Wednesday, May 22, 2013

album review: 'modern vampires of the city' by vampire weekend

Let's talk about hype.

Yeah, I know it's crass and populist and it's the sort of thing most established critics won't deign to discuss, but I think it's important to at least talk about, particularly considering we critics are often responsible for it. As much as trailers and news and media buzz will get seats in the theaters and records off the shelves, critical praise can be instrumental in moving product, particularly when it comes to the independent music scene, or acts that never achieved mainstream acceptance. 

For an example, I published my review of Now What?! by Deep Purple on April 29th, and I gave it a very positive review (because it deserves it, that album was awesome). And since then, I've noticed my review of that album has been linked on a couple music blogs and forums. And while I'm extremely grateful for those hits and those links, it also cast into sharp relief the fact that people will spread the opinions of critics they like, and thus the critic has a certain responsibility to manage expectations. And as a critic who has a reputation for analyzing material likely more than many consider it is worth, I can definitely understand why some cynical types would denigrate my reviews as contributing to the 'hype' machine, convincing the gullible that there is some greater meaning in the music. 

And while I consider that opinion disingenuous and a little insulting, I can't deny that critical opinions have weight in the popular context. Sure, you'll have your fair arsenal of skeptics who will want to be convinced and they'll ignore the critics, to say nothing of fans who'll buy everything certain acts put out regardless of substance, but people look to critics because they want to make intelligent purchasing decisions with regards to their entertainment. And that's one of the reasons the critic's voice does have some weight in popular culture - when they have access to the entertainment before most, they can contribute to the hype machine in both positive and negative ways. Positive hype can spin a lot of money for an act by convincing undecided buyers, while negative hype can be absolutely poisonous. And while larger properties are less likely to be shifted by hype, one way or another, a smaller act can be crushed by bad hype or elevated beyond their wildest dreams by critical praise.

And incidentally, this raises yet another problem I have with Pitchfork, namely because the site has had a publicized desire to push the indie and hip-hop culture landscape towards whatever might be deemed 'the next big thing' in the underground scene, and given that their album rankings have demonstrable power to increase sales, they have had some success in trying to define the sound of the indie and hip-hop scene. Take, for instance, the massive success of Channel ORANGE, an excellent album that would have likely been overlooked without the critical praise showered by every critic, including Pitchfork, and it's no surprise that the muted PBR&B sound that Frank Ocean created on that album has become prevalent in the modern R&B scene. 

But with that being the case, there's a very real problem that comes with hype generation, and that's the rationality behind the hype. Too often it feels like Pitchfork is seeking to jump on new trends not because they hold depth or interesting new sounds or because they represent provocative artistic direction, but because they're simply the next new thing. It's the consumerist desire to be trendy and 'in', and while this attitude has taken root in hipster culture, it has come at the loss of sincerity. Yeah, I really like Channel ORANGE, but I don't love it in the same way I love The Zac Brown Band's Uncaged or Ke$ha's Warrior (both I consider to be 'better' albums, by the way), and it gets more than a little irritating when it's held up as some great transcendent album. This was similar to one of the many issues I had with Kanye West's My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, and while I've warmed to it a bit more two and a half years later, I'm still very conscious of the fact that it didn't come close to earning the avalanche of critical praise it got. 

And look, I like liking things. I like being able to agree with the rest of the critics and saying that an album is as good or as bad as it really is. I like being able to say something is awesome and showing as many people as I can. But I like to explain why I like or dislike something, and I feel that too often the hype machine shuts down this critical discourse. And sure, most people won't care to justify why they like something, but the job of a critic is to explain why they think something works or doesn't work, and when they become part of the hype machine, the problem is exacerbated. 

And with all of that, let's talk about Vampire Weekend, one of the most hyped acts indie rock has seen in a long time.

Yeah, Vampire Weekend have been in my sights for a long, long time, mostly because they're one of the eponymous critically acclaimed indie pop rock acts to which everyone is supposed to listen. And with that in mind, I was prepared to be disappointed, like I was with the similarly hyped indie rock act The Dirty Projectors last year, particularly considering the buzz calling them this generation's Talking Heads, a comparison I think is only partially apt.

You should all note the fact that I used the word 'hyped' to describe my feelings towards Vampire Weekend instead of 'over-hyped' - because, surprise surprise, I actually kind of like Vampire Weekend. I'm not entirely willing to call them the next big thing in indie rock like some have done (I'll get to why in a minute), but I definitely think they're an interesting act with loads of potential. Unlike The Dirty Projectors, Vampire Weekend have a much more solid grasp on rhythm and melody and have a tendency to write solid songs rather than experimental instrumental gymnastics. But unfortunately like The Dirty Projectors, the main vocalist Ezra Koenig doesn't have the greatest voice and occasionally makes me wince with irritation at some patches (although the production does an admirable job of cleaning it up). And in this manner, the comparison with the Talking Heads seems apt.

