Talkhouse Contributing Writer Matthew Friedberger, a Chicagoan born in 1972, is unemployed. He has no degrees or credentials of any kind. He is, therefore and however, a songwriter and composer and has released 10 solo records in the last two years. His next work, Again with the Greatest Hits Live in the Studio, will appear shortly. He lives in France.
I won’t mention the American Express UNSTAGED: Vampire Weekend with Steve Buscemi video comedy show. I typed “video comedy show” because it was meant to be funny… yes?
But since I’ve mentioned it already: when “Director Steve Buscemi meets Vampire Weekend for the first time, and offers some interesting advice on how to raise their profile,” as American Express UNSTAGED told us on April 16, 2013; when he advises the band to make their lyrics more “accessible,” to not mention Peter Gabriel albums or Louis Vuitton bags, perhaps, what is the joke? Is it that he’s a cute old man? Aw. Is it that they are a popular, and therefore sufficiently accessible, band already? Oh. And that the sort of thing he is reacting to is precisely a big part of why their fans love them or like them or were over them and are now back into them more than ever, to begin with in the first place, and the second place, and on and on forever? In case you needed more evidence: the devil not only exists — he thrives.
Oh stop. But that reminds me: here is further information about American Express UNSTAGED. (Being entertained by these sort of paratext elements is not merely warranted, it’s necessary. Progress implies it. These are the interests which our dearly beloved “content” has been made to serve.) “American Express UNSTAGED is a music series and channel created in partnership with Vevo and YouTube. We create extraordinary musical stories and performances with some of the world’s most exciting artists.” If you are lucky, being easily shocked —like me — makes you easily amused.
Are they joking? Surely there was and is a significant amount of something like satire in every aspect of Vampire Weekend’s activities. (For example. In “EP 1” of American Express® UNSTAGED, Steve Buscemi walks in on a Vampire Weekend rehearsal, only to find Mr. Batmanglij playing his part sitting in one of those uglier-than-thou office chairs — you know, the sort recommended by Tony Visconti’s Alexander Technique instructor, the sort no one can bear to even look at, let alone sit in, let alone play music in, let alone play rock music in, let alone play rock music in a band that was styled by a fashion designer best friend.)
Someone, though not me, might say the following: Whether you’re acting as producer, consumer, or, may God have mercy on your soul, music supervisor, please do not be so lethally simple. Things might be complicated no matter what you do or try. Still.
I imagine this is all old news, but (and let me see how many times I can type “surely” in this piece, even though this lack of simplicity is so terrifically self-evident) surely Vampire Weekend is not a band that is to be taken first-degree? (By “first-degree,” I mean something like “naively” or “directly.”) No? Yes?
Yes no. Remember when they would sing about “Walcott” and maybe leaving Cape Cod? Remember the manner in which they performed? Are we to suppose that one was expected to hum along, dreaming a little dream about the charmed life? Of course not. Of course, of course not only. You’re free to find the songs pleasant if you’re so inclined. Using Eric Idle’s translation, I’ll admit there may be a bit of “Les Garçons de la Plage” about Vampire Weekend; selling a new rêve américain to whomever is endearingly silly enough to sign up for the 200% interest rate from the Native American Casino Check-Cashing Establishment.
And so to my point: surely VW were less Les Garçons de la Plage and more Ramones in Reverse. They were a NYC band not hitching a ride to Rockaway Beach — they sang about encouraging someone to leave Cape Cod. And they did so in the manner in which they did. (I can’t bring myself to talk about it.) They did so to remind us of something: that all this music, this whole field, in fact, has managed to become, as the good people at American Express® UNSTAGED might put it, extraordinarily conformist. And that’s not all. Nearly all of indie rock or “indie” rock or modern or alternative or college-time-directed products and promotions and outlets are Satisfaction Guaranteed outfits and outlooks, and are therefore desperately boring. And not only that. And even worse — and more exciting — this corner of the culture works, if not in the Last Instance, then in the Effective one, as training and proving ground for more and more, and deeper and deeper, and, worst of all, less and less complicated, Identifying with the Aggressor.
Do you know what I mean by that? I’ll move on. Oh! In our stratified, piteous place the Aggressor is always aggressing. (Yes, the rich don’t get not richer.) Rock musicians, indie and otherwise; rock fans, modern or antique; rock writers, deaf or illiterate, have been acting as if they would score high on the F-scale test.
They don’t mean it though! Not at all: think of what happens when the average Taylor Swift or the National fan — that sort of person — listens to a John Denver number. Almost invariably (in my presence at least…) they hear it as if were one of Zappa’s funny sort-of tracks. They might be surprised that the lyrics are merely subtly suggestive; otherwise it passes.
But back to Reverse Ramones. Regardless of what we know about Johnny’s somewhat authoritarian personal views, it’s safe to say that while the Ramones sang about not wanting to be pinheads anymore, they weren’t recommending becoming winners as opposed to losers. Something has gone terribly wrong. VW presents this difficult situation to us very clearly.
