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No Expectations 040: A-Punk
Discography Deep Dive: Vampire Weekend. Plus, an incredible new LP from Chicago's Deeper.
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Introducing Discography Deep Dive (Triple D)
The most rewarding way to listen to an artist is starting from their very first album and slowly making your way through their entire catalog. You can see the growth from full-length to full-length, how they subverted or followed historical trends, how each recording could have reflected what was going on in the artists’ lives, and what worked and what didn’t. Just knowing the critically acclaimed breakthrough and the most-streamed songs is an incomplete and frankly unexciting picture of someone’s body of work. If you think of Bob Dylan as just the ‘60s folk dude who sang about times changing, know you only have a sliver of why the guy is truly an alltimer.
I’ve been toying around with turning these Discography Deep Dives I already do for work and fun into newsletter fodder and calling it Triple D (Guy Fieri please don’t sue I am a huge fan and I will give you and anyone associated with FlavorTown or Santo Tequila Reposado a comped subscription). This gives me an opportunity to go long on one band and have a little fun with it. The first installment is with a band I unabashedly love. Future editions will likely do the same but also go through bands I like but don’t know everything about (Smashing Pumpkins), bands I hate and maybe deserve a second (or fifth) chance (The 1975 and Weezer), bands I used to adore but no longer do as much (The National) and maybe even bands I’ve never heard a full album from before (Pearl Jam).
I decided to format Triple D by ranking each album by personal preference. While ordered lists are fun to build some sort of critical consensus, I think they’re more interesting when you look at them as a reflection of someone’s taste. Take a band like Wilco: there are Summerteeth people, there are Yankee Hotel Foxtrot folks, and there are correct individuals who prefer A Ghost Is Born (to name just three). Any one of those choices says just as much about you as it does about that one particular band. So instead of looking at my list as saying “This is the definitive take on a band” it’s more like “This is what I enjoy listening to most.” It’s just one guy’s opinion.
Triple D: Vampire Weekend
Last week, I was doing the dishes and put on Vampire Weekend’s Father of the Bride for the first time in probably a year. It was the most fun I’ve had listening to music in a long time and it clarified something I’ve been thinking about for a while. Out of all the acts featured in Meet Me In the Bathroom, Lizzy Goodman’s essential and comprehensive book on the New York City alternative music community of the 2000s, Vampire Weekend are probably the best band to come out of that scene. You could argue that the Strokes are more important but they couldn’t reach the album-to-album consistency that VW attained later in their careers. (Yeah Yeah Yeahs and The Walkmen also make great cases, as do LCD Soundsystem but that’s a different newsletter).
I don’t remember the first time I heard Vampire Weekend except for the fact that I knew it was “A-Punk” and that I didn’t like it at first. The guitars were shrill, Ezra Koenig’s vocals were bratty, and my first impression was that it was annoying. Purposefully annoying, probably, but still not for me. This was most likely the summer of 2007 when the then-New York-based band had self-released an EP with that track along with “Oxford Comma” and “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa.” I liked those songs more and kept hearing about them on music blogs I read like Stereogum and Pitchfork. Each write-up name-dropped Paul Simon’s Graceland and Talking Heads as reference points and usually alluded to some sort of controversy. I was 15 at the time and didn’t care about whatever charged discourses surrounding cultural appropriation and boat shoes the band inspired.
Vampire Weekend has always been a band that elicits a lot of, let’s say, varying opinions. They’ve mostly gotten raves throughout their career and are undeniably popular. But for a certain type of music fan, Vampire Weekend is a punchline: Columbia-educated East Coast preppy kids making hyper-literate impressionistic lyrics over breezy Afro-pop-inspired arrangements. Critics, almost always fellow white folks, would call them “too white” and WASP-y which wasn’t technically true. People were always weird about them for some reason, and even their fans felt the urge to hedge a little especially early on. During my first week freshman year of college, I heard this album blaring from an open door on my dorm floor. I popped in and introduced myself. The guy who will go unnamed responded, “Oh yeah, I was just playing this album because I figured it was popular and crowdpleasing enough that it would get people to say hi. I mostly like more challenging music.” Like I said: people are weird about this band (I’m normal about them).
