Monday, May 6, 2019

album review: 'father of the bride' by vampire weekend

You know, when I first started my channel, I just managed to skirt most of the messy conversation around Vampire Weekend - so who wants to have fun examining decade-old wounds and talk about cultural appropriation?

See, that's the loaded thing about Vampire Weekend - I know just by mentioning that band and the term 'cultural appropriation' I've triggered flashbacks for anyone who was involved in the indie blogosphere of the time, but the conversation has always been more complicated, especially since their debut. Because yes, like Paul Simon before them and tUnE-yArDs after them, they borrowed from African rhythms for a jaunty, generally likable, and very marketable brand of literate but safe indie rock that won a lot of predominantly white liberal critics over, but did leave a few of the more progressive ones questioning how much they should really praise them, especially given how the band always got wary and weirdly defensive whenever that topic got brought up, both on and off record. What I always find amusing is that so many critics turned themselves inside out trying to justify their fondness for this band despite the cultural appropriation conversation - which for the record I think is a valid accusation, especially given the band isn't really taking steps to uplift the originators of those sounds or even deliver them with much texture or context of their roots - and they skipped the band's over-educated deflective ego and awkward voyeuristic streak around women, especially on Contra, a pass that a few insightful critics made sure to highlight how a less privileged or well-connected band probably wouldn't have escaped so easily. And if you don't believe that, I just need to point to how Kyle Craft was treated by certain critics last year - and that's where the text was on his side!

And thus it should come as some surprise to everyone I just pissed off that their third album Modern Vampires Of The City - which I hold to be their best - wound up on my year-end list in 2013, so how can anyone justify that? Well, a lot of that comes down to really good compositional instincts and the band finally picking up some momentum along with jettisoning the antiseptic African flourishes that I never bought in the first place, but it brought at least a few more traces of self-awareness to bear, even if upon reflection that album does still have a few too many sour notes. And since then... honestly, I had no idea where Father Of The Bride would go - Rostam Batmanglij is long gone, members of the band have been writing behind the scenes for other acts for years, and it has been six years since the last Vampire Weekend album. So without hearing any of the singles - and stepping into a very different hype environment for any indie pop or rock act - what did we find on Father Of The Bride?

So let me start by saying that while I could continue the tangled, blurry provocation I started this review with and just piss of everyone, it's really conversation that's more interesting that the Vampire Weekend album that we wound up getting. And that's what's really exasperating about this thing: nothing about Father Of The Bride surprises or even engages me as deeply as I'd like one way or the other. I can't dislike it because it's well-composed and generally catchy and the writing does reflect some wit between the lines... but it's also flabby, antiseptic, and utterly underwhelming and unchallenging across the board, missing the texture of their earliest work and all of the tension that drove Modern Vampires Of The City. And to be blunt, if I'm going to listen to indie rock or even softer folk rock like what I've gotten from SUNDAYS earlier this year or even Niall Horan from two years ago, I'd hope there'd be a little more meat than this.

But let's start by dealing with the meat that we do get, shall we, and I think one of the reasons my distaste comes through as strongly as it does starts with Ezra Koenig himself. Full disclosure, I've never really dug his delivery or vocal timbre, which is just willowy enough to sound sensitive and yearning but weirdly detached all the same and not bringing much in the way of texture or soul or passion. And that sort of delivery can work when you have overwritten lyrics or enough in the way of dry wit to lend some bite... but Father Of The Bride jettisons most of this in favour of writing that's more streamlined but open-ended, which has allowed him and the band to evade any deeper questions that around the material. And indeed, that attitude slides into many of these songs as well and I'll profess does allow for some good framing, particularly on the duets with Danielle Haim who plays frustrated, burned-out exasperation beneath a veneer of calm way more effectively. Take a song like 'Married In A Gold Rush', where the connection was forged in good times and they have to disavow easy comfort if they're going to go forward with any real connection, and the mistrustful give-and-take is a reason why the song works...

But it also highlights the same sort of blinded hubris that's been lying beneath Vampire Weekend's writing for over a decade and has always prevented me from liking this band nearly as much as I'd like. I'll admit I'm going out on a limb, but here it goes: especially on this album but really across most of their career, Vampire Weekend is a band that's just comfortable enough to be self-deprecating and self-aware about their identity, but will never actually engage in dramatic framing or themes to challenge that comfort or the systems that perpetuate it, which is why so much of their material can feel emotionally inert to me. Let's take a modest example, 'This Life', where both partners hit the abrupt realization they've been cheating on each other, but the tension of the song comes from the surprise of only finding out now and thinking they had more time to hold it together - you'd think that something would come of, I don't know, them cheating on each other, but it's dismissed as just a factor of this life, which kind of kills the emotional stakes of the song... which might be the reason the entire song sounds like a jaunty interpolation of 'Brown Eyed Girl'. Or take 'My Mistake', which goes for a more bleak, fractured piano ballad with traces of a drippy beat, horns, and strings around it, at least until the guitar kicks in... but his 'mistake' in the song was trusting that anyone was going to be kind, adding a thematic state of depressive nihilism that I've never found all that compelling, mostly because it's a cheap deflection from really engaging with the underlying emotions. But that quasi-existentialist, haphazard engagement is all over this album to deflect from going deeper, so much so you could argue all the willful deflection might have been part of the point - 'Flower Moon' is one of those songs where the sea change is acknowledged, but it all came too soon, and a similar bit of structural instability creeps into 'Bambina' - but that would also imply that the band would be willing to truly plug the gaps or fix something beyond wringing their hands and saying 'well, that's just how it is'. 

