***1/2 (out of four)
Of course Vampire Weekend, those finely dressed Ivy Leaguers, were going to get the preciously assembled, wryly observant indie-pop thing right. Anything less would have been a betrayal of their promise when they first buttoned up their cardigans and told us to think of them as the band with the buttoned-up cardigans. Even as the band put out two extremely good albums that offered as much in the way of piercing emotional insight as in slyly deprecatory cultural references, there was no escaping the gimmick of being the clever, preppy and painstakingly self-aware band that could easily be the subject of one of its own songs.
An economic recession and the full run of “Gossip Girl” later, Vampire Weekend’s crisply pressed khakis and oxford shirts are shabbier, more lived-in and not really the subject of their songs anymore. On the group’s third album, “Modern Vampires of the City,” the carefully assembled aesthetic is still present, but the music is looser, sparer and fuzzier—more laid-back downtown rock than fussy uptown chamber pop. The dominant themes are death, doubt and a restless carpe diem philosophy. The most gimmicky it ever feels is a spoken word monologue about finding love in a falafel shop, and even that works. People previously bothered by Vampire Weekend will probably like this album better—if the group's preciousness/cleverness is what got on their nerves before.
The album is at its best when it hovers with precision on the edge of moments of minor collapse, as in the pairing of Ezra Koenig’s keening, encouraging chorus with restrained piano and drums on opener “Obvious Bicycle,” or in the old school rock ‘n’ roll romp “Diane Young” (a more upbeat spelling of the song’s actual hero “dyin’ young”). The frayed, Paul Simonesque “Everlasting Arms” is simultaneously frightened, wistful and comforting. “Hannah Hunt,” the album’s biggest highlight, slowly disintegrates from a carefully composed, minimalist road trip ballad into blown-out vocals and a crisis of faith.
Occasionally, as on “Don’t Lie” and “Hudson,” the careful balance drifts too far into jarring discomfort, but mostly “Modern Vampires of the City” offers a meticulously assembled picture of the world that characters in past Vampire Weekend songs were only too happy to ignore. As a result, the album escapes much of the cute lampooning that once defined the band and, in its uncertainties, is much more knowing than those precocious characters ever were.
Kyle Kramer is a RedEye special contributor. @redeyechimusic
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