This Week in Music, May 14, 2013: Vampire Weekend’s sonic getaway

Vampire Weekend: Modern Vampires of the City

New release (XL; tour dates)
Photo by Alex John Beck

“Much of the overall sound and approach to the album was [the outcome of] being able to record the drums to tape on an old Ampex machine at Vox Recording Studios. That put us in a different world. There’s a quality that happens with tape; it lets you really crunch and compress the drums, and they don’t get harsh or painful. It has to do with the transients hitting the tape; something changes. Once the drums have been passed through tape to Pro Tools, you can really mangle them and go crazy with them.”

Interest piqued? That’s just a small portion of what Vampire Weekend’s Rostam Batmanglij has to say about the recording of Modern Vampires of the City. For the full story, see “Nothing as It Seems” by Ken Micallef in the June issue of Electronic Musician. (Currently, the article can be viewed at a fan blog here.)

From the start, Batmanglij has been not only the band’s multi-instrumentalist but also its producer. This time, however, he shared the console with an outside producer, Ariel Rechtshaid. In “Nothing as It Seems,” Rechtshaid explains:

“This was a quest to make an album that sounded like nothing we’d ever heard or worked on before. It was a conscious effort to not repeat ourselves. We pushed it as far as we could. Everything is based around live performance, but we manipulated sounds. Whenever we came up with something familiar-sounding, it was rejected. They wanted it to sound new and different.”

To which I can quickly say: Quest accomplished.

We’re eased into the change with the opening track, “Obvious Bicycle.” Maintaining the tunefulness of 2008’s self-titled debut and 2010’s Contra, the track has a childlike melody that makes it one of the band’s most affecting songs. Yet it’s underpinned by some of those mangled drums, which ultimately are joined by a mild synthetic pulse — something heard on the Flaming Lips’ The Terror but done more deftly here.

From there, Vampire goes crazy indeed with the drums (and pitch-shifted vocals) on a track like “Diane Young.” There’s also heavy-sounding percussion on “Don’t Lie” and “Ya Hey,” but the former song stays light on its feet with an imaginative arrangement, and the latter has playful touches that its Led Zeppelin cousin, “D’yer Mak’er,” mostly lacks.

Meanwhile, “Diane Young” also proves that the band can rock — as does “Finger Back,” a seemingly silly nonsense song that makes a lot of sense as a carefree pop/rock singalong. And “Unbelievers” sounds as if Buddy Holly had never left us.

Equally effective are the album’s more poignant moments. There’s “Step,” whose chorus supposedly borrows enough from Bread’s “Aubrey” to warrant a cleared sample; other listeners may hear Simon & Garfunkel segueing into “Canticle.” But above all, I hear a theme-and-variations take on Pachelbel’s Canon, and it’s as beautiful, as wistful, as teary-eyed as any of those allusions. Then there’s “Hudson,” which sets contemporary references like a “99-year lease” into what resembles an Elizabethan ghost story, beginning: “Hudson died in Hudson Bay / The water took its victim’s name.”

New and old. Pro Tools and a 1936 recording studio. Modern Vampires. Maybe the biggest achievement of this album, especially for S&V listeners, is that Vampire Weekend can use many tricks of the current trade but still make an album that sounds as natural, as musical, as a backyard jamboree or a whispered secret.

Agnetha A

Agnetha Fältskog: A

New release (Verve)

This is Agnetha Fältskog’s first record since 2004’s My Colouring Book. That release was a collection of favorite old songs, so this one is also her first set of new material since 1987’s I Stand Alone.

The primary writer is Jörgen Elofsson, who also co-produced (with Peter Nordahl). Elofsson has worked with Britney Spears, Kelly Clarkson, and Celine Dion — but more important here, he and Agnetha are both Swedes, and he’s tapped directly into the living legacy of her old band, which you may have heard of: ABBA.

Result: We get an album that, to some extent, recalls The Album, bridging pop explosions and more mature songcraft.

Irresistible hooks? Check. (Especially catchy: “The One Who Loves You Now” and “Perfume in the Breeze.”)

Heartfelt ballads? Check. (Especially passionate: “I Was a Flower” and “Bubble.”)

Duet that’s an actual duet, with the guest enhancing and not overwhelming the host? Check. (“I Should’ve Followed You Home,” featuring Take That’s Gary Barlow.)

Big, weepy finish with strings? Check. (“I Keep Them on the Floor Beside My Bed,” the first song Agnetha had a hand in writing since 1985.)

Not overstaying your welcome on a CD? Check. (Tracks: 10. Playing time: 38:38.)

Production centered on an actual band and not a fleet of techno-gizmos? Check. (Particularly welcome: the driving bass on “I Should’ve Followed You Home” and the frequent acoustic guitars.)

To be honest, I hear some Auto-Tuning (though when it’s used for “Back on Your Radio,” it seems like a wry comment on what’s required to get there). To be further honest, “Dance Your Pain Away” is a disco dud.

Overall, however, Elofsson understands that there’s no need to adopt other genres when ABBA is basically a genre unto itself. And though Agnetha is only one fourth of that equation, A sounds pretty wholesome to me.