This sort of thing reminds me of certain reactions to Wes Anderson, a great director whose aesthetic is so distinct and recognizable it’s become a (mostly misunderstood) meme. Like Anderson’s work, Vampire Weekend’s songs have such an unmistakable sensibility it’s easy to dismiss outright. I warmed up to “A-Punk” the more I heard it: through that self-released EP, its appearance in Step Brothers, and especially hearing it in the context of the band’s debut 2008 LP Vampire Weekend. As the band continued their career, especially in their third album 2013’s Modern Vampires of the City, the entire catalog clicked. By their latest, 2019’s Father of the Bride, they hit alltimer status for me.
My relationship with this band isn’t unique: I’d bet most people needed to warm up to Vampire Weekend and give them a fair shake to realize why they’re one of the few remaining bands of that era with tangible longevity and continued success. Think about it this way: Do you know how good a band has to be to have this sort of career when they’ve been the undeserved punchline ever since they started out? Think about it another way: Do you know how good a band has to be for me and their many other fans to wholeheartedly defend them from the dismissiveness of pretentious music fans? They’re easy to rag on but dig deep and you’ll find some of the finest, most joyful, and most adventurous pop music of this century.
VW drummer Chris Tomson recently revealed there’s a new album on the way, which he said is “close to done,” Tomson added. “I feel like it just might be our best yet,” he wrote. “10 songs, no skips.” If anyone associated with Vampire Weekend is reading this and has that link, my email is email@example.com.
4. Contra (2010)
Well, something had to be last. I’d argue that this is the Vampire Weekend superfan’s favorite, the interesting and sort of contrarian pick before Father of the Bride came out. It’s undoubtedly a great album but when it came out, I didn’t immediately gravitate to these songs the way I did the first one. Lead single and LP opener “Horchata,” which is impressive as a whole, felt grating on first listen especially with the sing-songy way Koenig delivers the first lines, “In December, drinking Horchata / I'd look psychotic in a balaclava.” It doubled down on exactly the simultaneously casual, self-aware, and semi-pretentious thing critics railed on them for early on. At first, that made me cringe, but now I totally respect it. In a Rolling Stone profile that ran in 2010, Koenig explained the album title. “Basically, a contra is anybody you try to frame as your opposite — as not a part of your world,” he said. “It’s setting up a dichotomy. You can talk about people in very nuanced, compassionate ways — or you can be like, ‘I’m liberal; that person is not. I’m for real; that person is a sellout.'” As a second effort, Contra is about slyly subverting the impossibly high expectations of an improbably ubiquitous debut. You can take the wry scalpel-like examinations of personal and societal contradictions and ennui as a metaphor for being in a band on a trajectory like theirs. It’s aged very well, just not as much as everything else.
3. Vampire Weekend (2008)
If I’m honest with myself, Vampire Weekend is basically in a dead-heat tie as my second favorite album from this band. It’s one of the most out-of-the-gate confident and assured debut albums of the century and each song is a hit. Even if you haven’t heard the LP in a decade, you’ll remember each track’s hook. From Rostam Batmanglij’s keyboard stabs kicking off opener “Mansard Roof” to the sing-a-long stomps of closer “The Kids Don’t Stand a Chance,” there’s really not a dud on here. Each instrumental flourish is intentional and surprising, each lyric clever and beguiling over grating. I was in high school when this album came out and the CD quickly entered my personal canon of 2000s Honda Civic Bangers. The band looked like my buddy Nate, who wore boat shoes and shopped at J. Crew and didn’t really care about music but they got him reciting “Oxford Comma” throughout senior year. Vampire Weekend also had Pitchfork-reading dorks wearing boat shoes and madras shirts because of this album. It was a different time. Revisiting it is one of the most transportive and fun listens you can have in 2023.
