Tuesday, May 7, 2019

Vampire Weekend, Father of the Bride, 2019

Album Review

Since their self-titled debut in 2008, Vampire Weekend have released -- as far as I'm concerned -- three almost flawless albums. The combination of jangly, guitar-driven, twee pop, intelligent lyricism and wordplay, inside jokes, and even some subtle and good-natured ribbing of their critics places Vampire Weekend high on the list of "stuff that CoolDad digs." Vampire Weekend, Contra, and Modern Vampires of the City chart a course from post-college young-adulthood to more serious concerns about spirituality and mortality. All three albums are masterpieces of 21st century indie pop, and 2013's Modern Vampires of the City stands as the crown jewel of that group.

So, Vampire Weekend released three era-defining albums. Then, they kind of went dormant -- as a band, anyway. Frontman, Ezra Koenig, had cameos on songs by Major Lazer, SBTRKT, and Chromeo. He was one of the writers and producers on BeyoncĂ©'s "Hold Up." Koenig produced the animated series Neo Yokio for Netflix, and he hosts the bi-weekly Beats 1 radio show "Time Crisis with Ezra Koenig" (a must-listen). The rhythm section of Chris "CT" Tomson (drums) and Chris Baio (bass) each developed their own solo projects. Composer, multi-instrumentalist, and producer, Rostam Batmanglij, officially and amicably left Vampire Weekend in 2016 to focus on his own solo work.

In the six years during which all that was happening, there were rumors of a fourth Vampire Weekend album, stories of Koenig's hitting the library to do research for songs, even a supposed title: Mitsubishi Macchiato. But it wasn't until January of 2019 that Koenig made an official announcement, kicking off a monthslong roll-out by revealing the new album's initials, "FOTB," and providing a schedule of three, monthly double single releases.

And here we are. Vampire Weekend, now a trio, released Father of the Bride on May 3rd. It's an 18-song, double (in vinyl form) album that takes some big steps away from the band's previous world music-via-Johnny Marr (and Peter Gabriel, too) sound. There are several nods to country-inspired, AM radio pop. The album's even got a few, little jammy flourishes.

Opener "Hold You Now" is one of those AM radio, country duets. It's one of three such duets that feature Danielle Haim. Along with "Married in a Gold Rush" and the Celtic-textured "We Belong Together," these duets anchor Father of the Bride thematically. "Complicated relationships" seems to be the overriding theme on the album. The three Haim duets give us a pair of characters who are drawn to each other -- meant for each other, even -- but who recognize that the complications of life will drive them apart.

While not technically a duet, Danielle Haim features prominently on "Stranger." It's a song about the ways in which a solid relationship can provide stability in a world that's going nuts.

The relationship theme isn't restricted to individuals, though. Father of the Bride also deals with bigger picture relationships. The album's first single and album standout, "Harmony Hall," with the line "Anger wants a voice / voices wanna sing / Singers harmonize / Til they can't hear anything," points out that it's easy for like-minded individuals to shut themselves off from outside ideas. On "This Life" (or the song I like to call "This Charming Brown-Eyed Vampire Weekend"), Koenig says in the final verse, "Darling our disease / Is the same one as the trees' / Unaware that they've been living in a forest." It's easy to focus on our own, micro-level existence while ignoring our place in the wider world.

It's possible, I think, to read "Big Blue" and "How Long?" as a pair of songs taking that "our place in the wider world" concept to humans' relationship with the environment. Whether the Big Blue that Koenig addresses in that song's short poem is the earth, the sky, or the ocean, he momentarily recognizes its importance and wonders whether that recognition will stick or if he'll go back to taking it for granted. On "How Long?," one of the best songs on the album not released as a single, Koenig asks "How long til we sink to the bottom of the sea?" and, perhaps, laments the lack of any substantive solutions to address the looming disaster: "What's the point of getting clean? You'll wear the same old dirty jeans."

"Sympathy" and "Jerusalem, New York, Berlin" could be dealing with relationships of the geopolitical variety. The former, with its raving Spanish style, points to anti-Islamic sentiment in the West; while the latter addresses the complex relationship between the Jewish diaspora and the modern state of Israel.

That's a lot of heavy stuff, I guess. But Father of the Bride doesn't have to be a deep, cerebral listen. It contains some of Vampire Weekend's best pop songs like "Harmony Hall," "This Life," and the beautiful "Unbearably White," which is a little bit more of that good-natured ribbing of critics, I think. "Bambina" had me thinking back on a song like "Cousins" with some of the clatter that Koenig and producer / right-hand man, Ariel Rechtshaid, threw in there. There's some psychedelia and jam-bandy-ness in the Steve Lacy-assisted paring of "Sunflower" and "Flower Moon." And, as I've mentioned a couple of times, there's the soft / dad-rockiness of the duets with Danielle Haim.

I'll admit that some of this is so different from what Vampire Weekend have ever given us before; and some of it is so different from what I would usually enjoy (Did I mention that there are three country-type duets?), that it took me a while to come around on the sound of some of these songs. Koenig and co. got the benefit of the doubt from me, though, on the strength of their past work. While I'll probably be hitting play on some songs here ("Harmony Hall," "This Life," "How Long?," "Sympathy," "Stranger") more frequently, there are definite rewards to be gained by taking in Father of the Bride in its entirety at least once in a while.

Father of the Bride is out now on Spring Snow / Columbia.

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