To dislike Vampire Weekend based on merit has become impossible. With “Modern Vampires of the City,” the New York group has submitted its third album filled with smart, shiny pop songs that showcase an expanding and inventive musical palette, all delivered with a reliably knowing smirk. These are songs to blast out of a convertible on the way to the beach (bonus points if it’s a luxury model and the destination is Cape Cod) and also to lose yourself in while lounging on a couch (preferably a leather sectional) wearing headphones.
But to dislike the band based on principle? That’s petty but more understandable. The Ivy League credentials, the precious affectations, the spring season catalogue looks — to some ears and eyes it might add up to a cloying package. Particularly to those who think a rock group (especially a young one from New York) should be caked in grime physically, aesthetically and psychologically. But that’s never been Vampire Weekend’s style. In fact, by embracing its book smarts and a sunny disposition, Vampire Weekend has emerged as one of today’s most authentic bands.
“Authenticity” in music is one of those impossible to quantify yet constantly in demand qualities. It’s almost always associated with some level of misery and pain, as if that’s the only path to great art. Surely the members of Vampire Weekend have had their share of suffering, but who’s going to buy depressing music from a bunch of good-looking Columbia grads, anyway?
The most immediately satisfying burst of energy on the album is “Diane Young,” which takes all the hallmarks of a great Vampire Weekend song — a playful pun (Diane Young, dyin’ young, get it?) specific upper-middle-class references (Saabs, golf) and a whiplash of pinballing buzzes and whooshes — and adds some pitch-shifting vocal effects that make lead singer Ezra Koenig sound like an animatronic Big Bopper. (The band performed this song on “Saturday Night Live” a few nights ago.) It looks like a complicated equation but sounds as effortless as it should, which is to say only sort of. The sonic vocabulary created by guitarist/keyboardist/co-producer and general sound architect Rostam Batmanglij has emerged as more integral to the band’s success than the vocabulary of Koenig. It’s impossible not to be awed by everything going on here.
Batmanglij keeps it up throughout, with amazing attention to details as small as the different thuds and clomps of percussion that match the tone of each song. And there’s a wide variety of scenes and settings, all while staying within the band’s finely curated universe. “Hannah Hunt” ups the emotional ante, with Koenig crooning over a spare backing track: “In Santa Barbara, Hannah cried/And missed those freezing beaches/And I walked into town/To buy some kindling for the fire/Hannah tore the New York Times up into pieces.” It’s not so much another side of Vampire Weekend as part of a more complete portrait.
It’s tempting to say that “Modern Vampires” completes a surprising maturation process — surprising mostly because Vampire Weekend seemed to be fully formed when it emerged with a standout debut in 2008. Some bands stumble through their early years, but Vampire Weekend was so immediately ready for its close-up and met with success and acclaim that its continued rise feels like an added bonus.
Another recently released album with plenty of hype comes from British quartet Savages. As with Vampire Weekend, this debut introduces a band that seems complete and makes you wonder where it will go from here. For now, we can enjoy “Silence Yourself” for what it is — a fierce-if-familiar adrenaline rush of post-punk. There are moments on most of these 11 songs that make you gasp in that “I forgot how powerful rock music can be!” sort of way. Try Fay Milton’s ferocious drum crashes on “Shut Up” or Gemma Thompson’s screaming guitar on “Husbands.” There are also moments on most of these 11 songs that make you think, “I forgot about that first Franz Ferdinand record!”
In other words, this is a band working with a sound that’s been recycled regularly over the past 30 years, but only rarely as powerfully as on “Silence Yourself.” That’s because the group doesn’t stop at simply re-creating elements such as wiry guitar and spiky rhythms; it also knows the power of efficiency, both in Jehnny Beth’s straightforward sloganeering (“She will open her heart/She will open her lips/She will choose to ignite/And never to extinguish”) and in image control. The black-and-white cover art, the all-caps mission statement accompanying it (“THE WORLD USED TO BE SILENT NOW IT HAS TOO MANY VOICES,” it begins) — what we see of Savages is exactly what we’re supposed to see. It’s an intriguing package and if there’s even more in the future, all the better.