But when you pair that sort of fatalism with jaunty, low-stakes tones cribbed from early-to-mid 70s AM soft rock - coupled with the occasional splash of autotune and programmed drumwork, it neuters any sense of genuine dread or emotionality, especially when we talk about songs like 'Harmony Hall'. Yeah, it's probably got one of the best hooks on the album, and it then subverts it by getting dark and talking about the snakes of noxious and anti-Semitic ideas invading 'the discourse'... but let's not act like systems like that are built to sustain old toxic ideologies, some of which Vampire Weekend have absolutely benefited from, and it's not like this album is targeted to chop the heads off those snakes either. And that leaves songs like 'Jerusalem, New York, Berlin', which actively references Judaism's place in the modern world and seems to imply some form of sympathy with the Palestinians in the third verse so long as Antisemitism isn't rekindled... which when juxtaposed with 'Sympathy' and its wonky framing of Judeo-Christian alliances against Islam creates a political dimension where open-ended fatalism doesn't really mesh with real complexity. It certainly doesn't mesh when you add in 'Unbearably White', a song that from the title is clearly is trying to be tongue-and-cheek about the common jibe against Vampire Weekend's music, and yet instead wallows in the same sort of relationship-in-times-of-crises/existentialist breakdown that's really not a breakdown that doesn't realize framing all of this on a ski resort betrays the privilege they're trying to sidestep. And 'Rich Man' right after it with its brand of self-pity is very similar, a retort that tries to highlight how consumption can render you just as poor and no one person deserves scorn... but again, it utterly ignores the systemic factors because challenging those could actually drive real drama, and if you're going to be self-aware, not actually highlighting your advantages and privilege can seem at best myopic as all hell. Honestly, they may have been better off just sticking with the 'relationships on the verge of collapse in the passage of time, they have the deepest emotional stakes' - at least until you realize the Mountain Goats already took similar ideas into much greater detail with the Alphas...

But then we get to the production, and it seems like more of the bounce and trace elements of grit that I liked about Modern Vampires Of The City are out the window in favour of a weird zaniness in the choice of tones and blending that seems to miss at least as often as it hits. Why is there pedal steel on this album at all? Why on the first song does the gospel hook sound like it's dropped in with an audible thud and remind me way more than it should of alt-j? Why is there Autotune dropped onto the closing hook of 'Bambina' when it doesn't match with anything? Who told them that drowned attempt at a watery guitar tone on 'Big Blue' sounded remotely good opposite the more elegant swells of vocals, or that tinny lo-fi sample on 'Rich Man' worked with the strings? Why did nobody laugh in their faces when they claimed 'Sympathy' was the most 'metal' Vampire Weekend song when it's primarily acoustic and split with a bridge where vocal fragments are chopped again a child choir and handclap - even if it's a 'Sympathy For The Devil' callback, more dense drumwork does not make it metal! Who told them it was a good idea to follow it with expanded arpeggios on 'Sunflower' that sound like a 60s leftover tilting over the cusp into 'hippie bullshit', especially with that vocal line? Why do the drums on 'We Belong Together' sound like overcompressed ass? Why does 'Stranger' grab the cadence of 'Ooh Child' by The Five Stairsteps - and that's one of the decisions I like! And why does all of the album lack any sort of driving texture or organic punch or even much depth - many of the instruments sound like they were tracked off an iPhone for the seediest possible tone, which adds to the weird sense of plasticity that only further mutes the impact. Again, Vampire Weekend can write catchy hooks and melodies, and I'd struggle to say any of these choices are outright bad, but it does lead to a cloying sense of faux innocence that doesn't match the content and can get impressively grating across a double album.

So here's the funny thing: I've inevitably gone on for entirely too long about this album, but the irony is that it really doesn't spur much emotion in me at all - yeah, Father Of The Bride provokes a reaction and content, but when you drill deeper into its lack of real conclusions beyond 'well, the world is complex, what can you do', it feels increasingly bereft and hollow. It's funny, I feel if I'm looking for this sort of willowy tone and broader language I'd hope for some greater sweep and richness of tone like what SUNDAYS delivered with Wiaca - one of the best and most underappreciated albums of 2019 thus far - but what Vampire Weekend delivered is another step to the gentrification of indie rock that'll surely wind up in commercials galore, and their bemused defensiveness doesn't excuse it. And I've seen defenses of its stabs at domestic bliss feeling like a 'middle aged' project, and I kind of have to call bullshit - there's nothing mature about aimless fatalism in a zero-stakes quarter life crisis that doesn't have the stones to really engage with the problems that they reference to seem relevant but refuse to challenge, more like the cheap, sedate exit strategy from those who have the privilege to pump out kids and dip away to a home they own at any time. So yeah, light 6/10, absolutely a downgrade in quality since Modern Vampires, and while I'm not sure it's worse than Contra, it's one that gives me less incentive than ever to revisit. Give it a listen if you're curious, but I'll stick with the mature adulthood colored by Lori McKenna and Phonte, and Pulp's 'Common People' remains just as righteous of a retort.

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