With the 2010 release of Vampire Weekend’s sophomore record Contra, New York Times magazine writer Andy Gensler dubbed the New York quartet’s style “Upper West Side Soweto,” thus anointing (and perhaps, tainting) the band as connoisseurs of style. But their mastery of pastiche demonstrates, above all, an acute awareness of the global musical landscape and the multiple places in which they fit into it. Their drawing from a retrospective palette of the rich music that came before it is not so much cut and paste as much as it is careful sonic application. Through the art of borrowing, Vampire Weekend came to acquire its own inimitable style.
As there is so much to listen to in a Vampire Weekend record, we’ve given it a close listen and compiled a track-by-track guide pinpointing the many sonic intricacies and references at play in the band’s excellent new album, Modern Vampires of the City. You can stream the record on iTunes ahead of its release next week (time stamps for each song are included below), and, if you’re so inclined, follow Vampire Weekend’s many geographical references on Flavorwire’s interactive map.
1. “Obvious Bicycle” (0:00-4:10)
As the opening track begins, we’re thrown into the record with vocals and drums. The song kind of wakes itself up with sparse, almost church-like piano chords meandering underneath a layer of syncopated African drumbeats and Ezra Koenig’s line, “Morning comes…” Into the chorus, Koenig’s voice is amplified with the aid of his band mates, whose harmonies gather at the vowels of his words, and there’s something distinctly choral/angelic sounding, which continues the song’s church theme nicely. Into the second verse, the drum beats grow quieter but more punctuated. And at the song’s close, the tinkling Tin Pan Alley-esque piano proverbially sends it to its slumber, and I can’t help but conjure that opening scene of Woody Allen’s Manhattan. It sounds a bit like Gershwin to me.
2. “Unbelievers” (4:11-7:33)
Changing the tempo completely, “Unbelievers” seemingly introduces Koenig’s Buddy Holly persona, with a stripped-back, jittering melody with sliding guitar and drum in the jumpy Beach Boys style we’ll hear in a more exaggerated form on “Diane Young.” A little later on, there’s a whistling sound (clarinet, perhaps?) that takes us briefly to the Scottish Highlands — that is, before the song slips back into the church refrain we’ve already heard. And is that an organ at the end of the song?
3. “Step” (7:34-11:44)
Whether it’s due to watching the lyric video for “Step” — a black-and-white love letter to New York — or the intrinsic New York-ness of the song itself, this track, too, seems reminiscent of Manhattan. Koenig’s voice comes in like Paul Simon’s, and it has that same tender, almost inquisitive tone to it. Later in the song, note the creepy church choir’s resonating aaahs, and then the creepier robot voice for a hauntingly beautiful ending to a dreamy, wistful song.
4. “Diane Young” (11:45-14:23)
Now here’s where mic-swinging, pelvis-thrusting mid-century crooners come to the forefront of the mix. Koenig’s really performing on this track — he’s channeling an amalgam of Elvis and Buddy Holly, it seems — and it works wonders laid over another drumbeat that is by turns punk-rock and Afrobeat, with flashes of trumpet. Peppered with warped dadadadas and ooh-oohs and baby-babys pushed through a synthesizer, “Diane Young” has a simultaneously modern and 1950s feel, but with a drumbeat that sounds like it has come from roughly a decade or two after. There’s also a South Asian-sounding element in here somewhere; one of the guitar part sounds like it could be being played in a raga style. In any case, this ever-fluctuating song’s undoubtedly the busiest and most multi-layered on the record: it’s phenomenal.
5. “Don’t Lie” (14:24-17:56)
The pulsating opening of “Don’t Lie” has a wistful, somewhat bluesy quality to it that smooths out into a standard rock rhythm with strings that, as they escalate around the song’s bridge (“Does it bother you?”), are reminiscent of a track from Vampire Weekend’s eponymous debut, “One (Blake’s Got a New Face).” Meanwhile, the end returns us to a calm, beachy pop-rock melody.
6. “Hannah Hunt” (17:57-21:56)
On one of the album’s standout tracks, the piano chords that follow the synthesized string opening are pretty similar to those of “Obvious Bicycle,” but they’re slowed down, and with Koenig’s breathy vocals harmonized just audibly underneath, the song has a burgeoning beauty in a way that recalls early Radiohead. (I’m reminded a little of “Fake Plastic Trees” in places; it packs the same balance of minimalism and momentum.) After the second chorus, when the song really picks up, Koenig’s voice rises into a kind of beautiful howl, and the music crumbles elegantly underneath it, falling into a delicate piano line, and then a timid bit of Afrobeat drumming, fading out to end with a little sonic trill (rather like those in “Oxford Comma”).
7. “Everlasting Arms” (21:57-24:59)
With a strong Afrobeat drum throughout, and phrases of wiry keyboard, the mind harks back to Paul Simon’s “The Boy in the Bubble,” but the rest of the song is somewhat subdued. And then the strings come back in, with synthesizer underneath, and Koenig’s last words, “Hold me in your everlasting arms,” are echoed in a thick, electronic voice that smacks of James Blake.
8. “Finger Back” (25:00-27:25)
With its upbeat tempo and blithe, pop-rock opening, “Finger Back” sounds a little like “Diane Young” slowed down a tad. The grainy electric guitar gathers an angsty punk sound underneath Koenig’s speedy singing, which seems to emulate the cadences of Bollywood singing. The song then gives way to a spoken story about a girl falling in love with a man in a falafel shop (so very New York), and then back into emphatic blablablas that build out the rest, have a subtle dissonance to them, and are reminiscent of Dirty Projectors.
9. “Worship You” (27:26-31:49)
As is befitting for a composition entitled “Worship You,” the song has an explicitly hymnic, chanting quality, and it’s backed by a military-style beat. There’s definitely a South Asian influence here, in the disjointed and then fluid tempo. The female voice — a kind of devotional-sounding wailing — that can be heard at the beginning of the track is referenced later by Koenig’s emphatic ooooohs after a winding stretch of amplifying brass instrument, and then again at the end of the song, as it disperses into quieter, fragmented bursts of vocals over piano.
10. “Ya Hey” (31:50-36:59)
The next single off the album, “Ya Hey” is a curious combination of classic, quick piano, rock drum (and later a sluice of bloated bass line), and an almost squealing automated voice that’s audibly gnawing in the background. Koenig later emulates this, inflecting the ends of his words. There’s also an intermission for a spoken story in this track, yet this time, it’s set out of the city, at a festival, among tents. The song is almost incantatory in effect, in part because of its length but owing more perhaps to its diverse elements; all its parts are woven together into a beautiful polyphony.
11. “Hudson” (37:00-41:14)
This track sounds somewhat like a song from a musical, and conjures walking around in a dreary Dickensian London street. It has a much slower pace than much of the album, and is decidedly moody. “Hudson” differs largely from the other tracks on the record. The James Blake-like voice comes back here for a spell (“Over and over again these never ending visions”), though here it’s more mechanic, more like Kraftwerk as it’s coupled with a more regulated, military beat. The chamber choir also reprises its role on “Hudson,” and along with the strings, lends the song a heavy sobriety.
12. “Young Lion” (41:15-43:00)
The final song, and the shortest, on the record has a stately, slightly grainy Tudor court house sound to it (a bootleg version of Henry VIII, perhaps), with more of those delicate, choral vocal layers, one of the album’s most prominent leitmotifs, and a tempered, peaceful ending, as the piano, at the record’s most peeled-back sound, gives way to haunting silence, allowing the music to resolve itself.