Now, I stress — or over-stress — an, imaginary or not, critical aspect of Vampire Weekend because of my own experience reading press about the band. Frankly, I was offended at how stupid it was. Oh yes; how needlessly dim, whether the journalist’s attitude was sympathetic or not. Again and again I wondered how This One could possibly say That Thing about These Guys. It seems to be when leisure preferences are involved that Identifying with the Aggressor reigns unopposed. In this little world, the cultural left, if you can even call them that, enterprises rush to zero with the best of them, and before anyone else might notice what they are discussing. It’s not Ernie Johnson in his bow-tie on TNT who attempts jokes about bohemians at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn (he’s too busy making fun of Russell Westbrook’s clothes); it’s the NPR sports reporter. It’s an avant garde of the defensive — pre-emptive strikes. Pop, or whatever — I mean, like, whatever — is just too boring, and by all means, the people who need it most to not be that way can’t seem to help themselves make it even more so. You know?
In a recent Guardian interview with Vampire Weekend, the journalist, in the midst of doing things like complimenting Mr. Koenig for not saying “you know” too often, says that Modern Vampires of the City is “gorgeous.” And the journalist apparently meant it as a compliment!
Shocking. Luckily, I can assure you that the record is not gorgeous. It has what in comparison to other “comp” (in the real estate sense of the word) records might count as interesting textures, but the arrangements stay in their place. The evenness and resulting overall effect is not saccharine, perhaps, but phenylketonurics do seem to be involved. And since everyone knows that phenylketonurics are a nasty, nasty business, any first-degree sweetness quickly bad-reactions into second-degree nastiness.
The vocals are very high in the mix, and because they so much didn’t remind me of Barry McGuire’s in “Eve of Destruction,” they reminded me of Barry McGuire’s in “Eve of Destruction.” Having every line sung by Mr. Koenig shadowed by an imaginary Barry McGuire is an amusingly unpleasant thought, one I suggest you keep in mind as you listen to Modern Vampires of the City. The lyrics manage — mostly — to be that combination of trivial specificity and inoffensive vapidity recommended for rock lyrics by all the reputable handbooks, if any actually existed. And that previous sentence, while not a criticism, is not a compliment either.
I do have two criticisms, however. One concerns the cover. I think it would be much nicer if they left off the band name/band logo, and just had the nice font of the title there up in the corner. I don’t think the two types go together, and I don’t like what I imagine is the need to have the band’s name present, written as it always is, as if they were Metallica or a sports team. But then again: maybe the whole point is that the two different typefaces don’t go together, and that they are trying to suggest they are like Metallica or a sports team. Someone might find that interesting.
My other criticism, if you can call it that, and which I mumble very unwillingly, is very general. It is the kind of thing people like me say all the time. Steve Buscemi, in the video mentioned earlier, says to the band: “And I’m wondering, is this something that you talk about, like — let’s try to write a song that people can understand…. Um, do you ever do that?” And I’m wondering: shouldn’t the band, now, aspire to be something to which putting that question might be appropriate? Doesn’t the band feel obligated — given especially the pap with which their comp bands might attempt to be not pinheads but winners — to challenge people, as the expression goes, a little bit more? And satisfy them a little less? Aren’t they meant to be playing some manner of rock music, after all?
But people are already confused. I just deleted a few sentences where I said bad things about older bands, like the Shins and Death Cab for Cutie.
I realize, of course, that this second criticism is completely unfounded. You see, when I saw that the name of the record was Modern Vampires of the City, I thought: what might be the most appropriate pop-culture sister city for whatever town in which the modern vampires not-live, un-dead? Ah: there was only one choice: the “Chicago” of the Disney sitcom Shake It Up. Do you know Rocky and CeCe? Do you know this show? I commend it to you. It has a laugh-track, it has beautiful editing. And by beautiful, I mean terrible, I mean shocking. It has… On and on, one could go, but I try not to think about it and all it implies. One understands that some works can be impervious to parody, or contain their own parody, but one is still surprised when one comes across such a thing. Such a thing is a very strong poison. This terrifying show, by following all the rules its genre could possibly subject it to, accomplishes a much more corrosive effect than anything that might be achieved by breaking such rules — by, in other words, trying to be subversive, as people used to say. The same sorts of people who were able to transform John Denver into Frank Zappa will be able to get much more from Shake It Up than a show or film that arrogantly attempts to effect the same sort of transformation internally.
This, Rocky and CeCe’s Law, I’ll call it, must apply to rock, or “rock” music as well. So I stand corrected. And I hope that by following their current trajectory, in another four years or so Vampire Weekend will be able to release an album almost as strong as an episode of Shake it Up. Until then you might listen toModern Vampires of the City.