Well, look at you, Vampire Weekend. Last time we saw you, you were only, what, two albums old? You’re big now, though – yes, you are.
But enough with the condescension; Vampire Weekend has received enough of that since the release of its self-titled debut in 2008 (and again with 2010’s Contra). The indie-rocking New York quartet could not shake its preppy, advantaged reputation – sweater-wearers listening to Afro-pop and arguing about Oxford commas well into the Cape Cod night. The members were something like the sons of Paul Simon: well taken care of and with a health coverage plan envied by Grizzly Bear.
Or something like that, right Ezra Koenig? “People tried to pretend we were rich idiots ripping off African music,” the front-man recently told the Guardian.
But now, onward for the band whose name sounds like a Twilight or True Blood convention. The new album finds songwriter Koenig in existential flux – “the gloves are off, the wisdom teeth are out,” he sings softly on the lofty, harpsichord-dappled Step, “what you on about?”
The melody of Step recalls David Bowie’s All the Young Dudes, a song about drags, snags and those who don’t wish to stay alive past 25. On Step, the theme is commitment and the long run: “I’m stronger now, I’m ready for the house.” Modern Vampires of the City, then, is Vampire Weekend’s bold big step – young dudes carrying the news.
The disc’s production is tight and Pro Tooled, with space often left unfilled. Rhythmically, the African moves are left behind. Unbelievers hustles like Buddy Holly and even includes a Celtic-inspired break. It’s an upbeat question on fate and faith.
Diane Young is a burst of surf-guitar ripples, hand claps and Holly-happy hiccups. Shape-shifting vocals take turns at a “Baby, baby, baby” chorus, and later there’s a line about the “luck of a Kennedy” that won’t be appreciated in Hyannis Port. Dying young, yeah, we get it.
Don’t Lie finds the band at its most retro-passionate. More harpsichord and business about headstones and lifetimes “right in front of you.” A balmy guitar outro is a nice touch, and the tones overall are never too heavy on this dynamite-sounding record. The drumming in particular is upfront and full of life.
Things close with the penultimate Hudson, a march-drummed avant-garde piece inspired by Leonard Cohen and French pop from the 1960s. It’s a piece about the 16th-century seaman Henry Hudson. A clock ticks, and that’s “a drag.”
Young Lion is an elegant, ethereal coda that takes its title from a chance encounter. Ezra was fretfully rushing to the recording studio when a stranger stopped him, smiled and said, “you take your time, young lion.”
Bowie has explained that All the Young Dudes was not a hymn to the youth, as it has been interpreted, but completely the opposite. As for Vampire Weekend, these are young lions on the clock. Much more to come from them.
MORE NEW RELEASES
- American Kid
- Patty Griffin
- New West
When the sunset-voiced songstress Patty Griffin toured with her paramour Robert Plant a few years ago, the unit was called the Band of Joy. And now, though her soothing new album was written during a time when her father was dying, there is a misty joy to the folky waltzes and rootsy recollections. Irish Boy is sung from the perspective of the father and written in the story-telling style of Loudon Wainwright III, whose last record was the contemplative Older Than My Old Man Now. Plant shows up three times here; his ongoing development as a he-she harmony singer – first noticed in 2007 with Alison Krauss – is something to hear. All in all, a touching record, with no frowning around. – Brad Wheeler
Patty Griffin plays Danforth Music Hall, Toronto, June 11; Vancouver’s Chan Centre, June 18.
- Silence Yourself
The debut album from the all-female London quartet Savages comes with a manifesto on the cover: “If the world would shut up, even for a while, perhaps we would start hearing the distant rhythm of an angry young tune.” You have our attention, Savages. Singer Jehnny Beth fronts this no-nonsense, monochromatic machine – her voice a sterner Geddy Lee and, on the lone piano number Marshal Dear, styled like Patti Smith.. This is ill-omened post-punk, marked by thick and rubbery bass lines, caustic tones and a manner as dainty as a drone strike. Comparisons might be made to certain torchbearers, but this a new gang of four. Plenty of strong art; they had me at Shut Up, the first track on this compulsory listen. – B.W.
- Lady Antebellum
- Capitol Nashville
To complain about Lady Antebellum being formulaic misses the point. Like most Nashville pop acts, they trade on predictability, proffering sounds and sentiments that soothe and reassure. They’re really good at it, too. The instrumental beds catch just the right balance between Fleetwood Mac and the Dixie Chicks, while the vocals emphasize the sweetness of smooth, high country harmony while switching lead enough that listeners of either gender can identify. And if the heartache feels more generic than genuine while the nostalgia seems derived from movies, the hooks are strong enough that any listener hoping for a three-minute respite from stress (or thought) probably won’t notice. – J.D. Considine
- Secondhand Rapture
- MS MR
Like a latter-day Eurythmics, MS MR combines a darkly charismatic female singer (New Yorker Lizzy Plapinger) with a studio-savvy, multi-instrumentalist male (producer Max Hershenow). She’s adept at slipping soulful inflections into otherwise pop-oriented melodies, while he’s aces at giving a lush, organic feel to thrumming, synth-driven instrumental tracks. Their best work has an unlikely grandeur, and not just because the arrangements sometimes verge on orchestral splendour. Plapinger, whose attitude could be summed up in the lyric: “Damned if I do and bored if I don’t,” wears romantic disappointment the way a fighter carries scars, an attitude that makes the best of these songs as refreshing as they are alluring. – J.C.
MS MR play Wrongbar in Toronto on May 22, and Il Motore in Montreal May 23.