subtle (DJ Dahi, BloodPop®, Rostam) and immediately obvious (guitarist Steve Lacy of The Internet, and Danielle Haim). All of them pay off and compliment the generous, indulgent tone that the record strikes.

As a double album, ‘Father of the Bride’ is understandably imperfect. Three (three!) country duets with Danielle Haim is probably overkill (I myself could do without the slightly disingenuous ‘We Belong Together’ which is little more than a genre exercise without the necessary sincerity). The back half of the record feels a little lumpy at points, lagging with the inoffensive ‘Rich Man’ and ‘My Mistake’, both of which are more mood boards than songs. But you’re more forgiving of low points on a double album and in some ways it adds to the record’s baggy, indulgent charm.

In a recent interview Ezra said “After you make the black-and-white album cover with the songs about death, you can’t go deeper. This is the life-goes-on record.” Like the sunflower that grows in the morning, the Flower Moon that shines out of the darkness, or the protagonist in ‘Big Blue’ who finds solace in the beauty of the ocean during a particularly difficult time – Vampire weekend have survived and adapted after great uncertainty. This recurring theme becomes most clear on the penultimate track ‘Spring Snow’ where the sun melts the snow and ‘bells start to ring.’ The song’s reference to seasons passing and ‘the end’ suggests that the ticking doubts haven’t completed cleared from Ezra’s mind – after all, snow will fall again next winter – but for the moment that bed is cozy and the view outside is beautiful. Once again on ‘Father of the Bride’ man surrenders to the glorious, inevitable will of nature. And it sounds delightful.

9/10

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Vampire Weekend ‘Modern Vampires of the City’ – Review

18 May

‘Modern Vampires of the City’ has been presented to us as Vampire weekend’s most direct album yet. Well, consider the opening line of comeback single ‘Step’: “Back, back, way back I used to front like Angkor Wat, Mechanicsburg, Anchorage and Dar Es Salaam.” The ‘back back’ bit is borrowed from a Souls of Mischief song, which in turn is sampled from a YZ song which itself borrowed a saxophone riff from a Bread song. Angkor Wat is the largest Hindu temple in the world, Mechanicsburg is a borough in Pennsylvania that was originally populated by waggon mechanics – hence the name. Anchorage is the Northernmost town in the United States and Dar Es Salaam (literally the ‘abode of peace’) is the capital of Tanzania. The thing that they all have in common? They’re all on the waterfront. In other words, this is a bit of convoluted wordplay on the word ‘front’ that requires you to have either exquisite geographical knowledge or half an hour to kill on wikipedia. The band go on to name check New York, L.A, San Fransisco, Berkeley, Oakland and Alameda – and that’s only the first verse. If this is Vampire Weekend being direct then I’d love meet them in an obtuse mood.

It’s lyrics like this (not to mention their multi-cultural music and preppy style) that has made Vampire Weekend arguably the most divisive indie band of the past decade. And of their three albums ‘Modern Vampires of the City’ is their most divisive to date. It dispenses with the more poppy elements of ‘Vampire Weekend’ and ‘Contra’ in favour of  subtle arrangements based around piano and what sounds to untrained ears almost like Baroque (and at times Gothic) orchestration.

Ezra Koening recently expressed his frustration with critics who misinterpret their intentions. “Referencing other cultures, it’s complicated. People with money, education, these things are complicated. But rather than admitting that we understood that, too, people tried to pretend that we were rich idiots ripping off African music.” In light of this interview, Vampire Weekend’s lyrics take on new meaning. Indeed, read in a different way, the lines I quoted from ‘Step’ are less a wilfully obscure example of ego stroking and more an attempt by the band to playfully poke fun at their reputation as elusive intellectuals. That verse ends with Ezra singing ‘I was a hoarder but girl that was back then.’ The joke works on multiple levels. It’s tongue in cheek. It’s irreverent. It’s a whatever you want it to be. But whatever you think, just stop and consider how damn fantastic that verse sounds. The way the exotic proper-nouns roll from Ezra’s lightly double tracked, accented voice. Consider the heavenly reverb on the drums and the twinkling keys. When it sounds this gorgeous does anything else even matter?