But here's the problem that immediately smashes the Talking Heads comparison to dust, and that's the lyrics and subject matter. Having relistened to Remain In Light a few weeks ago, I got a chance to experience again everything that made the Talking Heads interesting lyricists: they were loose, free-flowing, borderline-hippies but with the sharp intellect to make their material both cutting and effortless. They co-opted African rhythms and backbeats and then supplemented them with free verse musings about life and humanity and spirituality, and the tone fit extraordinarily well with the vocal delivery

Vampire Weekend, on the other hand, are much more precise and calculated when it comes to both their delivery and their lyrical construction, and while it works better than it should with their weird blend of indie rock and African rhythms, some of the impact feels blunted. The best Vampire Weekend songs come when they supplement their songs with additional strings and orchestral segments, adding a layer of opulence to the tracks that lends them a certain power.

That opulence also backs the lyrical content, and this is where I tend to have my biggest issues with Vampire Weekend: their albums tend to be myopically focused on first world problems, with a weird defensiveness behind that focus. To put things more simply, Vampire Weekend are a group of rich white boys who make music talking about rich white boy problems, attempting to do so within the context of the counter-culture inspired rhythms of the past mixed with current indie rock. A lot of their music has to do with 'privilege', and their assumed 'guilt' with having that privilege, and while they've always attempted to frame the debate as affable disagreements, it really starts to become noticeable that they're much more interested in defending and celebrating their rich white boy lifestyle than engaging in any sort of a discussion.

And you know, as a somewhat privileged white boy, I can kind of understand their frustration and can (sort of) identify with some of the themes in their music (more on their first album than their sophomore effort Contra, which wasn't nearly as consistent). That said, it's hard not to look at the albums as a defense of this privilege and of being able to make music as rich white boys and be successful at it, and considering how calculated their delivery is, that does rub me the wrong way. And yeah, it definitely is problematic when they use music that ideologically tended to represent the underdog (indie rock and the African rhythms most predominant in the counter-cultural scene of the 60s and 70s) and appropriate it for defenses of their lifestyles. 

But even with all of that, Vampire Weekend typically write very literate, very articulate songs about these themes (more on their first album than their second, again), and I'd almost be willing to overlook these uncomfortable issues, except for one problem: the delivery. On the best of their material, it's whimsical and light and energetic and can occasionally have hints of nuance into their small bubble of a world, but on the worst, the defensive, calculating songwriting makes too many excuses for privilege and its abuse, particularly on Contra. The nadir of that album is 'Diplomat's Son', an overlong exploration into a one night stand with a callous jerk embodying the song's title, and at far too many points it feels like the song is defending the son's terrible behaviour and choices. In comparison to Frank Ocean's 'Super Rich Kids', nothing from either of their first two albums comes close to nuance or a good discussion or even a greater understanding of the emotions that come with acknowledging that privilege. 

So what about their third album, Modern Vampires of The City? Does it halt the stumbling of Contra, or does it manage to dig the hole that much deeper?

Well, after several listens, I'm happy to say that Modern Vampires of the City is actually a pretty damn great album, easily in line for me as one of the best albums of the year so far.  And while it doesn't quite eradicate all of my problems with the band, it takes several steps in the right direction by innovating both sonically and lyrically, to the point where I caught myself enjoying the album more than I expected. 

Now, granted, every critic on the planet has said this already, and you don't come to a critic like me to reaffirm the status quo. But I can't help but admit that Vampire Weekend took the things that I liked about their previous albums and polished them to a mirror shine. The instrumentation is clattery and catchy in the traditional indie-rock sense, but it also knows the right spots to take a step back and let the track breathe and evolve, almost always to the songs' benefit. And while I'll never like Ezra Koenig's voice, I can acknowledge he doesn't embarrass himself here and throws himself into the tracks with an aplomb and energy that Contra lacked. 

And yeah, there are some incredibly solid tunes here, balancing very literate and articulate songwriting with the indie rock stylings they've nearly perfected. If I were to find an issue here, it's that the instrumentation and vocals have a bit of a 'clipped' quality to them - they're very sharp and precise and there's a lot of enunciation (where the lack of clear vocals was one of the issues I had with Contra). And even with that, the album flows surprisingly well - maybe without as much classical instrumentation as I would have liked, but still very solid.

But now let's talk about the lyrical content, which is arguably the most thought-provoking element of this album. It's also the area that reveals the greatest strengths and greatest weaknesses of Vampire Weekend, and while I'll definitely agree they succeed more than they fail here, there are spots that could maybe could have used a bit of work. 

