Counterbalance: Vampire Weekend’s ‘Modern Vampires of the City’

Keep that list of who to thank in mind, and don’t forget the rich ones that are kind. A critically acclaimed 2013 LP from New York indie rockers is this week’s Counterbalance.
Vampire Weekend
Modern Vampires of the City

Note: For those of you keeping score at home, Counterbalance has stepped away from the most acclaimed albums of all time and is instead examining the role of critical acclaim more broadly, using a wide range of albums as examples. Do not be alarmed.

Mendelsohn: The last couple of years have been fun and educational, Klinger. We spent over four years digging through the Great List — we made it through 160-some entries and now we are going to switch it up for a while with our own picks. Freed from the shackles of the Great List, I didn’t really know what to do so I returned to my new music addiction. Truth is, I’ve been away too long. I have no idea what’s hot but I wanted something I new. So I just went to AcclaimedMusic.net, home of the Great List, and checked out the Best Of list for 2013. I recognized some names, found some new things, and saw a couple of albums I had already picked up this year (I still snuck in a new record or two, even if I was supposed to be faithful to the Great List).

The number two album of 2013 was Vampire Weekend’s Modern Vampires of the City. I picked Vampire Weekend because I was a fan of their debut, which, as it just so happens, we discussed a long, long time ago. As I recall, we spent a lot of time talking about the Oxford comma and grousing about the overtly preppiness of the record. The whole Ivy League campus, East Coast, boat shoe feeling has receded as Vampire Weekend seems to have matured into a rock band worthy of their critical and commercial acclaim (Modern Vampires of the City marks Vampire Weekend’s second straight album to go to number one).

I am thoroughly impressed by this record, Klinger. From start to finish, it is one of the best albums I’ve heard in a very long time. Vampire Weekend’s penchant for indie rock’s jangly guitar and the world beat of international influence have been fleshed out to include some electronica, a bit of balladry, and well executed songcraft that results in a supremely enjoyable listening experience. I’m not alone in this opinion, Klinger. This record isn’t the second ranked record of 2013 for no reason. That being said, the only opinion I’m ever interested in is yours. Did Vampire Weekend make good on its blog buzz band potential?

Klinger: Uh, sure. Why not? Is blog buzz band still a thing? I don’t even know anymore. I feel like I’ve been asleep for three-plus years, dreaming of Jimi Hendrix records and I’ve woken up to a world I never made and no longer recognize. So yeah, Vampire Weekend, they’re still making their signature blend of Paul-Simon-meets-Whit-Stillman pop, huh? I remember that first album, but it seems so long ago to me now. But this is interesting that a group who’s been around for half a decade is still capturing the public and critical imagination. I was under the impression that people’s attention spans were getting shorter these days.

Mendelsohn: I don’t think that is necessarily true. The music industry works a little differently today — anyone can participate thanks to the elimination of the traditional gatekeepers meaning the stops between the creators and the listeners is greatly receded. Vampire Weekend took full advantage of this, which helped break their debut record to a mass audience long before they had a record deal. On the flip side, there is a high rate of turnover, as many artists fail to gain traction on the slippery slope of the brave new music world. The only real way to stay relevant is to release good music — a constant throughout the history of popular music and exemplified by the Great List. Sure, tastes change and maybe they change a little quicker now as opposed to 40 years ago, but that in itself is nothing new. One day Elvis was king, the next day he was dethroned by a couple of mop-topped ditty boppers from Liverpool.

Klinger: Fair enough. Maybe I shouldn’t just believe everything I read in Time magazine thinkpieces. Now let’s go ahead and take a bold giant step into the present. Modern Vampires of the City is a very clever record indeed. Everything about this record, from the lyrics to the production to the little flourishes (like the way lead singer Ezra Koenig’s voice is autotuned all over the place on “Diane Young”) practically announces the group as practitioners of well-crafted, college-educated pop music. And while I appreciate it, and actually even like it overall, I have a hard time being especially caught up in it. To me (and I recognize that critics from the New York Times to our own august publication might disagree) there’s a sense that this is the aural equivalent of those little radish rosettes: Difficult to make, fun to look at, but you’re probably not going to eat very many of them. But that’s me. I’m a grouchy old man and I just woke up. Sell me further, Mendelsohn.

