Welcome to Terrible Tuesdays, a new regular column at The Longfellow Bridge that focuses on Music, Movies, Books, and more that may have more critical acclaim than is justly deserved. We normally cover media that has been available for a while, but we’re making an exception for this brand new critically acclaimed album. Feel free to disagree with us in the comments below.
Paul Simon’s “Graceland” is a perfect example of a classic album drenched in controversy. Recorded in South Africa during a cultural boycott of the nation, the record rejuvenated Simon’s sagging career with songs that barely resembled anything Simon had written previously. His backing band for the bulk of the album consisted of virtuosic South African musicians he met upon arriving in the nation, and the album had a suspiciously native sound. There is a solid argument that Simon exploited the musicians without giving proper writing credits, and thus without providing earned royalties. This argument is bolstered by a accusations from Tex-Mex band Los Lobos that he did exactly this with them for another song (also solely credited to Simon) from the very same album. It’s beyond me as to why any artist would choose to emulate such an album, and more so, why any critic would appreciate such influence.
Enter Vampire Weekend. A group of frat kids from Columbia University, they released their debut album in 2008, somehow earning Spin’s “Album of the Year” honors for 2007. Their songs unabashedly aped Simon’s controversial album, and perhaps more offensively, the musicians from an impoverished country with which the overprivileged members of the band clearly had no common ties. Yet, in addition to Spin’s suspiciously unfair acclaim, the band received favorable (and completely inaccurate) comparisons to Talking Heads from the notoriously difficult-to-please Pitchfork as well as a declaration from crotchety (yet respected) reviewer Robert Christgau that they are “Just thoughtful fun.”
In case my opinion is obscured here, let me make it clear: I found Vampire Weekend’s self-titled debut and its followup “Contra” to be abhorrent. They both lacked a single ounce of originality, and the aspects that Christgau lazily deemed “thoughtful” were simply the result of a thesaurus and world atlas on singer Ezra Koenig’s desk. I cannot remember being quite so underwhelmed by a band hyped to this degree; even the XX had that one instrumental track that was all right. Given Pitchfork’s contrarian nature, whenever they are in agreement with the mainstream press I have a certain level of concern that perhaps promotional dollars and payola are a bit more responsible for the praise than merit.
This brings us to 2013 and the release of Vampire Weekend’s third effort, “Modern Vampires of the City”. The most notable elements to “Modern Vampires” are the increased use of loops, drum machines, and more overt synthesizers. Keyboardist Rostam Batmanglij has produced VW’s albums beginning with their first, and his touch is felt most strongly on “Modern Vampires”. Drums are overtly replaced with their electronic counterparts, synthesizers rule the day, and most tellingly, Batmanglij and Koenig ousted their bandmates from their typically shared songwriting credits. Batmanglij is also now the first and only member of the band to have a song credited to him entirely, and his credited instrument list dwarfs that of his bandmates in a way that seems silly. One has to wonder if perhaps Batmanglij’s ego is more audible than the ten roles he is credited for in the liner notes, particularly when they are gleefully listed next to bassist Chris Baio’s one role.
Momentarily forgetting internal band power grabs and the sonic changes, “Modern Vampires” remains distinctly Vampire Weekend. “Step” follows Koenig’s lyrical formula of referencing foreign locations now with the added trick of pairing them with domestic locations. In the first verse alone, Dar es Salaam is paired with Mechanicsburg and Anchorage after Koenig’s declaration that he “used to front like Angkor Wat”. Christgau compared such wit to “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”; I’ll compare it to the lyrical content of Bush.
While bouncy, South African guitar and bass are still present on “Modern Vampires”, they are diminished quite a bit in favor of electronics. I actually think that this is ultimately a good thing for the band; they still are very clearly big fans of “Graceland”, but at least they’re veering away ever so slightly. There were, in fairness, a handful of moments with which I did not completely disagree; occasionally, with their new aesthetic, VW can create the occasional groove that sounds like them and not Paul Simon. What ruins it time after time, however, is Koenig’s best Paul Simon imitation paired with his silly lyrics. “If Diane Young won’t change your mind/Baby, baby, baby, baby right on time” lacks the oomph to carry a decent musical idea to the next level.
“Modern Vampires” is clearly aimed at being Vampire Weekend’s “Artistic Departure” album, with the “Classic Return To Form” album sure to follow. While it’s not the band’s worst album (it’s likely their best), it is certainly not a praise-worthy album. If Vampire Weekend could once and for all shake the sound of “Graceland” they could probably put a legitimately good album together. In the meantime, we’ll have to be fine with mediocrity that critics love.