The album, for a nice change of pace, is exactly what its title is about: young people living in the city, and indeed it feels very much like an album that would play in any Brooklyn studio apartment populated by people my age, which aids in the immersion. The element of defensive privilege is still there and causes some annoyance, but here it's more muted behind the subject matter, which is a good change of pace. It also helps that Vampire Weekend actually has something to say on this album, as they discuss many of the issues that really do impact my generation. Between the almost happy embrace of agnoticism/atheism in contrast to parental figures ('Unbelievers'), trying to keep up an illusion of maturity that doesn't hold up ('Don't Lie', 'Hannah Hunt'), appreciating your parents' love while rejecting their flawed values ('Everlasting Arms'), finding love across meaningless cultural barriers ('Finger Back'), existential emptiness against the failures of the past and finding hope ('Worship You'), and even the fleeting nature of youth ('Hudson'), Vampire Weekend finally have something to say about the youth of America that feels both accurate, poignant, and relevant. And I was actually more than a little surprised how many of the songs just clicked.

Now granted, they aren't all success stories. The song that's been most widely praised by music publications is 'Step', mostly because of a fun bit of symbolism where the 'girl' of the song really represents music. And while I will admit there are some clever metaphors and fun bits of that song, it doesn't quite click for me because there's still that defensiveness that is rife through Vampire Weekend's material. It's a song that attempts to call out the people who criticized previous Vampire Weekend material and its 'hipster cred', trying to expose their hypocrisy. But here's the thing: I can respect Vampire Weekend's hipster cred while still finding very real problems with the songs and their underlying message. And for as good as 'Step' is (and it is good), it still doesn't quite manage to say much more than be an affirmation of Vampire Weekend's indie credentials - which kind of runs a little contrary to the theme of the album, and the general fact that since indie music has been embraced by the mainstream, very few people care all that much about indie cred in the same way.

But putting that aside, there are still points Vampire Weekend's typical arrogance resurfaces in ways that aren't all that attractive. 'Ya Hey' is the biggest example of this, because while 'Unbelievers' had a fun lightness of tone that made its rejection of religion feel relatable, 'Ya Hey' is more condescending and abrasive, a song directed at God and his seeming powerlessness in the face of the changing world. It's a song for those who could buy into Kevin Spacey's 'I hate you, God' speech in House of Cards - but unlike that speech, there's no subtext in Koenig's delivery, and the cluttered production doesn't help matters or move me to like the song all that much. I even have a hard time considering it all that angry, instead just feeling dismissive, just another smug atheist screed.

And here's where my two problems with this album come in. Firstly is the underlying message of the album - mostly because I don't think there is one, and while that might be part of the point, it's more than a little problematic here. Modern Vampires of the City does have a lot to say, a lot of text regarding this generation and the problems/issues that we face - but it's just text, not subtext. It's all great on the surface, but I can't help but feel it's just on the surface. Sure, there's artifice in the songs' construction that I can admire, but most of that is just window dressing around several straightforward elements, and the songs have little to say around those elements other than vague platitudes. And without that underlying subtext, the emotional undercurrent of the album feels lightweight and lacking.

This links directly to my second problem with the album, and it's tied to the 'clipped' description I levelled above. Not a criticism, mind, but I definitely think it contributed to my enjoyment of the album, and not exactly in a good way. I'll admit that part of it will come down to Koenig's delivery, which always feels a little detached to me, but the lack of flow and rather staccato nature of the tracks, the album didn't really land an emotional connection with me. 

But the more I think about it, that might actually be part of the point Vampire Weekend are trying to create about today's young people. Detached, self-interested, somewhat myopic and not examining the bigger picture (or even having much of a bigger picture), those are all qualities I would say this album has - and so does this generation. It's a mirror reflecting both the best and worst of the target audience and of the band itself, and it's a pretty damn great one all things considered. And indeed, that's likely the point.

But with that in mind, I can't help but feel that Vampire Weekend loses some of the impact in their album. Sure, it's all very relevant and fitting now, but I can't help but feel that even with the pop culture references and age separation, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds' Push The Sky Away says a lot more about our generation's existential angst and feels a lot more weighty and timeless than Modern Vampires of the City. In the simple production of a mirror to our current generation, Vampire Weekend lost the opportunity to say something about our generation or provide some deeper resonant meaning. And unless their point is that our generation doesn't have any resonant meaning (a nihilistic interpretation that doesn't match the tone of the album at all, so I think it can be discarded), I can't help but feel it undercuts the album slightly.

All of that said, I can still recommend Modern Vampires of the City by Vampire Weekend. It's a great album of catchy songs that do occasionally flirt with some interesting ideas, even if it does feel like those ideas are just on the surface. It does, however, feel like a step in the right direction, and I'm looking forward to more from the band. 

And while I can't help but feel a little insulted by the association of 'young people' with 'vampires', I can taste the sweet irony in thinking that in the minds of some of the generation that came before, it's a comparison that's all too accurate.

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