Mendelsohn: Those little radish roses are the first things I eat. Dump a little salt on that and I’m in radish heaven. I like radishes, so if someone is going to take the time to carve it into a rose, I’m going to eat it. I also like Paul Simon and college-educated pop music, so if Vampire Weekend is going to make it, I might as well listen to it. I think the big difference between this record and the first two is the band’s willingness to flesh out their music within the pop constructs of other genres, not just the indie rock of their roots. In this way, they are very much like a modern Paul Simon, which might make Modern Vampires of the City their Graceland, and by extension “Everlasting Arms” might end up being their “You Can Call Me Al”, complete with the undeniable bass line.

Ezra Koenig, Vampire Weekend’s lead singer, guitarist and principal songwriter, has also come into his own as a lyricist, spinning his own odd tales of relationship woes, love and loss, and the complexities of life and its eventual end. As dark as the album can be in some places, this record is fueled by an unstoppable beat and a quirky sense of humor.

Klinger: Maybe that’s where the disconnect lies for me. Because the music remains so unerringly fresh and clean, whatever darkness you find in the lyrics comes across as reinforcing a sense that this is all a bit facile. (Also the presence of Angel Deradoorian from Dirty Projectors on here reminds me that there’s a group that melds the darkness with the light so perfectly.) And maybe that will change as I spend more time settling in with this album—and I’m not opposed to doing that, despite whatever crankiness I seem to be conveying.

I’m also struck by how these younger musicians have a very different sense of nostalgia than I do. I understand the interest in Paul Simon, but Graceland is the music of my early college years as opposed to the sounds I first toddled about to (not a judgment, youngbloods, just a fact). But when I hear a song like “Diane Young” and think to myself, “This sounds like Kenny Loggins”, I have to realize that there’s a generation out there that says that too, but they mean in a very different way.

Mendelsohn: That’s completely understandable. I imagine that a good many people probably felt the same way about Paul Simon. He was chronicling his life and times as a baby boomer much the same way Koenig chronicles the life and times of a millennial. There will always be a generation gap in both language and meaning, be it large or small, that pushes the music and the understanding of the music forward. The question is, will this record be able to overcome the generational gap to transcend time and place in order to earn a spot on the Great List? Does it speak a universal language in the way the Graceland did? Or The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust? Or even Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band?

Klinger: Does anything? I’m not sure that’s even possible in the same way, given that those three albums were both critically acclaimed and major-selling albums that entered our collective consciousness. Of course, that’s a question we have had to ask a lot as we came across 21st century albums during our time with the Great List, whether it was Arcade Fire or Animal Collective or Frank Ocean. Sure, albums might sustain their critical cachet, but entering the zeitgeist seems like a tall order, even for a group like Vampire Weekend, who’s won Grammys (Alternative Music Grammys, but still) and even managed to chart.

As I’m listening to the album more intently, I’m beginning to think that the production and arrangement is really an essential part of the recording, and I’m wondering if not enough attention has been paid to the other members of the band, Chris Baio, Chris Thompson, and especially Rostam Batmanglij, who seems like the one who’s bringing the vision to fruition here (and whose name is really fun to type).

Mendelsohn: Probably not. As with most bands, it is the lead singer who takes on the identity of the band and becomes the de facto face of the group in the eyes of the public. But it was Batmanglij who produced the first two records, essentially guiding the group’s sound. On MVOTC, Batmanglij co-produced with Ariel Rechtshaid, which may account for the wider vision and deeper pop flourishes on the record, as Rechtshaid, who has quietly built an impressive portfolio over the last decade, added a new element the band needed to elevate their music.

As we’ve seen time and time again on our travels through the Great List, it is those bands that are willing to explore, synthesize, and reimagine the music who typically succeed. Even as the music industry changes and attention spans shorter, Vampire Weekend has pushed themselves and their audience to demand more from the music. I think it’s a good sign, especially if they can build on the success, and sounds, of Modern Vampires of the City, an album that should make its way into the top 200 of the Great List.

Klinger: A bold claim, my friend. Care to make this interesting? If Modern Vampires of the City is in the Top 200 when the Great List is next revised, I’ll buy you a draft beer of your choice. If not we can go double or nothing until you owe me more beer than I can possibly drink. Deal?

Mendelsohn: Deal.