“Modern Vampires of the City” (XL Recordings) 3½ stars out of four.
At some point, every enduring musician has to prove his or her worth and silence the doubters. The Beatles first succeeded with “Revolver,” the Beastie Boys with “Paul’s Boutique,” Wilco on “Summer Teeth.” Talking Heads raised the bar with “Fear of Music,” Lauryn Hill with “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill.”
New York band Vampire Weekend’s “Modern Vampires of the City” is one of those records, a brave, surprising third effort that’s both challenging and confident, catchy but progressive, expertly imagined and executed.
The band, which rose in the late ’00s to become one of the most successful of the blog-rock era, expands its sound on “Modern Vampires” even as it celebrates sonic space and moments of silence. Drawing strange sampled rhythms (“Obvious Bicycle), patient structures (“Ya Hey”) and dynamic production, the album feels like a complete statement.
At its center is the ever-expanding voice of singer-songwriter Ezra Koenig, who hits his falsetto with seamless grace — and elsewhere synthetically slows it to a deep, menacing crawl. “Step” features harpsichord, “Hannah Hunt” includes washes of sampled static. Overall, the result is a captivating record worthy of repetition and obsession.
Fitz and the Tantrums
“More Than Just a Dream” (Elektra/Warner Music) 2½ stars out of four.
There’s a fine line between evolution and de-evolution, and which process Fitz and the Tantrums is experiencing on its sophomore effort, “More Than Just a Dream,” depends on what you liked about the L.A. band’s breakout debut. That record, the retro-soul-fueled “Pickin’ Up the Pieces,” delivered a few memorable hits, “Breakin’ the Chains of Love” and “MoneyGrabber,” and propelled the band to modest success while inviting comparisons to the more assured and charismatic Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings.
But Fitz has changed, the proof being the first few moments of “Dream,” the band’s initial release under a new deal with Elektra Records. Much of the 1960s Atlantic and Stax soul that inspired “Pieces” has vanished; in its place, the band has drawn cues from the 1980s pop-soul of Hall & Oates, the Eurythmics and George Michael, replacing brass with synths, the snap of clear analog snare drum with more processed ones.
As on its predecessor, band founder and singer Michael “Fitz” Fitzpatrick understands what makes a good song, as evidenced by “Get Away” and “The End,” two gems that suggest evolution. And co-vocalist Noelle Scaggs’ charisma overflows. But the about-face often feels like a money grab, less an aesthetic decision than a chase for the charts, as though when the band exited the stage in 2012, it dropped the suits and horns off at Goodwill and headed to Guitar Center to gear up anew. Will it work? It just might.