|Photo by: PrettyMuchAmazing.com|
Key Tracks: "Obvious Bicycle," "Unbelievers," "Young Lion"
So, in case you haven't heard, My Chemical Romance has not broken up, but merged with Vampire Weekend. Gerard Way has created a new blood-sucking persona for the band, as displayed by the cover and title. Finally, everyone's favorite group of post-modern ironists has latched onto a direction that will break them outside of the rich, educated college kid crowd.
...Seriously though, who else, at first glance, thought this looked like some Bram Stoker-influenced gothy concept album?
Vampire Weekend's self-titled debut shot out of the woodwork five years ago to fill the gaping hole in the indie scene for quirky, friendly, clever-but-not-taking-itself-too-seriously tunes for creative writing majors to play at parties. The band's followup Contra slowed down the tempos and expanded on a palette of influences, and was a bit harder to swallow, but was a welcome focusing of the band's writing abilities for this reviewer.
Three years later, with contemporaries like MGMT having radically changed their direction, Vampire Weekend wanted to try a similar feat. Could the band's third album, the ominously titled Modern Vampires of the City, successfully make the leap away from idiosyncratic, hyper indie-pop?
Well, not by releasing the worst song the band ever recorded as the lead single, it won't. "Diane Young" is an obnoxious mess, taking big-band music and pitch-shifted vocals and jamming them together for sheer novelty's sake. Before, the irreverent dabbling in other genres was cute. Now it just sounds like the band is failing an audition for The Lawrence Welk Show.
Thankfully, Modern Vampires of the City does not leave a taste as unsavory as that, despite the band's best efforts to make it appear so, but it is still a disappointing step back. While certainly not a bad album, indicating the band still deserves to be near the front of the indie pack, it displays the band sliding a little too far away from their lovable guilelessness into stodgy composition.
At its best, this album continues the calmer maturity of Contra, eschewing pure novelty and breaking through to pure musicality. The first two tracks "Obvious Bicycle" and "Unbelievers" sound like they're reaching toward something more than rock, incorporating beautiful vocal counterpoints, expansive atmospheres and patient buildups.
The closing "Young Lion" is also a highlight due to its classical piano line and sleepy vocals, sounding like the Beach Boys on a truckload of pot. Before, they satirized straightfaced attempts at composition with their tongues firmly in their cheeks, but now they seem to have tired of singing about Lil Jon and oxford commas.
Beyond those three, though, the gems have to be dug out from under a garden of weeds. The most obvious obstacle to this being Vampire Weekend's most fully realized album yet is the over-over-overproduction. This thing is just smothered with unnecessary effects and intrusive instrumental textures. The worst is the irritating high-pitched chorus vocals of "Ya Hey," making it seem like they let singer Ezra Koenig a little too close to the mixing board.
The closest analogy to this abrupt frenzy of arranging would probably be Bon Iver, who made a similarly radical shift from the spare For Emma, Forever Ago to the baroque pop of Bon Iver, Bon Iver. But while Justin Vernon's epiphany was mostly a success, due to his tight control of the effects, Vampire Weekend spill them all out on the table, letting them creep in where they shouldn't.
Aside from the production, the songs average about a four-minute runtime but still have the same quotient of ideas as the two-minute songs on their first two albums. This means that dull tracks like "Don't Lie" and "Everlasting Arms" drag on longer than a particularly excessive Animal Collective track.
All that said, there are other minor highlights that succeed in spite of the misguided ambition. "Finger Back" is the only track here that could have fit comfortably on their debut, a short singsongy energy blast showing that their 50-gallon drum of irony is not yet depleted. "Step" may be slow and draggy, but its cheery merry-go-round melody contrasts with its fever dream atmosphere to create a twisted Pee Wee's Playhouse theme song reject.
Modern Vampires of the City is the band's uncomfortable transition into adulthood after spending its first two albums in college binging and partying all night. It is an uneasy attempt to reconcile their sillier past with a more mature style of songwriting, and yields mixed results. But fear not, for this band's weekend of vampiric fun has not yet ended, despite the added seriousness. As the album cover shows, it's just hiding among the production haze.
Production overkill can't completely shadow the continuation of these vampires' gleeful bloodsucking.
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