Faith and Fun, Intellect and Invention: Vampire Weekend, Contra and Modern Vampires of the City

By Daniel Garrett

Vampire Weekend, Contra and Modern Vampires of the City
Contra, 2010
Produced by Rostam Batmanglij

Modern Vampires of the City, 2013
Produced by Rostam Batmanglij and Ariel Rechtshaid
XL Recordings

Vampire Weekend’s Contra is personable, intimate; exuberant, yet cool: a very particular sensibility: singer and principal lyricist Ezra Koenig, pianist and guitarist (really, multi-instrumentalist) Rostam Batmanglij, drummer Christopher Tomson, and bassist Chris Baio.  The singing is richly varied—in speed and inflection (it exemplifies a form of mastery).   Full of precise details and puckish humor, some of the observations are mature—such as the one about living to work (the kind of thought that doesn’t make it into many rock songs).  Modern Vampires of the City has a great sense of drive and energy—even passion.  The young men in Vampire Weekend—Chris Baio, Rostam Batmanglij, Ezra Koenig, and Christopher Tomson—are, yes, special.  The references in their songs open worlds—and their music is fun and sexy in its diversity and vitality.  There is more thematic continuity and heft in Vampire Weekend music than ever before.

On Contra, in “Horchata” there is consideration of winter clothes in autumn and the drinking of horchata (“Winter’s cold is too much to handle” and “Here comes a feeling you thought you’d forgotten”), for a song with a softly inflected young male voice and rumbling beat.  Charm and intelligence are blended in this and other songs, with familiar and experimental sounds.   In “White Sky” is the intimate voice and clapping beat and observant lyrics, about metropolitan movements, including a museum visit and park walk.  “Holiday” is punky rock with African pop influences, what the band is known for.  “California English” is intense and playful with more African rhythms, full of the details of American life; teasing, propulsive, humorous: “Your father moved across the country/ just to sunburn his scalp/ Contra costa, contra mundum, contradict what I say.”  Then, “Taxi Cab,” exploring manners and silence, has nice long piano runs and a hushed speaking/singing voice.  Is there a Spanish sound in the refrain of “Run”?  There are certainly a lot of uptempo horns. “Cousins” is all frantic energy and rhythms; and some of the lines are:

“You were born with ten fingers and you’re gonna use ’em all”

and

“If an interest in culture should be lining the wall,
when your birthright is interest you could just accrue it all.”

On Contra, Vampire Weekend’s “Giving Up the Gun” seems a metaphor for failure; and it features personal observations occurring in a city, with an angelic chorus and pounding drums.  In it a young man feels obsolete.  “Diplomat’s Son,” with its chanting and humming, has so many things happening, and is apparently about a friendship that becomes erotic: “That night I smoked a joint/ with my best friend./   We found ourselves in bed./  When I woke up he was gone.”  The collection’s concluding song, “I Think Ur a Contra,” is high-voiced, intimate, melodramatic, with lyric reversals; and there is the advice, “Never pick sides./ Never choose between two.”  It seems a rejection of the simplest thinking, of believing in seeing people and things in opposition.

On the great Modern Vampires of the City, with music by Rostam Batmanglij and Ezra Koenig and Koenig’s lyrics, the attentive listener will find work that is intelligent, observant, and poetic, full of ideas and movement and creativity, with both a sweet heart and immense strength of mind.  Environment and relationships and faith are references.   One hears its obsessions and cultural/musical influences—and recognizes a new combination, a fresh awareness.  The instrumentation is, basically, the same as on the Vampire Weekend’s other recordings, with one Chris on bass and the other Chris on drums, and Ezra singing, and Rostam playing piano and guitar and much else.

“Obvious Bicycle,” the first song on Modern Vampires, begins in mid-speech; and the words are both honest and sympathetic and the tone of voice sensitive, the music melodious.  “Unbelievers” is energy, taut rhythm.  An accepted fate is that of a disbeliever (and sinner).   “Step,” with its roll call of cities, and words that scan youth and age, ignorance and wisdom, romance and memory, has a heavy beat and the use of an instrument that seems old-fashioned—what is it?  A fragmented narrative too.  “Diane Young” seems another spelling of “dying young,” a way of distracting from seriousness, though the song has exuberant singing and a punkish rockabilly rhythm.   One line: “You’ve got the luck of a Kennedy.”  Another: “I love the past ’cause I hate suspense.” The song “Don’t Lie” has a doo-woppish drumbeat and a worried, near mourning tone.  Yet the song contains contrasts—in voice and music.  The vocal mastery is really impressive in “Hannah Hunt,” expressive and varied and dramatic; and the song mixes fascination with nature and cities and the mildly comic-tragic shifts in private life.   The songs are idiosyncratic and full.  “Everlasting Arms,” apparently about distance from belief, has punk and gospel elements: one startling line is “If you’d been made to serve a master, you’d be frightened by the open hand.”  The singing about surprising romance is virtuosic in “Finger Back,” and the music intense, layered, textured (the doubled beat sounds like ska to me).  A fast, new wavish beat.  Spoken interlude.  “Worship You” has a speeded-up western sound; and is another allusion to faith and doubt.  “Ya Hey” is playful, strange, mocking; and seems to be about the mystery of divinity.  Is “Ya Hey” intended to rhyme with “Yahweh”?  The lines in “Hudson, ” with allusions to history, wealth, and nation, can seem like independent declarations.  What’s the connection?  A consideration of wealth and property and nation—or something else?  The song is structured with martial drumming and choral sound and atmospheric effects.  “Young Lion” has piano and a high-voiced chorus.   What a wonderfully musical group.

Daniel Garrett, a graduate of the New School for Social Research, and the principal organizer of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at Poets House, is a writer whose work has appeared in The African, All About Jazz, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Black Film Review, Changing Men, Cinetext, Contact II, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, Illuminations, Muse Apprentice Guild, Option, Pop Matters, Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, Review of Contemporary Fiction, Wax Poetics, and World Literature Today.  Daniel Garrett has written extensively about international film for Offscreen, and comprehensive commentary on music for The Compulsive Reader.

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