In the six years between 2013’s Modern Vampires of the City and their new LP Father of the Bride, one of the best ways for Vampire Weekend fans to get their fix was to listen to frontman Ezra Koenig’s Beats 1 radio show, “Time Crisis.” The show provided a unique window into Koenig’s mind and what the band’s long-awaited fourth LP might actually sound like by way of two of the most frequent topics of conversation: The Grateful Dead and the “tasteful palate of the 1970s.”
Much has been made about the jam band aesthetics surrounding Father of the Bride, from the synchronized guitar lines of “Harmony Hall” and “Sunflower” to the album art and visuals that seem to revel in the glory of, “We can discover the wonders of nature.” But the Grateful Dead are just one influence on an album that plays gleefully with the myriad styles of the Seventies, from the earthier, country-tinged grooves that fluttered out of Laurel Canyon in the first half of the decade, to the meticulous studio polish that marked its end. But this is not an album of pure pastiche. Father of the Bride is distinctly modern in its approach and bears traces of Vampire Weekend’s past fixations, like esoteric samples, strings, choirs, polyrhythms and art pop. Koenig seems to have found a way to mold the tasteful palate of the1970s into something bigger than an aesthetic. It’s an ethos, a commitment to and a sheer delight in craft and sound.
Father of the Bride, like Vampire Weekend’s other three albums, is rooted in Koenig’s obsessive curiosity and enigmatic playfulness. Many found these qualities confounding or off-putting when the band arrived in 2008 — a flurry of pastels, polo’s and Afro-pop-inspired indie rock that was read in some corners as cultural appropriation bordering on sonic tourism, an elitist sensibility that was too smart and arrogant for its own good. It was, of course, none of that. Vampire Weekend’s music was always erudite, but never in a holier-than-thou way. It was always a reflection of Koenig’s earnest fascination with the good and bad in everything.
That duality appears over and over again on Father of the Bride. Vampire Weekend are embracing the palate of the Seventies on an album peppered with images of environmental destruction and decay, late-capitalist extravagance and greed, inequality and never-ending conflict. But its also an album written by a man in love and a new father, someone who has no choice but to look towards the future and try to find something — an idea, a meme, a sound — that’s hopeful, or beautiful, or just enough to make you want to smile. Here are ten uniquely tasteful moments that made us smile the widest.
1.) “Harmony Hall” — The up-and-down piano run at 4:07
For a song teased with a two-hour loop of its main guitar riff, “Harmony Hall” lives and dies by its shape shifting piano. There’s something Balearic about the way the chords jump about at first, slapped with a twinge of deep house echo. And then there’s the breakdown solo, where it moves with the kind of prim and proper pomp Vampire Weekend captured with a harpsichord on “M79.” But in the song’s final rush, the piano breaks out of its progression and leaps to the top of the mix with a boisterous swoop — it lasts just a second, but it’s a perfect second that sounds like the Dead’s Europe ’72 got drunk in a London pub and had to wait two decades for Primal Scream’s Screamadelica to come pick it up and take it to a rave.
2.) “This Life” — The fat bass slide 0:09, and the even fatter bass groove at 4:15
There are so many tasteful moments on this song it was hard to pick just one. The opening line — “Baby I know pain is as natural as the rain/I Just thought it didn’t rain is California” — is an absolute peach; the way the guitars counterbalance the vocal melody in the second verse is absolutely delightful; and few bands have the tact to flip an iLoveMakonnen chorus about infidelity into an empathetic epiphany of self-awareness from a narrator who seems to have spent much of his life coasting. Beneath all this is a big, chonky bass that sweeps the song up and keeps it afloat, an anchor to the song’s drifting existential plight. It fully earns that cheeky little fretless slide riff towards the very end.
3.) “How Long” — Flexatone hits, multiple uses
Humor is an underrated quality in rock music, a genre that often takes itself way too seriously. That’s not to say “How Long” isn’t a serious song: Its lyrics blend post-break-up nihilism with bleak images of climate disaster (“How long til we sink to the bottom of the sea?”). But the flexatone — its glissando doinks and dinks right up there with the womp-womp trombone in the pantheon of funny sounds — gives the song a sly edge. It doesn’t suggest everything’s frivolous; rather, after a line like “We can live down in the flats/The hills will fall eventually,” it feels deep in the tradition of the fatalist shrug that’s been a hallmark of Jewish humor for centuries — a Larry David joke in song form.
4.) “Married in a Gold Rush” — “Boy, who’s your baby?”
