Folksy with elements of classic country duets and blues guitar, a hint of Avett Brothers, some jazz lounge piano and gospel vocals. These are not words we’d expect to use when describing a Vampire Weekend album. And yet, they’re an accurate description of multiple tracks off the band’s latest LP and first album in over six years, Father of the Bride. The Album’s opening song “Hold You Now,” a slow and emotional duet by frontman Ezra Koenig and singer/guitarist Danielle Haim (of the sibling trio Haim), sets an early departure from the band’s whimsical art pop reputation.
The album comes off as an intentional rebranding for a band, whose initial status as critic darlings later soured as accusations of cultural appropriation and overreaching creative license plagued their work. Accusations that, in retrospect, were largely overstated. Vampire Weekend’s criticized use of African rhythms and drums on their freshman and sophomore albums is a better example of cultural appreciation than appropriation, but that’s a debate for another day. On both albums, non-western samples blend with upbeat electro-instrumentation, poppy piano riffs, funky guitar breaks and Koenig’s high-pitched boyish vocals to create the band’s unique and captivating sound. It’s a sound largely invented by former band member and producer Rostam Batmanglij — whose absence on this latest LP is sorely noticed.
While Father of the Bride entertains, at times even moves, it lacks originality and a cohesive sound in ways previous Vampire Weekend projects have not. Koenig’s intentional use of higher production values and layered compositional depth are betrayed by the album’s complete lack of direction. What opens as a decidedly folksy album immediately takes a right turn into an indie rock anthem before course correcting with some nostalgic, on brand tracks and finishing with a mix of blues guitar, jazz piano, and overall sonic confusion. Creatively, about half of the album feels like rip offs of various genres and artists.
Take for instance the album’s second track, “Harmony Hall.” The song, released a few months ahead of the album as a single, features Koenig’s upbeat and pitchy voice over an acoustic guitar rhythm and soulful piano melody that builds into a full-fledged ballad. The lyrical mantra, “I don’t wanna live like this, but I don’t wanna die” is repeated several times to drive home the record’s angsty, “What’s it all mean?” message. As a hit single, “Harmony Hall” has it all: It’s sticky, musical, soulful, well produced and well performed. It’s also derivative of an indie sound so formulaically reproduced over the past decade as to have lost all credibility.
The song’s multiple rhythmic layers and building piano, topped by repetitive, almost gospel vocals, is reminiscent of an early Edward Sharpe ballad circa 2009. Musically it’s impressive; it’s also an amalgamation of every major indie act of the past decade.
Our hopes are restored on the following track, “Bambina,” an instrumentally stripped down pop rock jam that sounds like the mature but still vintage version of Vampire Weekend we hoped the whole album would be. The record opens with a plucky guitar rift and soft kick drums, promptly breaking into classic Vampire Weekend vocals and employing Koenig’s signature pseudo-acapella breaks between heavier rock moments.
The LP features three songs with Danielle Haim. Each of which are beautifully produced, country and folk-inspired duets that belong on a seperate project, not awkwardly forced into an album with no clear identity. The same can be said of track seven, “Unbearably White,” and track ten, “My Mistake.” The former is a catchy tune that opens with a mellow, bluesy guitar lick a la early John Mayer. The latter, a brooding lounge ballad with smoky vocals and tragic piano chords. Despite the individual appeal of both tracks, they are entirely out of place on the album as a whole.
The album’s highlights are its cohesive pieces. The three-track block of “Bambina,” “This Life,” and “Big Blue” is pure Vampire Weekend with a certain grown-up musicality. “Sympathy” is a high point as well. Both lyrically and musically it stands out as one of the brighter moments on the album, though it’s followed by the confusing “Sunflower” featuring Steve Lacy.
Confusing because, again, the track is a musical tangent to the rest of the project. A seventies funk rock impression, the joint effort with Lacy feels as out of character for Vampire Weekend as it does for the album.
In all, FOTB feels like a classic case of “doing too much.” After a six year hiatus, it seems Ezra and company couldn’t figure out what kind of album they wanted to make. It’s perhaps the result of too much time in the lab, too much overthinking, too much of everything. Its singles are catchy, at times even moving, and we won’t hesitate to put a few tracks on our summer playlist. But as project and a concept, the whole thing feels extremely unfocused. Perhaps that’s because this is a band past its prime, especially without the guiding hand of Rostam’s production. Or maybe it’s a reminder that reinvention isn’t always a good thing, especially when done without focus.