Father of the Bride by Vampire Weekend

A return to their debut and sophomore, but with modern production and more-thoughtful textures
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7508807

Vampire Weekend are a tuneful band with rhythms that trace back to Paul Simon and Peter Gabriel's albums of 1986, themselves tracing back to different genres within African music, and I found their first two records easily likable for those reasons. Their third record, Modern Vampires of the City, felt way more than just 'likable', and even back then I remember thinking the leap from the humbler Contra to MVotCfelt comparable to Radiohead's leap from The Bends to OK Computer. More electronic flourishes, from pitch-shifted vocals ("Diane Young") to electronic drums ("Bicycle") helped distinguish songs, but even better was the unexpected shifts within songs, like the climax of "Hannah Hunt" or the Rolling Stones-referencing bridge of "Ya Hey." Their lyrics got headier too, with Hannah Hunt tearing the New York Times to pieces or "I hummed the Dies Irae as you played the Hallelujah," which, in combination with the cover, reminded me of the uncertainties explored by Simon and Garfunkel on Bookends. I eagerly waited for their next release.

At least, until 2016, when Rostam Batmanglij - the not-secret weapon behind Modern Vampires, with a practically Sufjan Stevens-esque credited list of instruments - announced that he was leaving Vampire Weekend to work on his solo career, which included production for a who’s who of critical darling: Charli XCX, Carly Rae Jepsen, Solange and Frank Ocean. I remember wondering whether or not Vampire Weekend would even be a thing without him because in essence, Batmanglij was as essential to Vampire Weekend as Steven Drozd is to the Flaming Lips. (Appropriately, both Wayne Coyne and Ezra Koenig have very friendlyvoices.)

3 years after that announcement, and Vampire Weekend’s first album in six years, feels like a labour of love: 18 tracks running just under 60 minutes, a lot of them short and all of them sweet to the point that it feels like Vampire Weekend’s attempt at a song cycle. Predictably, vultures have already torn it apart, scavenging for highlights (ie. “Harmony Hall”) but also criticizing the filler. I don’t remember similar critical discourse around Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs when it dropped: a 16-track album, compared to the more concise 10 or 11 songs of their debut and sophomore, that spanned notably longer as well. (Maybe it did, but 2010 was a completely different time. Back in 2010, Vampire Weekend topped Billboard album charts, you remember.)

Father of the Bride also contains more features than their previous albums, and in that regard makes me think of how Blur replaced guitarist Graham Coxon for would-be swan song Think Tank – tons of other musicians. Danielle Haim (of Haim) and Steve Lacy (of many things) are properly credited as features, but songwriting and production are backed by many names appropriate for Vampire Weekend’s major label debut: DJ Dahi (who, with Steve Lacy, produced much of Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN.), BloodPop, Mark Ronson, Ariel Rechtshaid. What results is an album full of sounds from other decades (notably a lot more 1970s’ love this time) ‘updated’ by modern production techniques, to say nothing of the wealth of auto-tune. Rostam Batmanglij also returns for a few cuts, “Harmony Hall” and “We Belong Together,” and you’d probably be able to guess that he was responsible in both even without the production credits considering the keyboard lines that bring me back to 2013.

Many of these 18 songs are short, with 8 of them not even breaching the 3-minute mark that only accentuates the ‘song cycle’ feeling. I beg you not to write these ones off (short tracks are typically the first to go). Opener “Hold You Now” introduces a sample of the soundtrack to The Thin Red Line, and the way it’s introduced (with Ezra Koenig going “Alright” and then pressing a button) makes me think of the audacity of Kanye West doing something similar for “On Sight” more than anything else (albeit on a smaller scale); the DJ Dahi-assisted “Big Blue” starts with an isolated Ezra Koenig verse (the feeling increased through the slightest auto-tune touch) and then builds on that more and more, and accomplishes so much in less than 90 seconds, from George Harrison slide guitars to theatrical backing vocals and overdubs. The use of auto-tune in the coda of “Bambina” and closer “Jersalem, New York, Berlin” both bring me back to Modern Vampires, although I wish the former were more developed (the verses and choruses feel like parts of completely different songs).

