ALBUMS: Ezra Koenig Is Genteel in the Hour of Chaos

Ahead of tonight’s big show at Madison Square Garden, let Dan Weiss remind you how Vampire Weekend impart their coolheaded calm onto those who can’t afford same. This has always been their job.

Vampire Weekend Father of the Bride, Columbia 2019

Artist: Vampire Weekend

Album: Father of the Bride

Label: Columbia Records

★★★★★ (5/5 stars)


Ezra Koenig wants to be compared to, I dunno, Penn and Teller. The 35-year-old Vampire Weekend majordomo’s desire and skill for pulling uncool from the fringes of the contemporary universe and bringing them back towards the center is unparalleled in pop or possibly any medium.

DJ Shadow and Quentin Tarantino’s junk-culture spelunking is given a run for their money these days when our boy pillages a minor Steve Martin comedy, early ‘90s elementary school recycling poster chic, and flattened C&C Music Factory/MC Hammer lettering for just the album art alone. The underrated Goosebumps recap site Blogger Beware once hilariously dropped the clause “Before they can alert Pitchfork that they’ve indeed had quite the Vampire Weekend” into a review and it’s astounding that Koenig hasn’t thrown in an R. L. Stine reference for good measure. The chief difference between Koenig and Tarantino is that he doesn’t make his square materials sound hip. The main similarity is that he does make them sound good. Lord have mercy when he drops his Juggalo album.

The R.E.M. or U2 of the 2010s (I go with R.E.M., because I prefer them and because Arcade Fire are definitely the U2) follow up their biggest and most ambitious album after six years with a bunch of risky choices — especially because their most vital member, Rostam Batmanglij, a miracle worker with classical scales in a rock medium, has left to produce Carly Rae Jepsen and others full-time. But more than any other act, these guys make the impossible work. What other indie band dares to be as uncool as them?

Father of the Bride’s cover art is pure 1990: C+C Music Factory font on a recycling poster from a middle-school classroom wall. So’s first single, “Harmony Hall,” which sounds like the Soup Dragons. The newest (and best) one, “This Life,” resembles “Brown Eyed Girl” of all things. Koenig is the gentle prankster 2019 needs; only trolls us with dignity. A brilliant artist of misdirection, when he first announced the album title’s initials were FOTB, he knew slyly that debates over their controversially Afropop-borrowed guitar melodies would bring “Fresh Off the Boat” to the front of the mind. And now that Batmanglij has left, Koenig dared to say in an interview that the new song “Unbearably White” deals with race. It’s referring to snow. Even in unveiling of his first new music in more than half a decade, “Harmony Hall” and “2021,” Koenig may have chosen these particular tracks of his new 18 just because it’s the longest song and the shortest one. Very few acts in the rock world play 12-dimensional chess with audience perception like this, and U2 never developed the knack. But Father of the Bride is great on simply musically rich terms, which easily criss-cross with their uncool sources. (They cover “Jokerman,” Bob Dylan’s most reggae song, live for crying out loud.)

 

AUDIO: Vampire Weekend playing “Jokerman” at UPAC in Kingston, NY, May 2, 2019

 

The framework of their big late-‘10s statement is that Danielle Haim plays Koenig’s duet partner on a bunch of elliptical, downhome melodies, adopting a yeehaw accent on “Married in a Gold Rush” and confirming once and for all that folk-rock owns 2019. Snicker but Big Thief’s U.F.O.F., a gangly and close-miked hushaby of arpeggios that could easily be transposed to banjo, is scoring even bigger accolades than this record. Then there’s the winsome new-sheriff-in-town Lil Nas X, rounding up the charts with pard’ner Billy Ray Cyrus with his easy song-of-the-year, and even goth-teenpop-ASMR sensation Billie Eilish, whose small-voiced theater pieces when you strip away the hashtags sound most like Regina Spektor. So not only do we have to give it up for Haim-and-Koenig’s brazenly tuneful McGarrigles act, but one of the loveliest songs here quotes Porter Wagoner:  “One rich man in ten has a satisfied mind / And I’m the one.”