2. Modern Vampires of the City (2013)
Modern Vampires of the City is the most accomplished and cohesive album of Vampire Weekend’s catalog. It’s their last LP with multi-instrumentalist and producer Rostam Batmanglij and it showcases what a vital part he was of their sound: Just take the shuffling opening organ of “Unbelievers,” or the brooding instrumentals on “Hudson.” A few of these songs rank as their best like the God-grappling “Ya Hey,” the cathartic “Hannah Hunt,” and the graceful melody on “Everlasting Arms,” which is the best Koenig’s voice sounded to date. It’s also not a Vampire Weekend album unless Koenig borrows a hook from a hip-hop song: LP1’s “Oxford Comma” quoted Lil Jon, Contra sampled Theophilus London on “Giving Up the Gun” and b-side “Giant” interpolated Biggie’s “Juicy” while Father of the Bride highlight “This Life” borrowed from iLoveMakonnen. Here, “Step” mines liberally from the Souls of Mischief’s “Step to My Girl” (which itself samples the ‘70s band Bread). It’s probably a top-three Vampire Weekend song for me. Lyrically, Koenig topped himself where his reference-heavy lyrics better revealed human vulnerability and catharsis. While I could’ve easily placed Vampire Weekend in either top spot here, Modern Vampires of the City is a more interesting and fascinating document of the band getting older. It feels like the end of an era, especially with this being Rostam’s swan song before moving on to a solo career.
1. Father of the Bride (2019)
Longevity is one of the hardest things to attain in music. You can write a breakthrough album but continually making music years later that’s both interesting to you, resonates with your old fans, and gets new ones is a rare feat. Some bands who are still writing great music 15 years after their debut are doing so quietly but Vampire Weekend have only gotten bigger by taking a huge leap with 2019’s Father of the Bride. They could’ve put out a lean collection of songs in line with their previous three albums, instead, they put out an 18-song collaborator-heavy double LP that’s the most freewheeling, wonky, and joyful thing they’ve ever done. It’s ramshackle and jam-band-evoking (“Stranger”) but nostalgic (“My Mistake”) and experimental (“2021”).
The longer I get into a career where I’m writing about music, the more I value being surprised by it than anything else. I’ve heard comedians describe a similar feeling where they’ll know what the punchline is before someone else finishes a joke. Getting caught off guard and disarmed by art feels like a miracle each time. Father of the Bride is full of these tiny revelations over its 58-minute runtime: beguiling instrumental flourishes that tie entire songs together, samples and repurposed melodies opening up new contexts, and a loose, welcoming vibe enveloping the whole thing. It keeps you guessing and you’ll uncover new sounds you missed each consecutive listen. Few LPs sound like they were more fun to make, even if it’s not a secret that Koenig and his bandmates tinkered with it for years.
In my opinion, the real feat of Father of the Bride is in its sequencing. My favorite albums tend to lean short: my ideal LP is 10 songs and around 30 minutes so the fact that this double album flows so seamlessly is worth noting (it’s truly a Wilco-level quality double LP). Opener “Hold You Now” is an instant shock—gone are the driving keys of previous efforts in favor of plaintive acoustic guitars and vocals. The rest of the 18-song tracklist swirls and unfolds in an almost accordion-like way. The frenetic, ebullient “Sunflower” flows into the processed vocals haze of “Flower Moon,” which while both are connected by title and Steve Lacy features, are different enough that the pairing feels like an inspired back-to-back. This is definitely a Cringe Music Writer Cliche (CMWC) but as a whole Father of the Bride really feels like a journey or a (CW: CMWC) self-contained world.
By my count, there are several songs on here that stand as career-best accomplishments for them. The Danielle Haim-duet “Stranger,” the off-the-wall “How Long?,” the plaintive “Unbearably White,” lead single “Harmony Hall,” and the ecstatic “This Life.” The latter is my alltimer Vampire Weekend song. Everything about it feels right: the riff on iLoveMakonnen’s “Tonight,” the brief and noodling, one-take guitar solo from Jake Longstreth, and the way it feels like a classic ‘60s pop song. I don’t know if Father of the Bride is their best—I certainly think so—but it’s the Vampire Weekend album that captures what I want out of music: experimentation, surprise, and fun.
What I listened to:
This week’s big new music recommendation comes from Chicago’s Deeper, a band I’ve been writing and raving about ever since their debut single. During my tenure at RedEye, we premiered “Transmogrified” in 2016. Shortly after that feature, Fire Talk Records signed them and put out two phenomenal LPs in 2017’s Deeper and 2020’s Auto-Pain (I profiled them at VICE about the latter). They made the leap to Sub Pop for their latest, Careful!, which is a fascinating, knotty evolution of their hardwired, guitar-driven post-punk. There are more synths and samples (instrumental “devil-loc” is a highlight) but the songs are as strong as ever. Singles “Sub” and “Build a Bridge” were early favorites but album cut “Bite” might be the highlight for me.
