Monday, 13 May 2013

Vampire Weekend - Modern Vampires Of The City

  

For a band like Vampire Weekend, they can find themselves sorted into one of three distinguishing categories for description: either they're another one of those culturally-striving US alt/indie rock bands who've managed to live long past their expectant expiry date; or they're that band who used that one photo for that cover to that sophomore and got in trouble for doing so; and lastly (as I'm begrudgingly inept to accept as the likelihood of a majority's decision) they are the pinnacle trend-setters, as much as they are the salvation to the question how good is modern US rock at present? I will admit, Vampire Weekend are one of the few acts who've managed to not only stay relevant after the whole indie rock bubble burst on both sides of the Atlantic, but continue to give US' alternative scene a better-cherished identity than simply some label-backed surge for fresh blood churning out even fresher stadium-filling anthems. But filling things to capacity out of such gestural energy isn't something these bands aim to fulfill, and it's that exact deviation away from the norm that perhaps has struck such a chord for listeners of both a public and editorial background alike. Hence, the exact reason why I've refused to cross borders and the band remain intently vacant on my musically conscious radar. For whatever reason, there remains a lingering sense of curiosity without a thirst for response personally; questions that rather want to remain unanswered. Some may diagnose this as simply shutting away from the overwhelming acclaim an act like this has received - 2010's Contra ending up a continual nominee for album of the year, and its presence in critic Top 10's a clear sign the record was satisfying someone, something...somewhere. But the critical anxiety of this sound lies deeper than simply some counteracting against a wider audience's approval.

Coming to 2013's Modern Vampires Of The City, I feel loosened from this mental abort. Metaphorically, I feel at ease knowing I'm untainted by any collateral weight pressuring me into narrow-minded conclusions. Literally - to put it more simply - my analysis I feel won't be tinged by the lofty weight of positivity that's been written previous. Beginning the album with the track Obvious Bicycle and I/you get a clear feeling of the band's recognizably humanist stature of their song-writing in its context. The stripped-back, face-to-face stature in the simple piano chords and the grinding old-machine quality to the percussion certainly adds more meaning to the album cover's mid-century industry taking its toll on the durability of human living. But this is certainly not a track meaning to project age or any kind of fixed concept. Vocalist Ezra Koenig's clarity amid the waning projection of instrumentation - percussion still coming off as if this age-old piece of industry still chugging on despite the challenge - is what gives the song a breadth of humanity and cause for emotive connotation, as opposed to simply one or two narrowed fields. Unbelievers doesn't necessarily widen its scale, but what decisive focus vocalist carries through, is expressed with sternness thanks to the music's upbeat and classicist textures of organ and dusty percussion hits. And despite it being a minute less than what's preceded it, it's the almost ageless, timeless quality to the instrumentation, and the pacing the band apply, that adds a lot more humanistic feeling to the piece.

Step is another moment where the band recognize, with understanding too, that music in itself holds a kind of mental hierarchy in how it's applied and how are ideas are carried through. The emphasis again on vocalist's slightly-analogous, slightly-aged vocals and how they in refusal to move from the central pillar of the piece, definitely suggests the band have built their track first from their emotions, through to an idea and then the instrumentation. Because of this, the connection and positioning of sound creates an almost transient, post-human flutter. The brisk, nightly drum beats give me a feeling of walking on cobblestones; the metallic chime of bells and piano draw me to a quiet social scene of a former decade. And all the while, because of their clarity and their crisp textures, everything still sounds irrefutably modern. Even the closing haze of Koenig's pitch-shifted vocals doesn't take away from the socialite comfort the track has generated. And it's this pitch-shifting technique that comes more to the forefront on follower Diane Young; here throwing the former swirl of previous times to the wind, and in its place comes a joyously reactive barrage of illicit guitars, garage-homed drum beats and naively sprung organs glimmering in carnival-like shoots of affection. All the while, vocalist plays to the strums and the rhythm in looping, crooning swirls of 'baby, baby, baby, baby, right on...'.

Individually, moments such as these do their job at directing the band's distinctions between modest excitement and deep-rooted humanity as an addressing of a particular scene. But the way Don't Lie tears at the momentum - almost drags it by the collar - into the next contextual alignment, somewhat ruins the succession of ambition and flow the album has generated thus far. The track is a lot more down-to-Earth and hushed-away than its previous counterparts - organs more close-nested and fond for relation than publicly screaming for buzz or attention. Unfortunately - where the organ begins in this retreat to calmer reaches - the way the track builds up yet doesn't seem to hold as much clarity or real navigation in its progression, comes up far more clearer as a definite drawback to Vampire Weekend's efforts here. Even Koenig's voice ends up obscured because of it - lacking any underlining dictation or strength as a result, and the track ends up feeling like we're required to squint our eyes or force ourselves to look past the noise to see what/where exactly the music is addressing. Hannah Hunt does create an interesting atmosphere not just because its light percussion sounds like something recorded from decades previous. The way Koenig's lyrics talk about existing with someone regardless of the location, and how it ties intricately into how the track's layering conveys this transpiring, withdrawn uneasiness, emphasizes the rather empty and devoid surroundings of the piece. My only criticism is that the closing minute expels itself too harshly and too blurred to the point that it tarnishes the context of the song - thus losing its listener in this last-ditch mash of percussion and piano.

