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Vampire Weekend’s latest refines the band’s beauty with impressive grace

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Updated: May 13, 2013 6:39PM

If you find some love for these clowns/Turn around, turn around.

— Vampire Weekend, “Obvious Bicycle”

Vampire Weekend, “Modern Vampires of the City” (XL) ½

The backlash against Vampire Weekend always was bogus hipster class-war bull. Spin magazine shoulders some of the blame for declaring the band’s debut the best album of 2008 — in its March issue — but most of the kvetching I’ve ever heard about this well-heeled quartet has had more to do with the band members’ cardigans and deck shoes than their actual music.

It’s rockism’s inherent inferiority complex at its cattiest. None of that could possibly take flight anymore, especially now that the band’s third album refines the quartet’s built-in beauty with such impressive grace.

Backing away from the occasional clenched-fist eagerness of the lively debut and the spunky “Contra” (2010), Vampire Weekend on “Modern Vampires of the City” paces the streets of New York in a more ruminative state. “Obvious Bicycle” opens the album as a gauzy sunrise hymn, an easy melody with light loops, piano and tender pleas to “listen, listen.” It’s gorgeous.

“Unbelievers” shakes awake with a peppy Buddy Holly rhythm, probably the only track here that could work well as a single, and from there the album sways between the playful and the plaintive. “Diane Young” stabs at soul with a wink, with singer Ezra Koenig racing to keep up with the rhythm and honking horns while constantly twiddling the knobs on his vocal effects, making his ludicrous descending refrain (“Baby baby baby baby, right on time!”) even goofier. Finally, a postmodern “Knock on Wood”! Contrast that with another prayerful pause with a woman’s title, the slow and spare “Hannah Hunt,” about two expatriates struggling to trust each other, like a prequel to Joni Mitchell’s “Carey.”

Koenig’s quarter-life crisis shows through in numerous meditations on mortality (“There’s a headstone right in front of you and everyone you know,” etc.), but it never undermines the over-all lift of the music and its friendly mood. The songs are intricately plotted, deftly arranged (simple piano, harpsichord, distortion in all the right places) and always going for something a little more sophisticated than a ready pop confection. It’s a beautiful record.

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