Friday, March 14, 2014

Album Review - Vampire Weekend

Vampire Weekend
Modern Vampires of the City
XL Recordings (2013)

Artistically significant charm is a tough musical bogey. On their third LP, Modern Vampires of the City, New York based indie sensations Vampire Weekend deliver deceptively dense, diverse, yet accessible pop that delights. It's the kind of album that connects with music snobs, English scholars, and teenagers alike; dance music for the contemplative. It's a bold musical vision, fully realized.

The songs bear little relationship to each other, but they nonetheless feel like parts of a cohesive piece. The vibe is intelligent pop, with the sophisticated poetry of Columbia educated lead singer and lyricist Ezra Koenig feeding a philosophical mood. (If Koenig was more focused on sex than philosophy, it would be easy to hear screaming girls in your head.) This from the album opener and mellow morning drive mood music, "Obvious Bicycle":
So keep that list of who to thank in mind.
And don't forget the rich ones who were kind.
Oh you ought to spare your face the razor,
Because no one's gonna spare their time for you.
Why don't you spare their world a traitor,
Take your wager back and leave before you lose. 
The morning of "Bicycle" quickly becomes night, and the dance party begins. If Jim James nailed his own version of Graceland, with a twist of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, this would be the near result. Koenig has a background in African music, and it permeates much of the record, especially the superb "Everlasting Arms." His vocal chops match his lyrical prowess. Like James, he knows how to measure his vocal effort, alternately rocking you to sleep or bringing down the house, as the context requires.

As one would expect from Ivy League musicians, inspirations are diverse. "Arms" opens with orchestration before launching us to the African savannah. The album even brings Irish hyper folk into the mix (the Riverdance ready "Worship You"). "Don't Lie" lays gospel organ over a marching band drum roll. 

Intelligent and versatile, VW can weld campfire folk into soaring electronica without sounding contrived. Album highlight "Hannah Hunt" pulls the listener quickly through an initial burst of synthesized chaos into crackling love song serenity...
Our days were long our nights no longer,
Count the seconds, watching hours.
Though we live on the US dollar,
You and me, we got our own sense of time. 
Once a trance is obtained, the listener is ripped momentarily out of it with percussive shots of out-of-nowhere piano and renewed electronic noise. Then, a peaceful drumroll leads immediately back to ... serenity. The song is a model of lyrical quality and restrained texture, delivered in a taught sub 4 minute package. "Hunt" is emblematic of the album's quirky, taut genius. 

As a body of work, Modern Vampires is a bold experiment in intelligent pop, beautifully executed both musically and lyrically. I can't get enough of it. Casual fun should always be this serious; deep art this charming.


Saturday, March 1, 2014

SOTW - March 1, 2014 - "Try Not to Look So Pretty"

Dwight Yoakam is the Genuine Article; a Music Lover's musician. Yoakam is a lineal descendant of the badass masters of the Bakersfield style (stylistically if not geographically). Unlike so many in his genre, he writes his own songs. It's hard to imagine him holding an instrument on stage unless he planned to play it, and well. Looking at him, you get the feeling that cowboy boots are less a stage prop than an integral part of his being.

Despite growing up on the Georgia Coastal Plain, I've never been a Country kind of guy. Modern Country in the Garth Brooks vein, while accessible, always felt too engineered. Like Rock, Country diverged from its roots, but I never felt it did so with the same success. Still, I could never help but be intrigued by Dwight Yoakam. His piercing tenor demands attention; it's the kind of voice that focuses the mind of the listener no matter his genre preference. While knowing little about Dwight, I've always had the feeling that, if his name came up in a room full of serious, Old School Country Fans that cut their teeth on Waylon Jennings and Merle Haggard, you'd see nods of approval and hear things like, "Hell yeah, Dwight's the real deal."

On Sunday nights during high school, mostly out of sheer boredom, Zackary Wade and I would often go and ride for miles and miles. It's the way young and restless minds fill time in Wide Open Spaces. I well remember floating up I-75 in a crystal blue '91 Buick Reatta with Zackary, skipping around Dwight's modern classic, This Time. Zackary had an infuriating (for me) propensity to skip around to singalong choruses (his cassette copy of the Allman Brothers Decade of Hits had jagged edges before and after the long solo in "Blue Sky"), and the advent of the CD fed the habit. But, your Song of the Week for March 1, 2014 was one that Zackary never had any problem sitting through (the mark of true musical greatness). While "Try Not to Look so Pretty" would barely get you half way from Vienna to Unadilla on a northbound trip up 75, it left an enduring imprint on my young mind.

A song of heartbreak should not be so lovely. Void of pretense and resorting to only pragmatic metaphorical device (no storms brewing in the distance or fires burning here; only a "useless thought," thrown away at night), the song boils the sentiment of the heartsick lover down to a totally useless plea. The pain lies in the beauty before the narrator, and there's nothing that can be done about that, but he must beg anyway. A timeless modern Country classic, "Try Not to Look so Pretty" exudes resolute, straight-faced heartbreak in the great Country tradition.