Danielle Haim shares vocals with Koenig on several Father of the Bride songs, but “Married in a Gold Rush” stands out as a duet on par with the sauciest work of Sonny and Cher, Nancy and Lee, or Loretta and Conway. Arguably the best line on the whole song is when Haim replies to Koenig’s, “I thought you might learn the language,” with the delightful quip, “I thought you might learn to sing.” But the dynamics between the two during the hook is endlessly appealing in the way they seems to relish the song’s cheese: “I just wanna go out tonight and make my baby proud,” Koenig sings; “Boy, who’s your baby?” Haim asks; “Girl, if you don’t know by now,” Koenig immediately responds, before the two harmonize the final two lines, “There’s two seats on the midnight train/The gold won’t weigh us down.”
5.) “Unbearably White” — whatever the hell is making that sound at 1:51
Maybe it’s a slide guitar warped beyond recognition. Maybe it’s a modulated synth. Maybe it’s something else entirely. But whatever it is, it captures the art-pop anguish of Father of the Bride’s most deceptive song. In honor of this mystery wail, here’s a quick rundown of the album’s other tastiest tones:
a.) The wobbly cowboy guitar on “This Life”
b.) The prickly-bulbous peaks and valleys of the “Bambina” solo
c.) The pitch-shifted “Boy” refrain, sung by Jenny Lewis, on “2021”
d.) The woozy disco tingle of the guitars on “Married in a Gold Rush”
e.) The crackling-to-clean transition of the “Harmony Hall” guitar solo
6.) “Sympathy” — bass breakdown starting at 2:14, peaking with riff at 2:50
“Sympathy” and its preceding song, “My Mistake,” comprise an unexpected pivot in the middle of Father of the Bride towards darker, more aggressive sounds. “Sympathy” is a rush of guitars, choir loops and flamenco-esque claps, but its bass line keeps the song stomping as Koenig ponders alienation, the desire for connection and the way that can be wielded in disastrous ways. The bass has the tree trunk-like thunk of an upright and it burrows into a deep groove during the breakdown before re-emerging with a deft twist.
7.) “Sunflower” — the scatting that accompanies the lead guitar
Coming right after “Sympathy,” “Sunflower” is a welcome exhalation as Koenig and the Internet’s Steve Lacy lay down a riff that will surely inspire millions of budding shredders to search for an accurate guitar tab (Koenig has already taken to re-posting videos of fans playing the song on Instagram). Even with its psychedelic introspection (“Strange thought upon the pillow:/‘What day demands a date?’/Well I don’t know”), “Sunflower” is a pure fun, because only a truly fun song would double-down on its guitar melody with some complementary vocal scatting.
8.) “Flower Moon” — The trombone stabs at 2:54
“Flower Moon” brings Father of the Bride’s two key collaborators — Lacy and Haim — together along with what seems like a full cavalcade of other guests (the communal spirit is captured in the way the song ends with the charming ambiance of a café). The song teems with instruments as well, strings and horns, synths and guitars, even Vampire Weekend’s old friend, the harpsichord. But for all the instrumental flourishes, no moment punctuates the joyful coming together that is flower moon than the trombone that guides the song out of its flute-filled bridge.
9.) “Jerusalem, New York, Berlin” — “All I do is lose but baby…”
The complexities of contemporary Judaism and Jewishness have never been a major rock trope, but on “Jerusalem, New York, Berlin,” Koenig combines them with one of the oldest themes in the book. What exactly is going on in this song is up for the listener to decide and perhaps Koenig will provide more context, as he hinted he might in an interview with The Times, once fans have had a chance to sit with the album. One reading: “Jerusalem, New York, Berlin” contains a reference to the 1917 Balfour Declaration, a statement from the British government in favor of the “establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people” that helped set in motion a century of conflict, war and occupation. And the three cities in its title might allude to the forces many American Jews often feel tugging at them: The Biblical homeland (“Jerusalem”), the diaspora (“New York”) and the Holocaust (“Berlin”). Perhaps what the song is grappling with is the way these forces have been warped and weaponized, by Jews and non-Jews, when they could be so easily trained towards peace. The piano and the synths cut out and in the silence Koenig starts to sing: “All I do is lose but baby/All I want’s to win/Jerusalem, New York, Berlin.”
10.) “Stranger” — “Don’t need to freeze anymore”
After all that, there’s no better place to end than a love song. Koenig’s lyrics are often opaque in a tantalizing way, where you think he’s talking about himself while at the same time he almost certainly seems to be writing about specific characters (a classic English major). That’s why it’s so striking to hear on “Stranger” an unmistakable reference to his longtime partner, filmmaker and actress Rashida Jones, by way of namedropping her sister, Kidada (“You and Kidada,” he sings, “Ooh, I might get low, low, low/But now I’m too high to know”). “Stranger” is reminiscent of the Rolling Stones’ “Lovin’ Cup”: Unabashed, earnest, punch-drunk, head-over-heels musically and lyrically. Koenig sings: “I used to freeze on the dance floor/I watched the icebergs from the shore/But you got the heat on, kettle screaming/Don’t need to freeze anymore” — and right out of that hallelujah rides the tastiest pedal steel lick, a heart in full flight.