Gig report: THE SPIRIT OF THE BEEHIVE at the Empty Bottle (9/6)
The Philly outfit finally released the i’m so lucky EP and debuted these songs live in Chicago last week. It was probably the best I’ve heard the Empty Bottle sound in the decade-plus I’ve been going there.
Gig report: Whitney at Taste of Chicago (9/10)
My friends ripped a gig over the weekend, and it was my first time seeing them in play in 2023. It was great to finally catch their new touring trumpet player and multi-instrumentalist J.J. Kirkpatrick perform with them. There were no new songs to report on, except for their recent live staple “Early Trains,” but know that new music from the Chicago group is coming soonish.
What I watched:
BS High (Max)
If you know the story about the fake high school football team whose founder conned his way into an ESPN-broadcasted game vs. the most prestigious football school in America, this documentary proves it’s darker than you think it is. I expected a funny conman romp but left feeling more unsettled than anything I’ve watched this year.
What I read:
Getting Fired By Songs: Ohia (by Adam Voith, Paste)
Jason Molina thought I was stealing from him. The final show of Songs: Ohia’s fall tour in 2002 was in Seattle, where I was living, and Molina stayed at my house that night.
After the gig, we sat at my mediocre kitchen table and talked about the tour. Jason was in nondescript boots, and his clothes were in dark colors. The walls of my kitchen were painted highlighter yellow, the wrong yellow, and the floor was covered in primer-grey sticky tiles I installed on top of the old orange linoleum. I hadn’t pushed the tiles together tightly enough when placing them, so they floated around a bit. Crumbs and cat hair filled the little gaps that formed when the tiles shifted. Out the window over the table, Jason’s rental car, a Buick or Chevy sedan, was parked in the gravel the neighborhood had instead of sidewalks.
Jason told me tales from the tour, voiced a couple complaints about a venue or promoter, and sang praises of the fans and the cities. If you knew Molina, you knew him as a devoted myth-maker. We talked about the future, and touring more.
The Weekly No Expectations Show Calendar
Thursday, Sept. 14: Youth Lagoon, urika's bedroom at Lincoln Hall. Tickets.
Thursday, Sept. 14: Overmono, Ayesha, Mattheo at Concord Music Hall. Tickets.
Thursday, Sept. 14: Pile, Being Dead, Your’s Mookie, Options at Sleeping Village. Tickets.
Friday, Sept. 15 through Sunday, Sept. 17: Riot Fest at Douglass Park. Tickets.
Friday, Sept. 15: PUP, Snotty Nose Rez Kids at Concord Music Hall. Tickets.
Friday, Sept. 15: Ride, Synergy at Bottom Lounge. Tickets.
Friday, Sept. 15: Alabaster DePlume at Co-Prosperity Sphere. Tickets.
Friday, Sept. 15: Andrew Sa & Jobi Riccio at Judson & Moore. Tickets.
Friday, Sept. 15: Madeline Kenney, Ben Sloan at Schubas. Tickets.
Friday, Sept. 15: Pile, Moontype at Sleeping Village. Tickets.
Saturday, Sept. 16: Pet Symmetry, The Burst and Bloom at Beat Kitchen. Tickets.
Saturday, Sept. 16: Godspeed You! Black Emperor at Bottom Lounge. Tickets.
Saturday, Sept. 16: PLOSIVS, Hotline TNT at Cobra Lounge. Tickets.
Saturday, Sept. 16: Alabaster DePlume at Co-Prosperity Sphere. Tickets.
Saturday, Sept. 16: Geoff Rickly (Book Event) at GMan Tavern. Free.
Saturday, Sept. 16: Thursday, Braid at Metro. Tickets.
Sunday, Sept. 17: Yard Act, Scam Likely at Empty Bottle. Tickets.
Sunday, Sept. 17: Drive-By Truckers, The Jayhawks, American Aquarium at Salt Shed. Tickets.
Tuesday, Sept. 19: Jeff Rosenstock, Gladie, Sidney Gish at Salt Shed. Tickets.
Wednesday, Sept. 20: Little Simz at Riviera Theatre. Tickets.
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