But while it may be the more abrasive and exerted of drum work that's come to define this particular corner of rock music, it's the decisions the band take here in stripping their percussion back that is a definite highlight of this album. The way the drums feel more considered and delicately placed - so too, the way they act as if in accordance with the other instruments rather than as some rhythmic reminder to the melody - adds an even further sense of existentialist ideas that, later on, I begin to feel are seeping through on this record. Everlasting Arms has one of the best usage of percussion without question. And away from the tantalizing, sample-like splice of rich strings, the layered consistency to the drums offers the music so much more stature, and it gives vocalist's emotive scale, room to breathe. It's no surprise then, given what's come before, that we find ourselves pulled once more into the down-slope unleashing of enjoyment on the track Finger Back and the band's execution is a lot less intimate and more of sheer expulsion. There's an interesting use of static fuzz in the guitars, and the way the rhythmic clamber of the song's momentum - aided, as expected by the passionate hit of drumbeats - plays a kind of leveling/limiting role in the piece's expression. It definitely suggests the band have taken much more consideration here than previous to content, and the amount of content being exposed to the listener at a given moment. It provides then, some worthy clarity and space without sacrificing the inclusion of such instrumentation likewise.

And it's the emphasis on rhythm and how brilliantly the band come to work around it that comes up trumps on the coal-burning, passionate rocketing of momentum that is Worship You. The most energetic and forward of the four-piece's offerings here, the track has all the collective synchronicity of a marching band - drums rolling on in one-two-one-two pistons, while Koenig charges through like horn-clad machinery stampeding through its territory. And yet, miraculously, the mechanical-like thrust he exerts does nothing to tarnish the clear sense of emotion and reason for being he directs to the listener. It's the way he, and his fellow band-mates, manage to interconnect the repetitious force of this supposed musical machinery, yet carry through the faultless charisma of the soul, that gives the sounds an overwhelming attractiveness, as much as they excel exponentially in aiming to hopefully meet their end goal of worth and ambition. Even Ya Hey's off-shoot whims of inflated voices doesn't take away from the drive and the ambition the band continue to expel through their music. Where at one point, the music reaches its closely personal heights and the instrumentation nestles closer to one another, at others - where the squeak of voices pass through - even though the sounds feel initially hollow or encased as if in a shell, it's the delicacy and attention to sonic detail the percussion and guitar strums take that keeps the richness of the piece carrying through. Rather fitting that Young Lion's piano closer is part musical epilogue, part analogy to something far more existentialist or personal at the same time. And while individually there's little more objectiveness required past the distantly withdrawn harmonics and slightly crackled quality to the piano keys, when taken in the context of the entire album, the end remark is one of an underlining sense of reason and understanding with the World...as if, finally, the band have found their place in the city so

It's this investigation - this attack perhaps - into the argument for one's placement  within society, that comes up in vast amounts through both the music and the lyrics to Vampire Weekend's third album. While Modern Vampires Of The City in name only could allude to the idea of some metaphorical subjugation or transiting to such recurrent settings as a society built on steel and concrete, the music being offered here is anything but alluding to the contemporary. The irony, is that Vampire Weekend are conveying a scenery without prefixed time - at times gently nestled decades into the past, at others merely a few years previous. And it's the way the band are able so brilliantly to triangulate towards each differentiating era and moment in time, without necessarily bulling the context of such time to the heart of their songs, that gives the music its evident deep-rooted passion. But musically too, and thus what allows the imaginative voyage through (perhaps) New York's sanctum of existentialist burden to come through, is how the band's instrumentation makes sure to weigh itself equally between the settings being suggested (but not wholly confirmed) and the emotions being instinctively arranged throughout. There are less noisier and less extruded executions of guitar and drum playing on this record, but in their absence, the band find the perfect solution into giving their partially self-analytical, part surveyed stance on the World as merely something to exist within, a means for their listener to engage with on nearly the same level as they do. Much like the album cover, it plays out like the structure of any one person's analogy of their placement in the World. Beyond our striking identity, and inner sanctum for passion and subjection, is an outside built on the black-and-white of ideals and objectives - riddled with challenge and confusion as to where and how one could dare hope to exist within.
~Jordan

8.3

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