Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Vampire Weekend

  • Vampire Weekend [XL, 2008] A-
  • Contra [XL, 2010] A
  • Modern Vampires in the City [XL, 2013] A+
  • Father of the Bride [Columbia, 2019] B+

Consumer Guide Reviews:

Vampire Weekend [XL, 2008]
Young twentysomethings who write about what they know--college. Liberal arts majors broad-minded enough to worry that "ion displacement won't work in the basement," they took their Columbia studies seriously, which is my idea of how to exploit privilege (though how much privilege is less self-evident than Ivy-hatas assume). Hence all the flags about appropriated exotica, class distinctions and cultural capital--and the not unrelated correct accents, designer brands and vacation retreats. Their chief thematic concern is whether there's life after graduation, and rather than Afropop, from which they misprise a guitar sound but nothing of the groove it was conceived to serve, their music, as with most fresh recent bands good and bad, is quite Euro. Affecting a clarity and delight that pleases the many and confounds the some, their lyrically alluring, structurally hop-skip-and-jumping songs aren't deep. They're just thoughtful fun. And now let me give it up to an I Love Music post by Pitchfork's Scott Plagenhoef: "off-kilter, upbeat guitar pop, with--in comparison to their peers--something singular about both their music (e.g. not just the touches of African pop but the willingness to use space and let the songs breathe a bit) and their lyrics (detail-heavy, expressive; too bad they're images of wealth instead of poverty, otherwise they'd be critical manna)." Right on, my brother. A-

Contra [XL, 2010]
They're sticking their SATs in yo face, dumb-ass, and as Tom Petty once put it, they won't back down. Whatever the extent of their world travels geographical and virtual on this album, the actual money remains with people they only know, particularly the putative ex-girlfriend to whom Ezra Koenig addresses half his new songs. One exception is the guy who inspired "Giving Up the Gun"--still plays guitar down at that ex-skinhead bar, but his ears are shot to hell and he feels obsolete. Vampire Weekend give him respect, but "Contra" establishes that his band has chosen another path, celebrating the world's contradictions, contraindications, and contradistinctions with a new pop sound made up of old pop sounds that aren't the same old pop sounds. As for that controversy you may have read about, they spell too well to care. A

Modern Vampires in the City [XL, 2013]
Think maybe this is overworked? Think maybe the hosannas are reflexive, generalized? I did, and then I didn't. So now think Paul Simon instead if you insist, admittedly a great album. But Sgt. Pepper is a truer precedent, to wit: if you're smart you say where's the rebop, only if you're smarter you quickly figure out that maybe sustaining groove and unfailing exuberance don't matter as much as you believed. Each verse/chorus/bridge/intro melody, each lyric straight or knotty, each sound effect playful or perverse (or both)--each is pleasurable in itself and aptly situated in the sturdy songs and tracks, so that the whole signifies without a hint of concept. And crucially, the boy-to-man themes you'd figure come with several twists I've noticed so far and more no doubt to come. One is simply a right-on credo: "Age is an honor--it's still not the truth." Another is how much time Ezra Koenig spends wrestling a Jahweh-like hard case. The Big Guy comes out on the short end of a fight song called "Unbelievers," and a DJ "spinning 'Israelites' into 'Nineteenth Nervous Breakdown'" gives Him a nasty turn. But Koenig claims no permanent victory. Too smart. Too much a man, too. A+

Father of the Bride [Columbia, 2019]
Somehow the raft of confused reviews that greeted VW's half-decade-coming fourth album failed to ditch the old saw that set designer's son turned Columbia scholarship boy Ezra Koenig sings the lifestyles of the rich and famous. Maybe this is because at 35 he actually does, just not the "Ivy League" ones of legend. More likely, however, the problem is sheer befuddlement at how complex this class stuff can be. So recognize that his rich-and-famous has little resemblance to the old-money kind. It's Hollywood rich-and-famous, and far from its upper reaches, although Quincy Jones is eight-month-old Isaiah Jones Koenig's granddad. As I hear this sprightly, allusive, elusive, technically accomplished collection, all but a few of its 18 melodic yet seldom uplifting or effervescent songs bespeak some fraught combination of lost youth, career anxiety, and, way down deep, political dismay. "Why's it felt like Halloween / Since Christmas 2017?" Peruse the lyric booklet and find other such moments among these honeyed puzzlers. B+

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