The Death of Hipsterdom: A Review of Vampire Weekend’s “Modern Vampires of the City” (XL Recordings, 2013)

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Saturday, January 18, 2014


EVERY now and then, a piece of cultural artifact manages to represent the zeitgiest of the times. It could be a novel, recorded music, visual art, or a motion picture distilling the moods and emotions of a generation with such sensitivity and finesse in a single product that it stands as a cultural marker for its time and achieve a patina of timelessness.

Often these works are cited as originals or one-of-a-kind but like all cultural activities, their novelty stems from how the artist/s studied and learned the idiom of those before them and assimilate these varying influences to their works to produce an exceptional piece. What then takes place is an ongoing cross-generational conversation between these cultural markers as the creators provide their own take regarding the travails of the human spirit.

In the history of popular music, the Beach Boy’s album Pet Sounds from the late 60s stand as the penultimate beautiful amalgamation of recorded and mass-marketed music for its time. The varied influences of rock and roll, soul, and pop was carefully dissected and re-assembled through the crazy genius of Brian Wilson’s person. And from there, the idea of a recorded album as a piece of timeless art was made possible.

Of course, it only upon hindsight and the boisterous uneven assessment of various critics that a consensus is arrived at. The case is that, in the evolution of the idiom of popular music, record sales are not the barometer of a piece’s relevance but the careful and studied take of specialists, a unique occupation generated by pop music as a mass market phenomenon. They are called as the record reviewer or rock critic and like peer reviewers of academic journals they represent supposedly an august body of experts who serve as learned sages intimately familiar with the genres and their various iterations to enable them objective assessment beyond the mass market ploy of record companies.

Over time, to become a record critic became an aspiration for those who would like a say regarding these matters not to mention the free records and CDs that enable one to acquire a formidable record collection. Apparently, the 80s was not just all about Ferraris and stocks, but there is particular subset of that generation who yearned for a catalogued record collection as the apex of their consumerist lifestyle. And in the age of the blog, we can still see traces of these aspirational desires to participate in the current cultural assessment of pop music releases in countless self-published websites.

At the core of this cultural phenomenon, of course, is the alienation of the w,x, y and z generations in the boom-bust cycle of the global economy for the past three decades or so which pushed many smart but disenfranchised youth to retreat to their bedrooms and their record collections. This disenfranchisement continues to this day and have actually spawned a postmodern subjectivity which is now subsumed under the notorious label – hipster.

The contemporary hipster then is the evolutionary heir of the record critic and he or she is obsessed about the quality of his cultural consumption particularly his choice of music. For illustration, the hipster was canonized by Jack Black and crew as the record clerk snobs in the movie High Fidelity.

What drives the hipster is similar to the passion expended by crusaders in their quest for the Holy Grail. In contemporary times, almost half a century after Pet Sound’s release, the hipster is essential driven by these questions - when will a cultural artifact be produced that can stand as a worthy heir to the Beach Boy’s celebrated album? When will an album appear that will successfully assimilate all the cultural currents of the past decades hitherto into a single product just like Pet Sounds did?

A consensus has been made by various websites, including that of pitchfork.com and rollingstone.com, the hipster’s versions of the Bible, that the best album released last year, 2013, is Vampire Weekend’s “Modern Vampires of the City.” And listening and dissecting the album from May 2013 since its release up to the present, confirms more than that I believe.

The album could very well be the heir to Pet Sounds by virtue of its scope of ambition at the same time accessibility, its discipline and free spirit at once, and the sense of awe and wonder it generates. No need for mood-altering substances here, just two decent earbuds with eyes closed.

Brian Wilson had it easy. He only had soul, early rock and roll, the Beatles and radio-fare pop to contend with while he was crafting his magnum opus. The boys of Vampire Weekend, instead, had to deal with glamrock, punk, post-punk, new wave, electronica, dub, hiphop, and RnB which have evolved as genres since Pet Sounds. All of these styles are properly represented in the rich hooks and layers of the songs with many of the 12 songs as beautiful pastiche of various musical currents.

Beside the dub beat for instance of personal favorite “Step” is the playful electronica which samples the style of Ray Manzarek of The Door’s which then morphs into the glorious Fairlight synthesizer sound of OMD. To my mind, the song also references the The Flaming Lips and its fist-thumping sad anthems in the album Soft Bulletin, all in a single track under five minutes. This is actually the case with all 12 tracks which can have the swoon of evocative sliding guitars made so emotional by Mazzy Star, the sneering Elvis punk rock vocals, and lightning fast rap in equally fast four-chord punk rhythms.

They said that the past decade musically was defined by producers and not artists. The achievements of the past years were from those that put together the sounds through sampling and recording approaches and not those artists that actually made the records. It is obvious that the album producer and multi-instrumentalist band member Rostam Batmanglij learned a lot from the works artists/producers like Beck, the Neptures, Jay-Z, and even Kaye West. The amalgamation of all these influences in a coherent single album that flow naturally is an achievement in itself.

The arrangements remind me of the genius of Andy Patridge of XTC. There are layers and layers of musical hooks here each providing various emotional responses from the listener. At once it is playful, but then shifts into a somber outro or chorus refrain in seamless displays of craftsmanship in songwriting skills. It is the lull within songs when the genius and playfulness are revealed as one instrument after another take centerstage – an upright bass, then a chorus of synthesized voices, and french horns in the somber track “Hudson.” The beat is also king here, referencing hiphop, drumnbass, and electronica but equally given space on the higher frequencies are synthesizers, cellos, and violins. It is one of the albums that bass players will appreciate because the bottom end is given a prominent presence in the tracks and actually define most of the songs.

But it is the vocal harmonies by lead singer Ezra Koenig that are actually breath-taking and by extension justify the comparison to the Beach Boy’s Pet Sounds and even Paul Simon’s and Art Garfunkel’s great works. They are ethereal and beautiful and on decent earphones will make your hair stand on end. In this album of surprising maturity, Koenig swoons, croaks, and falsetoes about timeless themes on the human condition- alienation, disenchantment, death, love, religion and politics.

In the year of the twerk, it is a surprise that the hipster’s quest might just have ended this year. And it is a development that challenges their very reason for existence. Truth be told, I can actually feel the hipster in me slowly dying every time I listen to this amazing work.

Published in the Sun.Star Cagayan de Oro newspaper on January 19, 2014.

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