It’s disheartening to see some write off Father of the Bride and Vampire Weekend’s oeuvre by calling it ‘dad-rock,’ which isn’t just a stupid term to begin with, but is so wrongly applied here. Very little of this rocks, as was the case of their previous albums. A shocker that an album with these mostly pop/hip-hop/R&B collaborators isn’t a rock album! The 70s’ influences that they pull from include the Grateful Dead, yes, but it also includes the Beach Boys’ early 70s’ records, Paul Simon’s early solo career (notably, Graceland is no longer the template) and country duets. The Danielle Haim-featured songs cannot be classified as country, don’t worry, but that’s the inspiration anyway, especially on the lovely “Married in a Gold Rush” (speaking of the 70s, the words “midnight train” evokes many Karaoke nights to a particular hit). Ultimately, the criticisms of ‘dad-rock’ (or ‘mom-rock’) makes me think of many of the similarly empty criticisms of ‘appropriation’ and ‘whiteness’ that were circulating after the success of their first two albums, obliquely addressed in the title of “Unbearably White” (whose title has nothing to do with the actual lyrics, and the song itself is one of the weaker ones). 

There are some artistic choices that’ll be contentious: the “Boy” sample throughout “2021”; the scatting on “Sunflower”; the exaggerated drum and strum on “We Belong Together” (the last of the Haim collaborations, and easily the worst of ‘em – it’s hard to believe that this is the one that Rostam had the most hand in). And while I’m on the weak points, the choruses of “How Long?” are a bit rote, and the way Ezra Koenig is singing only a few notes in a higher register makes me think of Lily Allen’s “My One” from No Shame (a song which I only recently learned was a collaboration with none other than Ezra Koenig).

Crucially, I don’t think these issues amount to much on an 18-track album, especially when there are so many tasteful moments. “This Life” is Father of the Bride’s “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa,” and the lyrics “Baby, I know pain is as natural as the rain / I just thought it didn’t rain in California” is straight out of Frank Ocean’s lyricbook. “Harmony Hall” comes with a guitar line that reminds me of Tinariwen of all things, the communal, ‘desert blues’ African group, and the wordless vocal hook is something that I swear I’ve heard from TV on the Radio’s Tunde Adebimpe (who fittingly worked with Tinariwen), but regardless, the song achieves the musical promise of its title. “Married in a Gold Rush” has that lovely bit in the choruses where Danielle Haim asks “Boy, who’s your baby” to which Ezra Koenig responds “Girl, if you don’t know by now…” “Rich Man” is a slow dance through an S. E. Rogers song, and the strings’ll make you swoon even more than the guitar. “Flower Moon” has that memorable hook (“year-ea-ear”) from Steve Lacy, although a problematic bridge (featuring Danielle Haim tossing out a few rhymes for rhyme’s sake). “Sympathy” is this album’s version of “Diane Young” or “Cousins” or “A-Punk,” and the only rock song on the album, and that riff makes the song worth keeping despite the awkward bridge, with the repeated cut off “sympa—”’s. This is the only song on the album that can readily be described as rock music, and tell me with a straight face that this’ll be something that dads listen to.

On “Sympathy,” Steve Lacy – who’ll feature on the next two songs – bemuses “I think I take myself too serious. It’s not that serious,” which prompts the riff, and it makes me think of Arcade Fire’s “Normal Person,” a song that had Win Butler also speaking to himself and also was worth keeping for its riff. But I really like Steve Lacy’s intro because Vampire Weekend had never wanted to be taken seriously: I think of references to Lil Jon on “Oxford Comma” and the rather ridiculous choruses of “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa” as prime examples, but also the cover of their major label debut which looks like an in-joke. And it’s when they get too serious that is when the album’s at its most ignorable. “Sympathy” has a couplet that goes “Judeo-Christianity, I’d never heard the words / Enemies for centuries until there was a third,” presumably about Islam, but also totally disconnected from the rest of that verse and the rest of the song. And “Married in a Gold Rush” starts with “Something’s happening in the country / And the government’s to blame,” that, again, is so disconnected from the rest of the love duet and reminds me of a lot of shitty music from the past few years – the vagueness! Yeah, something is wrong. Should we talk about it? Nah, let’s just quickly mention the government in passing and talk about kissing in the pouring rain.

Vampire Weekend’s debut album dropped right before I entered university, and I remember it and Contra sound-tracking those years, and Modern Vampires came right about when I was finishing school up. In that regard, few other indie albums mean as much to me as that one does, especially when 2013 was perhaps the final year before tastes moved away from indie and back towards the mainstream. I wouldn’t rank Father of the Bride as highly as that album: few songs here measure up to “Unbelievers” or “Step” or “Ya Hey.” But it’s as good an album by a Rostam-less Vampire Weekend in 2019 as we could have possibly gotten, and the sound is a return to Vampire Weekend and Contra except arguably better with the ‘upgraded’ production and thoughtful textures. The change from indie to mainstream in the tiniest of microcosms: a Vampire Weekend album.

A MINUS