At first it sounded like a novelty gag, maybe an arch slice of Christopher Guest satire: four polo-clad Columbia University stiffs playing Afropop (really: Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa) and warbling earnestly about grammar (no, really: Oxford Comma). Vampire Weekend couldn't be for real, right? Indie rock comes with a fair amount of elitism, but tribal songs about butlers?
Now we know: Singer-songwriter Ezra Koenig, who sounds like an older Holden Caulfield, and his three popped-collar NYC pals were serious about merging their experiences ("In December drinking horchata / I'd look psychotic in a balaclava") and their musical influences (Paul Simon's Graceland, particularly). More important, Vampire Weekend was seductively great at it. The band's 2008 self-titled debut was obnoxious but inclusive — snobbery you could dance to — and 2010's Contra took that grooving sound to stadium levels, including the sorta-hit Giving Up the Gun, which played like the Clash after a thorough chemical wash.
Third album Modern Vampires of the City, to be released Tuesday, is yet another stellar offering from VW. The band's percussive creativity remains peerless in modern pop; tribal rhythms, synth wriggles and funky xylophone stutters drive the consistently strange songs. There's just one little difference this time around: Vampire Weekend is ready to be loved by everyone.
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As a tie-in for Modern Vampires of the City, American Express is sponsoring a series of "real" video encounters with the band and actor-director Steve Buscemi, playing himself as a music-clueless buffoon mentoring the boys. It's funny stuff (all available on YouTube), and the merging of VW and AmEx makes sense. The band's listenership is growing up and, presumably, growing wealthier. Plus the guys are tired of being indie; it's time to ride a big hype wave, and AmEx has the juice to do that.
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It will also help the band's household potential that the new LP, for all the highbrow references and thoughtful touches, also indulges in broad strokes. Credit the band's secret weapon, producer and keyboardist Rostam Batmanglij, for keeping things fresh. Clocking in at 2 minutes, 41 seconds, first single Diane Young has a steroidal Buddy Holly feel with hard hand claps, surf guitar wipeouts and go-go thunder drums from skinman Chris Tomson. It's the quartet's most "fun" song yet, a frenzied slam dance for people who laugh at New Yorker cartoons.
If you're looking for Afropop, the anthemic track Everlasting Arms has a familiar vibe, but let it be known the band is in remodeling mode. Hannah Hunt is built not unlike a chilly piano-minded Coldplay ballad — that is, before its eruptive Springsteen-esque coda, a road-trip song about a man and a woman trying to flee their rigid East Coast roots, not unlike a certain band trying to surprise a few folks.
The band is feeling so confident it tries for a grand gesture every time out; it doesn't always work — the over-the-top Hudson with its creepy chorale coos especially. But for the most part, the band is a frenetic, on-target wonder. The Elvis Costello postpunk of Unbelievers ("Want a little warmth / But who's going to save a little warmth for me?") is either about atheism or simply being lost, and the postpunk winner finds Koenig contemplating universal notions, not just those affecting the Lacoste set.
Same goes with burbling cut Step, never mind those perplexing first lines: "Back back way back I used to front like Angkor Wat / Mechanicsburg, Anchorage and Dar es Salaam." It's the stuff that comes in the song's pulsing finale that counts, the former Ivy League brats realizing that all of us, rich and poor, face the same questions: "Wisdom's a gift, but you'd trade it for youth / Age is an honor, it's still not the truth." You don't have to subscribe to the Paris Review to understand that.
Sean Daly can be reached at [email protected] Follow @seandalypoplife on Twitter.