Koenig’s happy-go-lucky shtick was more oblique on previous records — frankly, he didn’t go around calling himself “Rich Man” — and his 2013 magnum opus Modern Vampires of the City was steeped in the misty heart-pounding grays of spooky Batmanglij keyboards, ticking clocks, and the time concerns of vividly rendered anxious characters such as Yahweh himself. But he also challenged John Phillip Sousa on the pennywhistle-and-horns coda of “Unbelievers” and Auto-Tuned Paul Simon everywhere else. That can’t get too dark.

This time the darkness comes from outside: to be a major artist in 2019 producing a resoundingly candy-colored hour of fun whose chief concern is how to rhyme “Keats” with “Yeats.” It’s just one of several gooey treats about growing into family life is to be everything Kesha’s new (Nellie McKay-influenced, natch) song rails against: rich, straight, white, man. There’s an artist who’s still fighting just to release anything at all. Koenig should have thought of her when he developed his boutique ensemble of new collaborators, which include Jonah Hill, Jerry Seinfeld, and Jude Law if you check this album’s extracurricular media.

Part of the thrill is the guesswork; I would’ve sworn that was Dirty Projectors’ Dave Longstreth delivering the slippery guitar line of “Unbearably White” and maybe even the dry, rickety percussion. Turns out he provides the even more liquidy main riff to “Harmony Hall” that doesn’t quite mesh with its conga-heavy dance sections instead. Or is that the solo people are comparing to Jerry Garcia? Psych-soul hypebeast Steve Lacy apparently doesn’t harmonize axes with Koenig on the asecending-descending scale Olympics that is “Sunflower,” just vocals. That’s Jenny Lewis pitched down over Haruomi Hosono on “2021.” I correctly guessed that Batmanglij is all over the distorted, compressed percussion and breathless, staccato keys on “We Belong Together.”

 

VIDEO: Vampire Weekend “This Life”

 

But most of the best tracks weren’t part of the pre-release rollout. “Bambina” is classic VW as surely as “Holiday” or “A-Punk,” high-energy bliss whose Auto-Tune breakdown is now as familiar as Peter Frampton’s talk box (it’s the fuzz bass that’s new). “Rich Man” subtly welds a fragile wax-cylinder-sounding sample of blue-collar Harry Smith flavor to baroque strings recorded with contemporary fidelity. Every report that “Sympathy” sounds like flamenco New Order is completely true. Little touches like the timestretched audio melting that ends stanzas of the opening “Hold You Now,” or the distant, subliminal SOPHIE electronica lurking beneath the standard piano ballad of the bookending “Jerusalem, New York, Berlin” are second to virtually no other studio band.

Even though there’s plenty of disturbance lurking below the kaleidoscopic, Screamadelica-goes-Buck-Owens surface — “How Long?” in particular has both “How long til we sink to the bottom of the sea?” and “Why’s it felt like Halloween since Christmas 2017?” — I’ll argue that it’s Koenig’s job as someone capable of guilelessness in 2019 to help those with significantly fewer human rights relax. He contemplated mortality last time, via his upper-class and violence-free limitations of course. Six years later, he risks coming off like the increasingly rare intellectual who feels his art is above all that political mess. But he doesn’t. “I’ve been cheating through this life” is now one of the white man’s biggest hooks, and his biracial paramour has brought a child into Trump’s world with him. While at times, Father of the Bride can feel like Roberto Benigni in Life Is Beautiful trying in vain to mask the world’s wickedness with whimsy-and-warmth overkill, it’s too knowing, never childish. It’s entertainment in a very pure sense: distraction. The best album of 2019 will probably engage our fracturing world and crumbling protections head-on, but Father of the Bride is the best distraction of 2019.

 

Click here to stream tonight’s concert.

 

VIDEO: Vampire Weekend live at Firefly 2019

 

Dan Weiss

Dan Weiss is a freelance music journalist based in Collingswood, New Jersey. He is the former (and last-ever) reviews editor at Spin magazine.

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