On ‘Modern Vampires of the City’ the band confirm what many have suspected for a long time. They are come as close to genius as any musical act performing today. This is just an extraordinary record. An indie album bursting with ambition. A pop album burning with enthusiasm. A melancholy album come alive with jubilance. A dark album that doesn’t shy away from the mainstream. A complicated album that embraces simplicity. This is the biggest triumph yet from a band who are already responsible for some of the finest albums and singles of the past decade.

The album is a map of popular music. Each instrument sounds like it’s been snapped from a different genre of a different decade and paired up with such care and precision as to beggar belief. ‘Diane Young’ alone is encyclopaedic in its references; at any given point it resembles Paul Simon and Sleigh Bells, Billy Joel and The Ramones, Buddy Holly and M.I.A. That it still sounds like classic Vampire Weekend despite sounding almost nothing like the Vampire Weekend we’re used to says a lot about Ezra Koenings distinctive voice and melodic approach, as well as Rostam Batmanjlij’s unique compositional ability.

Over twelve songs the band never put a foot wrong, and chosing particular highlights is difficult because there are so many. The pivotal song may be ‘Hannah Hunt’ a haunting ballad that predates most of the material on the band’s debut. It’s a story of two lovers as they journey across America and therefore obviously recalls the classic Simon and Garfunkel song ‘America’. The band dispense with an overarching narrative in favour of symbolic sketches that let your imagination run wild (to the sound of warped Steal drums no less). Like Paul Simon, Ezra makes no effort to stick to a rigid metre or traditional rhyme scheme – the lyrics work on his terms. His images are extraordinarily evocative: for example, he highlights the differences between the two lovers in the way they attempt to re-kindle the fire (both literally and figuratively). The narrator walks into town to buy some kindle whilst Hannah rips up pieces of the New York Times. Him, patient and willing to fork out the cash, her, angry and impatient. Both of them doubtful, disconnected and without a future.

Unlike the youthful, free-spirited debut and the anxious but still fun ‘Contra’, ‘Modern Vampires of the City’ is unafraid to tackle the big questions. There are constant, thinly veiled references to ‘ticking clocks’ and on ‘Ya Ha’ Ezra interrogates God directly, exclaiming “you won’t even say you’re name, only ‘I am that I am’.” On ‘Unbelievers’ he knows that ‘the fire awaits unbelievers’ whilst on ‘Everlasting Arms’ he asks ‘could I have been made to serve the master?’ This master is referenced again on ‘Step’ in which the narrator remembers an odd couple standing on the street corner listening to ‘The Master’. In this instance it is more likely to be a reference to Grandmaster Flash. But possibly God. or maybe the album by Rakim that Ezra is a known admirer of. Or maybe it’s this album’s master he is referring to, as it was no doubt mastered in NYC. It’s more classic intertextuality. It sums up the album. All at once it’s high art and low art, spiritual and pop, self aware and playful, ambiguous but direct.

This is the closing chapter of a trilogy of albums, but unlike most trilogies it ends on a high note. There are many threads running between the three records, one of them comes On ‘Everlasting Arms’ when Ezra talks about being ‘trapped beneath the chandelier.’ This could be a reference to that iconic cover of the debut – an album so successful it would be hard for any band to follow. Fans may miss those iconic chiming guitars and African rhythms but its to the band’s credit that they haven’t tried to replicate that sound for 2013.  And if Vampire Weekend have ever felt daunted or weighed down by expectation then they show no sign of it here. You’d be hard pushed to find a more ambitious, tuneful, confident and highly considered record in 2013 – or any other year for that matter.

9.5/10

Chromeo ‘I Could Be Wrong’

15 Sep

Ft. Ezra Keonig – this is pretty special, it’s taken from Chromeo’s new album ‘Business Casual’, and just wait until the sax solo comes in…

Yeasayer ‘Odd Blood’ – Review

2 Feb

‘POP GOES THE BAND!’

Remember Mystery Jets first album? The weird one? ‘Making Dens’ was a pretty fine piece of work but the chances are you remember the band for their poptastic second album ‘Twenty One’. It was a change of direction, a pretty mainstream direction, but it worked wonders for the group. Yeasayer have attempted to make the same transition with their second album, ‘Odd Blood’, and the results are a little bit more mixed.

Don’t get me wrong, this is a good album, at times it’s pretty brilliant and It’s also as weird as they come. But my first reaction was one of disappointment. Their debut ‘All Hour Cymbals’ did for Middle Eastern music what Vampire Weekend did for African music. That may be a bit of a simplification but the group essentially took the music and themes of world music and westernized them. It was a beautiful vocal based record with some eccentric tendencies, catchy melodies and an indie sensibility.

