Rewind to early 2007 --when Vampire Weekend first popped up on indie rock fans' radar at the end of that year, the idea of a band breaking via blog coverage was still a novel concept. Since then, championing the ever-fickle blogosphere has become a virtual requirement in the development of an indie band, and the system has spat out plenty of bands that managed to score themselves a decent publicist and some Soundcloud spins.
So what gave Vampire Weekend their staying power?
When the band's self-titled debut arrived in 2008, Vampire Weekend came packaged with its own spicy discussion topics that indie rock fans debated ad nauseam: their Ivy League backgrounds, their precocious attitudes, their jetsetting palette of influences. Reading about Vampire Weekend meant enduring endless riffs on Afropop, boat shoes, and their frontman's first name.
In 2013, Vampire Weekend haven't reinvented their sound and they're still led by a dude named Ezra (Koenig). "It's very much the last of a trilogy," he said of "Modern Vampires of the City," due out May 14 on XL Recordings. If change is coming, the new album is a fitting third chapter in the story -- one that deftly adds new wrinkles to the band's idiosyncratic pop sound, pushing matters forward while staying familiar. The album includes Vampire Weekend's first truly dark song, Koenig's (somehow) first spoken-word interlude, and closes with a deliberate outro, another tactic the band has never employed before. Still, it's easy to compare just about every new song, in some way, to a Vampire Weekend song that came before it.
On "Modern Vampires," there's no reaching for the elusive crossover hit, no beating listeners over the head with overdone choruses -- just quality music, which, so far, has worked out just fine. Their last effort, 2010's "Contra," debuted atop the Billboard 200 and has moved over 500,000 copies to date, according to Nielsen SoundScan. With a recent Steve Buscemi-produced hometown gig and an upcoming "SNL" performance keeping them in the spotlight, there's reason to expect similar success for "Vampires."
If this is the end of phase one (or trilogy one) for Vampire Weekend, they're certainly going out on top. But what's next? Instrumental jack-of-all trades and producer Rostam Batmanglij has proven his skills with electronic, dance-oriented music through his side project, Discovery. And with his encyclopedic musical knowledge, Koenig probably has plenty of new songwriting directions (and perhaps a solid solo album) in him. But for now, let's take a track-by-track look at "Modern Vampires of the City," Vampire Weekend's most musically accomplished album to date.
1. Obvious Bicycle - The album's lead track functions a lot like "Contra" opener "Horchata." It's a mild-mannered, uplifting song that creeps into the listeners' ear and announces Vampire Weekend's familiar presence hasn't changed much since we last heard them. And how about the refrain of, "Listen, listen up. Don't wait"? It's so very fitting for an opening song.
2. Unbelievers - When Batmanglij's keyboard kicks in at the start of "Unbelievers," you know you're about to deal with an unrelenting Vampire Weekend jam. Carried by a giddy tempo and sunny pop hooks, this ode to skepticism announces that Vampire Weekend aren't about to throw away their familiar formula, since still they're finding plenty of inspiration in it.
Koenig's love of 90s hip-hop pops up here, as he opens with a quote from Souls of Mischief's "Step to My Girl." With its harpsichord riffs, this early highlight is likely to draw comparisons to "M79," and it might be a tad better. It's the sort of song that makes you picture yourself relaxing with Koenig in some Upper West Side coffee house, trying to figure out his references. When he sings about "modest mouse," is he referencing the "Float On" band or the Virginia Woolf passage from which they got their name? Who knows.
4. Diane Young
"Diane Young" shares its name with a boutique on New York's Upper East Side that sells womens' anti-aging products like "Juice of Youth" and "Twice As Young." It's no coincidence that this barnburner of a single carries a screw-the-haters, seize-the-moment vibe.
5. Don't Lie - This one's built around a pounding percussive shell that holds some more melodic elements (organ, more harpsichord flourishes) inside. Again, Ezra's concerned with youth, the present tense, and the passage of time, which seem to be dominant themes on the album: "Does it bother you, the low clock of the ticking clock? There's a lifetime right in front of you, and everyone I know."
6. Hannah Hunt - This sparse, muted song almost functions like an interlude between two halves of more direct songs. Lyrically, "Hannah Hunt" recalls some travels with the titular protagonist, who happens to share a name of an indie rock keyboardist and vocalist who's played with outfits like Dominant Legs and ex-Girls frontman Christopher Owens.
7. Everlasting Arms - Plenty of Vampire Weekend material could be drawn back to the Talking Heads, but this one particularly fits the bill. "Hold me in your everlasting arms," sings Koenig, giving the track a mystic, spiritual vibe that the Heads explored on songs like their cover of "Take Me To the River."
8. Finger Back - Vampire Weekend increases the tempo again, as Koenig shows off how he can use his vocals to sell a hook. This song also includes the elusive spoken-word breakdown Vampire Weekend somehow never wrote before, involving an "Orthodox girl" in a falafel shop in the Upper East Side.
9. Worship You - This one hasn't been released as a single or even been played live yet, but it immediately establishes itself as one of "Modern Vampires of the City's" best tracks. Once again Koenig's vocals take the hook to new heights, mixed with a glossy echoing quality; credit is also due to drummer Chris Tomson, who drives the song with a galloping beat.
10. Ya Hey
Get it? It's "Hey Ya" backwards! But the song's not necessarily a simple Outkast joke. Full of allusions to Judaism and Christianity (after all, that title could also be a reference to the word "Yahweh"), "Ya Hey" has some of the record's headiest and heaviest lyrics. It was played as a fan request at Vampire Weekend's recent New York gig, so perhaps it's already gaining traction as a favorite.
11. Hudson - This is Vampire Weekend's first truly dark-sounding song, and it's a good one -- the type of envelope-pusher that proves how far they've come the past few years. Much of it sounds more like a movie score than an indie rock song, with ticking clocks, industrial pounding, and ominous strings that sound like something out of "Harry Potter." Koenig sings about betrayal and the death of Henry Hudson.
12. Young Lion - Built around a classical piano riff, this elegant interlude sends us off into the sunset, wrapping up Vampire Weekend's most cohesive and musically accomplished album to date.
- Album Review