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Sunday, December 29, 2013

Albums of the Year - #2: Vampire Weekend - "Modern Vampires of the City"

Rating: 9.7/10

Before the May release of Modern Vampires of the City, Vampire Weekend were viewed by most as a simple, cutesy, indie pop band. A very good one, to be fair. But to many it seemed that Vampire Weekend were trapped in a bubble, that they had already said everything they had to say, and had nowhere else to go. Everyone knew what to expect from Vampire Weekend, or so they thought. In 2013, the Ivy-bred quartet surprised everybody with the magnificient, twinkling, dazzling Modern Vampires of the City. Some of the band's identifiable characteristics are still present; african-flavored beats, sprightly guitars, and frontman Ezra Koenig's spry vocals all stick around. But this new album is clearly a huge leap forward for the group. The lyrics are better than ever, a bounty of previously unused instruments are introduced, and new techniques a are presented. The most noticeable of these is the use of pitch shifting, employed liberally and masterfully on two of the record's biggest songs, "Diane Young" and "Ya Hey."

The new era is ushered in immediately, as just the first few seconds of the album indicating a shift in sound. "Obvious Bicycle" starts with Koenig singing from the first moment, over a stately piano piece and a ticking flutter of a beat. Koenig harmonizes beautifully with fellow vocalist/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist Rostam Batmanglij. The song is a gorgeous celebration of space, as the deliberate instrumentals ring out time after time. The old-timey piano outro only adds to the beauty of the track, which is one of the most chilling of the year. 

Vampire Weekend do return to older ideas on songs like "Unbelievers" and "Everlasting Arms," but it's a more developed version of their previous sound. Where Contra and the group's self-titled debut fail to resonate, the more conventional songs on Modern Vampires succeed. "Unbelievers" features organ, frenetic drums, and a more typical indie feel than some of the album's other tracks. But where previously Koenig would sing about a beach house, he analyzes the divisive nature of the world's religions. "Everlasting Arms" is an effervescent burst of bass, guitar, and drums, but the lyrics discuss love and the afterlife. Another entry to this group of old-style Vampire Weekend tracks is "Finger Back." The song holds its own thanks to a fidgety drum beat and Koenig's nimble vocals.

Still, the brightest moments on Modern Vampires of the City come as the band explore new territory. "Diane Young" tweaks the old formula, adding a heaping dose of oddity as the pitch-shifted vocals in the chorus take focus. The frantic, fractured song uses saxophone as a major component in the verse, as the refrain's vocals slide from deep rumble to a higher whisper, and back again. "Ya Hey" is a bouyant take driven by plucky bass and handclaps. Koenig sings apologetically, "America don't love you/So I could never love you." Pitch-shifting is used once again in the chorus, this time taking Koenig's voice into a chipmunk-like wail. The technique of pitch-shifting is one I hardly ever enjoy, but Vampire Weekend use it so shrewdly that you can't help but love it. 

Harpsichord plays a big role on the graceful "Step," as does an angelic choir and (surprise) more pitch-shifting. The slow jaunt of "Step" is a splendid one, making it a standout track on the album. "Worship You" is guided by a battle-ready snare pattern and agile guitar riff as Koenig essentially raps during the verses. The tongue-twister vocals are even more impressive once you find out what the lyrics actually are; imagine saying "Only in the way you want it/Only on the day you want it/Only with the understanding every single day you want it" as quickly as the frontman does here.

Perhaps the most stunning piece on Modern Vampires of the City is the raw, spacious "Hannah Hunt." In the early stages of the track, Koenig is left virtually alone to sing to his love. "You and I/We got our own sense of time," he asserts. At the eventual introduction of drums and the soaring piano part, Koenig briefly leaves his shell, pleading desperately instead of subtly.

The world wasn't expecting Modern Vampires of the City to be as amazing as it is. But upon release and in retrospection, critics and fans alike recognized the album's brilliance humbly, if the disc's placement atop or quite near the summit of numerous year-end lists is any evidence. Rolling Stone, Pitchfork, and NPR's listeners all named the album the best of the year, as it also picked up a Grammy nomination. It's the increasingly rare instant classic, one which will be listened to for years to come.

Key Tracks: "Obvious Bicycle," "Step," "Hannah Hunt," "Ya Hey"

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