I was expecting ‘Odd Blood’ to be progression of the same idea, in the same way that ‘Contra’ progressed Vampire Weekend’s sound. Instead this album is a fairly radical departure for the band. The harmonies and vocal chants have largely be scrapped which is slightly sad, and the exotic instruments have also been replaced by exotic computers. As I say, this is still an eccentric album (the first track is one of the freakiest beginnings to any album I’ve ever heard) it’s just eccentric in a different way.

So Yeasyer have gone synth pop, kind of. ‘O.N.E’ and ‘Ambling Alp are bona-fide hits in the making, both counting among the catchiest songs I’ve heard in yonks. lyrically they have also moved on from bizarre tales of the future to songs about more down to earth themes, there is even a song called ‘Love Me Girl’. Well the guy is clearly in love with someone, on ‘I Remember’  he repeats ‘You’re stuck in my mind all the time.’ This track is another winner.

If the album was this consistent over ten tracks then I would say their move to synth pop has been a success. However, like the first album, there are a couple of duds on here. Nothing shockingly bad (although ‘The Children will certainly raise a few eyebrows), but ‘Strange Reunions’ feels a bit like filler and the album ends on a rather anti climactic note with ‘Grizekla’. Luckily the strong songs far outweigh the weak ones but it does mean that ‘Odd Blood’ is a very good album rather than a great one.

So Yeasayer have aimed for success and good on them, they certainly deserve it. This is a bold departure for the band and It’s going to win them more fans than it will loose them. ‘Odd Blood’ has some strange moments but it is surely destined for the radio, and thats just fine with me.

7.5/10

Vampire Weekend ‘Contra’ – Review

23 Jan

For as long as there’s been pop music there’s been a tension between the artistic and the commercial. By it’s very nature pop aspires to be popular but that shouldn’t mean selling out or restricting your sound to what is radio friendly. Every now and then a genuine band will become successful on their own terms; it happened with New Order, Blur, Franz Ferdinand and Arctic Monkeys to name but a few. Now with a number one album under their belts Vampire Weekend can join those ranks.

Although it feels like they never went away it’s been two years since Vampire Weekend released their debut and ‘Contra’ picks up nicely where that left of. First single ‘Cousins’ led me to believe that this would be a similar record to the first, but in fact there has been a lot of progress. It still sounds undeniably like Vampire Weekend (Ezra Koenig’s unique vocal style, the clean guitar sound and the African inspired rhythms are still prominent) but a new and better Vampire Weekend.

The band combine their traditional instruments with new and unexpected ones. A drum machine features heavily as does a squeaky synth almost as retro as the cover art. Yet It all feels somehow cohesive and logical, which is probably because the songs are all of such high quality. There‘s no ‘Oxford Comma’ on here, sure, but then again the band clearly aren’t going for simple hooks this time around – complexity is the name of the game. Accessible complexity at that.

‘White Sky’, ’Holiday’ and ‘Cousins’ share the same happy vibe as a number of tracks from the debut but they also present a glimpse of the new, polished sound that defines the record. At times it can feel like these tracks have been produced to within an inch of their lives, they are so clean you could eat a meal of them, but that has always been Vampire Weekend’s way and any fan will be used to the precise style by now (even if I was slightly longing for some feedback or grit). Elsewhere the band play with samples and hip hop beats on ‘Diplomat’s son’ whilst retaining that ‘New York meets Africa meets Oxford’ charm that has become truly theirs.

Other highlights include their first ballad  ‘Taxi Cab’ and what sounds like a real hit in the making, ‘Giving Up The Gun’. The album ends with a subtlety that even the most ardent fan would have to admit is somewhat lacking on the rest of the album. ‘I Think Ur A Contra’ is awash with acoustic guitars and falsetto vocals that compliment the song perfectly.

‘Contra’ is an accomplished second album that confirms Vampire Weekend’s position as one of the best bands around. This isn’t as enjoyable as their debut and it’s a bit of a hard nut to crack, but it gets better with every listen. Not since ‘Kid A’ has there been such an experimental and ambitious album to hit number one in America – yet at its heart this is a pretty perfect pop album.

8.5/10